How to Grow Tomatoes

How to Grow Tomatoes

I’m going to try and show you everything I know about growing tomatoes, and it’s obviously totally artificial this, because you actually sow tomatoes in late February or early March, and yet you start pinching them out and training them and planting in May into June, so I’m just going to concertina it so I can show you as many of the stages in one go.

So I think of it as six stages, so the first is sowing, the second is pricking out, the third is planting, the fourth is pinching out, the fifth is training up a string or a cane, and the sixth is pinching out the tip, ok, so we’re going to go through all of those in one go.

So the first is sowing, and we tend to here, use a tray of Jiffy 7’s, these are made from coir not peat so they’re fine to use in the garden, and they’re rather amazing, I mean we do a lot of tomatoes, but most of you wouldn’t want nearly this many, but I just want to show you what happens, is that this one was in that cell there, and you can see it’s rehydrated to look, I think of them as like a sort of chocolate brownie with a dimple in the top, and you just plop them into water and if you’re doing a whole tray you put it in a barrow but that, you’ll just see it gradually expanding. Now with tomato seeds, I just put one seed into here in the top and just cover it with my finger like that. With tomato seeds expenses so I want to be really careful with it, with something like a sweetcorn I might well do two, and then I would put it in our polytunnel or in our greenhouse on a heated bench because of course tomatoes come from hot places where it’s moist and warm so you want to recreate that as much as you can to get rapid germination. Now I often use these, and with a soft pencil will just mark which variety I’ve sown into which line, but at home you really wouldn’t want that many so I would often use one of these window ledge propagators, and they’re brilliant, and you can still sow three different varieties and I just want to dwell on that for a minute, which is if you talk to any chef they’ll tell you you’re much better to have fifteen plants of three different varieties, i.e. five of each, rather than fifteen plants of one variety, and that’s because they have different levels of sugar and acidity and you get much kind of richer, denser, lovelier flavour whether you’re cooking or using them in a salad, and you can still fit with a label marking between, you can still fit three different varieties into something like that.

So here we are, with pricking out, so this is a window ledge propagator, and I’m just going to get quite a rigid label, and these are two varieties in here in fact, and what’s good is this variety here is called ‘Tigerella’ and it’s a really lovely cordon variety, and this variety here is a bush type, it’s called the Texan wild cherry tomato, and those just tumble, but I’m going to come back to training in a minute. So just pricking out wise, you want to get a pencil or a rigid label right under the plant, and dislodge it from below, and just, ideally just touching the root but never the stem because that’s what bruises easily, and then you just get a nice sized small pot and firm it in. Now the thing about tomatoes, is that if you look at them when they’re mature you’ll see they’ve got funny green fibrous roots at the base of the stem as it goes under the soil, and actually you can promote more growth of those by pricking out your tomatoes quite deeply, so even if they’re what’s called etiolated, which is a bit tall and leggy like these are from a window ledge, you can just bury them and it doesn’t matter and that actually promotes good root formation so you get a stronger plant. So I’ll just show you one other, so this one is really quite leggy there but I get right under it with the rigid label, lifting from below if possible, minimal root disturbance and that then goes deep into your pot and you can cover it up at a much deeper level than it was originally. So that’s it, that’s pricking out. So those then go back, ideally on a heated bench, and you grow them on for another about month until you see roots appearing at the base of the pot, and can you see with this one, you’ve got lots of lovely white roots coming out at the base of the pot, now that’s an indication that we’re ready for the next stage which is planting out.

