27 Aug 2016

One tomato, two tomat... oh.

Tomato Vintage Wine
Heritage tomato 'Vintage Wine' - yet to mature


Yes indeed, here we are again as summer fades and I have yet to reap a decent harvest of tomatoes for the second year running.  As I roll my eyes heavenwards and raise my eyebrows, I have to ask "Why?" - as in, why is this happening?, why am I bothering? and just why! oh why! My frustration is extreme.

Last year's plants produced heaps of fruit but blight struck before any of it could ripen.  This year I bought fresh seed with thrilling names like 'Banana Legs', 'Vintage Wine' and 'Deep Orange Strawberry', carefully chosen to produce a tempting cornucopia of tomatoes of different hues, sizes and textures for summer cooking and eating. Oh boy, was I looking forward to this!

Sowing, germination, potting on - all went as planned. The seedlings grew at first on my windowsills then outside on my balcony where light breezes ruffled their leaves and strengthened the stems.  I moved the sturdiest into large pots of peat free multi purpose when the weather warmed (I wanted to be able to move the pots around if needed) and left these outside where they would get water and some sun. I rashly judged that I had too many tomato plants and gave some away.

And then the rains came.

Slugs languished in a sensuously drunken fashion at the very pinnacle of the plants, or nestled into the leaves further down.  The sight of this abandoned mollusc behaviour became the norm, even in daylight hours.  I persevered and picked them off, time after time.

Despite the relentless slug sorties, the plants grew and thrived. But, on some, flowers just didn't form. I boosted the plants with the gardener's friend, Tomorite. A few tiny fruits formed but it was too little, too late. I've had two ripe tomatoes from plants given to me by my sister and I live in hope for the few home-grown tomatoes still to ripen: one beefsteak Vintage Wine lately formed and what will amount to a small bowl of Banana Legs.

Hands of banana legs
Banana Legs - these should be as yellow as a .... yep, banana.

Naturally, further research was needed; I've been reading for weeks about other bloggers generous gatherings of luscious tomatoes - or perhaps that was my envious imagination.  Anyhow, the RHS advises that tomatoes, although relatively easy to grow, are prone to physiological disorders ie problems encountered in controlling the plants sensitivity to temperature, nutrients and light.  So... not easy at all then.  Apparently even greenhouse grown fruit are susceptible to problems.  I recall a BBC programme where Alys Fowler built a tiny greenhouse out of reclaimed windows for her tomato plants in a bid to keep blight at bay. Did it work? No. Even experienced growers suffer. And yet, a few years ago, I had plenty of tomatoes from plants literally plonked into the soil on my balcony - they were still chucking out fruit in December!

So what's the answer? Anna Pavord in her book 'Growing Food' writes that many cultivars, particularly cordons, are best grown under glass although can be grown outside if circumstances are right. All my choices this year are a Heritage cordon variety and, without a greenhouse, would have been best grown against a sunny wall for warmth and shelter. The book also advises that tomatoes grown outside do best in soil that has been well-manured and in a different spot to previous year's growth to avoid build up of soil diseases.  Pot grown tomatoes are best fed and watered twice a day in a hot summer. Another fail on my part - I was sometimes too busy elsewhere to check.

I gleaned another clue from Joy Larkcom's book 'Grow your own vegetables': she says most heritage or heirloom tomatoes are late maturing. (There's hope yet.) Cordon types need to have the tops pinched off (stopped) in late summer to let any fruit mature and ripen.

So to summarise, these are lessons to take forward to next year:

  • Choose seeds wisely. Very important to find out whether seeds are suitable for outdoor growing. 
  • Choose early maturing cultivars to beat blight and poor summer weather.
  • If growing outdoors, dig a 12" deep trench and line with comfrey leaves or dig in well rotted manure a couple of weeks before planting out. Tomatoes like a moist free draining soil.
  • Find a nice heat retaining wall to grow against. (I'm wondering if a black backcloth might also work?). Hedges are not suitable places to plant as the soil will be too dry. 
  • If I must grow beefsteak tomatoes (and I feel I might), treat them like chillies with plenty of warmth and light.
  • Try not to plant tomatoes in the same spot; they need a different plot every four years to minimise build up of soil problems. 

