Pantano Romanesco - the best beefsteak tomato for a delicious Caprese salad.
For our Tomato Special to be broadcast on his Late Lunch Show on 13th April on LMFM Radio - presenter Gerry Kelly asked me if I would pick out my top 5 varieties to recommend to listeners. As he knows very well that I'm addicted to them and not given to doing things by halves (to put it mildly!) - he also knew this would be no easy task for me! There are so many wonderful varieties out there - both older heritage ones and more modern - and they all have their different qualities and personalities. It was a very tough call - but I eventually managed to discipline myself to actually recommending six!
There are many things to consider when choosing a variety that is just right for you and - everyone's taste is different. The main considerations though should include ease of growing, disease resistance, suitability for the climate in your garden and your particular part of the world, time of cropping, cropping potential, ability to resist splitting when ripening, suitability for the amount of space you have and whether you want to grow in a cold frame outside, in a greenhouse or a polytunnel. There are also the important culinary considerations - such as their taste and texture when eaten fresh, suitability for cooking, freezing or dehydrating. With literally thousands of varieties to choose from, the choice can be bewildering for beginners and experienced growers alike - and often also very disappointing if one chooses on the basis of the seed companies catalogues! They naturally want to promote the varieties which they own the breeders patents on - but I find that those are often be disappointing and may be unsuitable for our climate. If that happens to you - then you've wasted a lot of time, effort, space and often money - on growing something that doesn't make your taste buds tingle, your mouth water and make you feel glad to be alive - as any good tomato should!
With anything upwards of 10,000 varieties - some estimate 25,000 - of both heirloom and hybrids to choose from where on earth do you start? Tasting some of those grown by a tomato growing friend can sometimes help, or going to tomato tasting days. (Regarding those - I mention the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival later) I've probably grown around couple of hundred different varieties over the 40 years I've been growing them both commercially and for our own use now. Each year I try one or two new ones and compare them with my old favourites. I grow around 20 or so really top ones, that have it all, every year - and some of these I've grown for many years. First and foremost my number one consideration has to be flavour and texture. After that comes diseases-resistance. There's no point growing the very best flavoured tomato in the world if it doesn't like your climate and goes down with disease after producing only one or two tomatoes! We don't have the best climate in Ireland for growing tomatoes - on average during the summer we get far less sunshine and are about 10deg C cooler than most of the UK, especially the south-east. Tomatoes prefer bright light, warmth and lots of sunshine to crop really well - not the endless low cloud and grey drizzly days that often pass for much of our summer. So they can be a bit of a challenge here! I only recommend varieties that I will have grown for several years, so if I recommend a variety - then you can be pretty sure that it should be reliable and grow well for you no matter where you live - as long as you give it the best conditions you can.
I tend to sow my tomatoes any time from the end of February to mid April - so I'm also confident that you should get a pretty good crop from all of these varieties if you sow them now - but don't delay. I always grow mine from seed unless I'm specifically asked to trial a particular variety. Some varieties take much longer to produce any crop - as many are varieties that need a longer growing season and are more suited to hotter continental conditions which we don't have here. I haven't recommended any of those. To get the very best tasting or unusual varieties you will normally have to grow your own plants from seed as they're rarely available as plants. If you don't want to grow them from seed though - there are now many companies selling the more common varieties online.
Please believe me that you don't have to be an experienced gardener or do everything perfectly to be able to grow a few tomatoes - so do give them a try if you haven't grown them before. If you do - I can promise you that you'll be richly rewarded. It's not rocket science! Tomatoes are such good-natured and obliging plants they do their best to grow and produce a crop whatever you do to them! There is just nothing to compare with the satisfaction of picking your first, sun-warmed tomatoes grown by your very own hands and biting into their deliciousness! No shop-bought tomato will ever give you that!
Maskotka - This little treasure is always without fail my earliest to ripen fruit, has a terrific flavour and is available from several seed companies, including Mr Fothergill's. I haven't tasted any other bush variety as good. Well worth growing if you've never tried growing tomatoes before! It's such an early variety that you'll get huge good crops this year from seed. A bush about 45cm/18ins high & wide - it fits into a very small space and grows happily in a bucket-sized pot.
Upright (standard/cordon) cherry
Blush - You'll have to grow this from seed but it's well worth it! Fantastic taste. Teardrop shaped cherry/plum.
Sungold - I've seen this variety available as plants in several places. Delicious but can split so don't leave too long on plant.
Upright classic medium sized (standard/cordon)
John Baer - again a very early medium-sized red variety, good cropper and one of the best flavoured classic medium round types - you'll get a good crop this year from seed sown now.
Moonglow is a lush, dense-fleshed, fab-flavoured, apricot-coloured variety which is a huge cropper - the fruit varies in size between medium classic and beefsteak. It's available from several seed companies.
Pantano Romanesco - The very best flavoured beefsteak that is easy for the home gardener to grow. I've written about it in this month's issue of the Irish Garden. One taste of this with mozzarella, basil & olive oil & you're in the Med. wherever you are! It's tomato heaven!
There are pictures of all these varieties - and some more great varieties in my 'Tomato Report 2016' link here: http://nickykylegardening.com
My basics of Tomato Growing - a shortish guide!