So planting out, if they’re going into a greenhouse, they go, you can start planting out end of April, beginning of May because the night time temperatures are not fluctuating like that with the daytime, it still gets cold at night, but it doesn’t go really really cold, because tomatoes won’t like that, and with planting out in the garden you need to wait another month and I always think a really good marker if you want to plant tomatoes out in the garden then you’ll need a blight resistant type, is if you can have supper in your garden, you can plant tomatoes in your garden, i.e. if it’s warm enough for you to enjoy being out in your garden yourself, it’s ok, it’s safe for your tomatoes to be out in the garden. So phase three is planting out, and I just want to explain the whole thing about ring culture, now ring culture basically depends on the fact that the tomato has two root systems. It has the green fibrous roots which I was just talking about, which are where the stem meets the soil, and those are the feeding roots, and they are strong and they’re anchors and if you think about them again in the jungle they anchor it into the soil surface, and they’re where there is the most high concentration of organic matter, which is in the soil surface, so that makes sense, those are the feeding roots, but the weird thing about a tomato is it also has these deep roots which are the water roots which are the white ones that you’ll see, a great sort of fibrous birds nest of white roots, those are the water roots. Now the thing about ring culture is that you plant your plant in a ring, into which you feed, but you water the water roots, and if you use a ring culture pot it goes to a deeper level and has little holes which direct the water to the deeper water roots. What you get with that in the trials that we’ve found here is that you get better flavour and heavier cropping because you’re feeding into that central and you get good strong active growth by watering the water roots which doesn’t dilute the flavour, and so in all our trials ring culture pots are really worth it, and that’s what you’ll see all our tomatoes behind. Now, in current times it’s quite difficult to get hold of ring culture pots so I want to just show you quite a nifty way of making your own alternative. So this is just a plastic bottle, and you could use a plastic water bottle and I’m just cutting the base off it but I’m going to leave the lid on, and this is a washing up thing, a washing up bottle and I’m just going to break that off but I’m leaving the lid on, and if you had a water bottle just perforate it with a skewer or scissors or whatever, and then what you do is you bury this beside your tomato plant to about that kind of level, so right down beside your tomato and ideally angled slightly in towards it, and then if you see, I’m going to create mess here, but what happens is it just drips gently, so when you’re watering, whereas we water round the moat in our ring cultures, if you leave the lid on you don’t get a gush, what you get is this quite good drip drip system and it will gradually water those water roots. So this buried next to your tomato plant is a brilliant DIY kind of Heath Robinson ring culture system.

So the fourth thing that you need to know about is pinching out the side shoots. Now when I showed you those two varieties earlier, one was a bush and that was the Texan wild cherry tomato and you just literally allow it to just do whatever it wants, it produces lots of side shoots and you don’t train it. Whereas the other one is what’s called a cordon type and it is a vine, and very like with sweet peas, you don’t want to allow all the side shoots to form, because what then you end up with is lots of very small fruit and what you want is all the energy of the plant to go into those trusses so you get better sized fruit, rather than going out and creating a really bushy thing. So here is, it’s the beginnings of pinching out and what you’ve got, here is your leader ok so that always is left intact until the end, and then what I’ve got is I’ve got a leaf and the main stem and I’m pinching out what I think of the thing in the upside down armpit, so almost like it’s here and so I pinch that out, and you don’t just do that once, you have to go back I don’t know about every week or ten days and pinch out all your side shoots so all the energy of the root goes into promoting the formation of more of these flower trusses rather than putting energy into those side shoots. And the other thing is, when you plant them out you just want to get rid of the stuff at the base because that tends to rot off anyway, and as you go through the season you can remove more of those. So pinching out is a really lovely thing, and one of my favourite smells is tomato leaf, I absolutely love it, and when I’m pinching out in here this whole greenhouse has that incredibly delicious smell, but pinching out is really really important.

So phase sort of four/five, these are together really, we use hot bine but you can use any twine. We have trained our tomatoes in the past onto canes, or even hazel, but the great thing about this, is as the tomato grows, you can jut flip it up and this is more elastic and the tomato is got give in it and that is just a really quick and easy way and you don’t then need to tie in and it just saves a lot of time using that system.

And then final thing, I always think when it gets to about my height, I pinch out the tips, and that’s why in here we have our frame from which the strings hang at about that height, and when our cordon types get to the top, you just pinch out the tip, and then the whole plant puts its energy into ripening and forming delicious fruit. So that’s how to grow tomatoes.

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