It certainly isn't the piece of cake we're led to believe - Joy Larkcom devotes eight pages of her very comprehensive book to the subject of growing tomatoes.

I feel heartened having written this post as there may just be enough time for my tomatoes to ripen - with the right wall to lean on. Next year,  I'll plant early and try them up at the allotments (although I heard there's blight up there this year).  And maybe I'll curb my tendency to opt for beautifully named Heritage varieties, a bit like choosing which horse to back in the Grand National, although 'Outdoor Girl' and 'First in Field' have done well for me in the past.

It would be really good to hear which varieties have done well for other growers this summer with recommendations for a good eating and good cooking tomato. I'm tempted by 'Ferline' - has anyone grown it?

19 comments:

  1. Sungold, which I grow every year with usual great success, has fizzled out already. There are still plenty of green tomatoes but very small. I blame the cold Spring, they were doing fine initially and then stopped growing. They've never really caught up.

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    1. Sungold was the only tomato to ripen here last year - but I had only a week or so of picking before blight struck! Thinking back, the chilly weather in late spring may well have had the same effect on my plants. If climate change means wetter early summers and mild winters, we gardeners will have to rethink our growing strategy for tomatoes. Thinking caps on!

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  2. A good, and informative, post. In view of the weather this year I'm surprised that I've had any ripe ones. I grow mine on the plot as I don't have a greenhouse. I generally grow varieties, such as Golden Sunrise and Outdoor Girl, that mature early as blight inevitably strikes at this time of year. Flighty xx

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    1. I haven't heard of Golden Sunrise and will look it up, thanks Flighty. Outdoor Girl did very well for me in recent years and has a nice flavour - I may well go back to that one again. Early maturing is definitely the way to go if UK summers are going to be so unpredictable. Do you protect your plants early in the season on the plot? Caro x

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    2. I empathise! Growing tomatoes is certainly not easy, and is fraught with problems. Despite this I persist in growing them because homegrown tomatoes are just so nice. Mine are all grown outdoors after hardening-off, and many of them are beefsteak varieties. I have to admit that a lot of luck is necessary for a good harvest - and you can't control the weather!

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    3. Glad you agree that it's worth persevering, Mark - I think tomatoes look beautiful as well as tasting great! I think your tomatoes may benefit from growing near to your house - I'm hoping to find a nice warm wall for my tomatoes next year - possibly a trial between warm wall and allotment clear skies!

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  3. We gardeners are a persistent lot that like to rise to a challenge! Sungold is always the first one to ripen for us. We are only just starting to get rior tomatoes so it's too early to tell which varieties have done best. Often though some of the more tempting varieties can be difficult and it can be best to stick to tried and tested ones and maybe treating yourself to one speciality variety. Have you chance of a greenhouse at the plot you share?

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    1. No greenhouse at the plot share, Sue but a friend here has offered me the use of hers, although it's very shaded on the southern side which seems a bit beside the point! It seems early maturing tomatoes are the way to go given our intemperate UK climate. I like your advice of just trying one new variety, much more sensible. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to grow both early and late tomatoes with some degree of certainty!

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  4. Probably the reason I got into allotment gardening was due to a beefsteak tomato. A friend asked me to look after her plot for two weeks and I cropped some enormous Italian Marmande tomatoes. Subsequent attempts growing outdoors has rarely been successful with blight the main culprit. But those in my new pop-up greenhouse have been fantastic - 4 Kilos to date !!! All the names faded on the plant labels so very sorry there's no taste test possible and slugs have been a problem with those that touched the ground.

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    1. Haha, it was a home-grown beefsteak tomato that persuaded me to give these monster tomatoes a go! 4 kilos of fruit grown in a pop-up greenhouse? Just wow, well done you, I'm impressed. I have a tiny (60cm x 40cm roughly) cheap pop up greenhouse which I used as an interim stage this year but can only get 6 plants in there. I think your greenhouse must be larger but thanks for the tip, Sue - it's a good time to look for another cheap greenhouse in garden sales.

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  5. Here in the Eastern US we had a very wet Spring then very hot and dry. I planted 6 kinds of new to us mid season blight resistant tomatoes. Result lots of tough skinned mushy bland tomatoes. The only good tomatoes are the Wild Cherry variety which came up volunteer behind the chicken pen, they are late but completely clean. Next year will be back to the heirloom Paul Robeson, Cherokee Purple etc. Nice thing about gardening there is always next year.

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    1. Sounds very similar to the weather patterns over here (although we probably had less "hot and dry" here in the UK). The resulting tomatoes back up the RHS advice about sensitivity to extremes of temperature and moisture. I haven't heard of Wild Cherry tomatoes (native to the US I'm guessing?) - sounds like a useful plant to have self-seeding around! We don't have anything like that here in the UK (to my knowledge). It sounds like you have the heat to grow heirloom tomatoes - they have such wonderfully evocative names. Yes, it's good to know that we have a clean slate every year to learn from (or compound!) our mistakes! Thanks for your very interesting comment.

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    2. I am not sure where the wild cherry tomatoes are from, however they do require a lot of room. I don't know if you are allowed to import seed, but tomatogrowers.com the company we buy our seed from has an interesting catalog though it is a bit early yet to think about next year.

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    3. Thanks to your comments, I've been able to track down seeds here in the UK. Google has lots of information about these plants; as a result, I fancy growing them next year and they're going on my seed list. (Never too early to start that off!) I'll more than likely be writing about them next year - hope you pop back to check it out (and it would be good to know who you are!) Cheers! :o)

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  6. For once I have plenty of tomatoes here this year. I am really careful about which varieties I grow. I've always failed with heirloom varieties and beefsteaks. Sungold are reliable, although I see that you had blight on yours last year. Ferline are supposed to have some blight resistance and they do okay productivity-wise. Orkado are my best recent discovery; they did well last year and this year. Flighty sent me some Golden Sunrise seeds and they've done well for me too for two or three years. I'm out of seeds now though! If I had to choose just two it would be Sungold and Orkado. I don't grow them at the allotment. It just feels a bit too wild for them there. My garden is warm and sheltered. I put them close together this year and stripped most of the foliage off very early on - maybe as early as June. I've kept on taking the foliage off to let in the light. Just back from holiday - now I need to make some tomato sauce for the winter! I hope you find some reliable varieties that work for you. I still try one or two different ones each year, but mostly I stick to the tried and tested varieties now. CJ xx

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  7. I've struggled with tomatoes this year and they are in a greenhouse! However the slugs have been kept to a minimum in there due to a resident frog! The plants are due to be pulled up soon and there is always next year. don't you just love the names - Banana Legs, how wonderful x

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  8. I've only planted tumbling Tom this year - the Buxton weather really isn't made for growing tomatoes! So far I've had a whole 6.... there are plenty of green tomatoes, I just need some heat! I have stripped off most of the foliage and have left just 4 trusses per plant.... I had thought I wouldn't bother again, but have some great names now from some experienced growers and will try again next year with a new variety or two! I hope you get something from your crop, hoping for some late summer heat! Simone

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  9. I too am rolling my eyes! Never have I failed re growing toms, usually I chuck seeds at the compost, and do no more than that and am usually overwhelmed with delicious tomatoes, this year the seeds germinated late due to the cold spring and simply never took off. I must have about ten toms this year....hope you do better next year and have your remaining ones ripen.xxx

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  10. interesting! Those are different from mine.

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Caro x

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