Composts and sowing temperature
I always sow my seeds in an organic, peat-free seed compost at minimum temperature of 60 deg F/16 deg C - but a bit warmer is better. Not on a sunny windowsill or they may cook! I fill small 3 in pots firmly with compost - but I don't compact it too much. I sow 4 or 5 seeds into those, making a small hole about twice the depth of the seed for each one with the end of a pencil or biro, then afterwards I cover them with Vermiculite. This is a natural mineral which promotes good air circulation around seedling stems - I use it for covering all seeds - but with tomatoes you could get away without using it and using just a light covering of the seed compost instead. Vermiculite is available from most garden centres and DIY stores and lasts forever. Sometimes I sow into individual small modules, using a similar method. Then I water them gently and cover with a polythene bag until they germinate. After germination I uncover the seedlings immediately and move them into good light, to avoid them becoming 'etiolated' or too long through lack of light, as this can make them more prone to diseases.
I use a peat-free seed compost which is available from Whites Agri at Lusk, north Co Dublin or from Fruit Hill Farm by mail order - if the bag's too big for you - you could share it with a couple of friends - but it keeps fine for 2-3 years if kept dry & cool. Using a compost specifically for seed is important, as a multi-purpose one may be too high in nutrients which can damage seedling roots - this is especially the case with chemical-based composts. In the UK SylvaGrow is a good organic peat-free compost used by commercial organic growers there and also by the RHS. It recently came top of Which Magazine Best Buy awards list.
While germinating in the propagator and for a few days after they emerge - usually after about 4-5 days - keep the young seedlings shaded a little from the strongest of the midday sun. This is easier in a greenhouse as you can use a shading product like 'CoolGlass', in a polytunnel you could cut a small piece of fleece to cover the propagator - this will still allow good light to reach the seedlings. They also need to be protected from draughts. Although they like bright light and don't like to be too cold - they don't want to be cooked either - which can happen in a small greenhouse or tunnel very quickly on any clear sunny day, no matter how cold it is outside. I find an additional cheap cold frame on the greenhouse or poytunnel bench very useful when they come out of the propagator after the first week or so, as this gives extra protection to the young plants for a few weeks depending on when you sow them. For my earliest sowings - I also have a warm heated mat like an electric underblanket - which goes on top of the bench under some polythene and this gives an even gentle warmth to the plant roots. It's very energy efficient as it has a thermostat and only usually switches on when it's very cold at night.
As soon as they're big enough to handle, usually when they have their first small pair of true - or adult leaves, I separate and pot on seedlings into a good organic peat-free potting compost. I use an organic peat-free potting compost because it gives the bigger plants more nutrients and everything they need to be healthy, including micro-nutrients beneficial microbes and micorrhizae - they are normally made by a composting process which encourages these to develop naturally and are a more healthy medium for all plants. A peat-based, just containing chemical nutrients, won't give you those. The good organic peat-free composts also tend to be better drained in my experience. A non-organic compost just gives you chemicals and peat! We shouldn't be using peat because digging up bogs destroys habitat for a huge amount of biodiversity and it also emits carbon - accelerating climate change. It's not a natural growing medium for anything except bog plants! When you're potting on the size of pot is not critical but don't over-pot by putting in too large a pot at first, as tomatoes hate sitting in wet compost! A pot the same size as a paper cup or just slightly larger - with drainage holes in the bottom - is fine for plants until they're about 6 inches high. If you're not ready to plant them out then - you can pot them on into something bigger and feed if necessary - with a good organic tomato feed like Osmo - if for any reason planting is delayed.
Watering seedlings/young plants in small pots before planting out
Water seedlings when the compost starts to look or feel a little bit lighter & dry out a bit. Water with ambient temperature water - not freezing - if possible, by sitting in a container of water for just a couple of minutes - but don't saturate them! This ensure that water reaches the roots where it's needed. Often people just pour a little into the top and it may not reach the roots.
Tomatoes are happy in any reasonably well-drained soil with a pH - or soil alkalinity - in a range of about 6 - 7. You can use a cheap kit to check this if you feel your soil pH may be too high or if it is too acid. This normally shows as a yellowing of plant leaves called 'chlorosis' which indicates an imbalance of nutrients when soil is either too extremely acid or alkaline for most plants. Testing for pH isn't usually necessary though, unless you have seriously over-limed your soil, or used a lot of peat in it. If other plants are growing well and look healthy - then tomatoes will be happy in that soil too. Manure pellet fertilisers can also lower the pH of soils. I wouldn't use these as they aren't organic, may contain traces of GMO feeds and Glyphosate weedkiller. They will also have come from factory-farmed poultry!
Planting and Supporting plants
The first thing to say is that I hate grow-bags! I get more queries and complaints about these than anything else with regard to tomato growing problems! They don't have enough room for a good root system, so they don't give you healthy plants and automatically limit the amount of crop you will get. They also tend to dry out very quickly or get waterlogged. If you don't want to use a peat-free organic potting compost and you have some grow bags that you want to use, then take the compost out of the grow bag, empty it into a large pot or tub and add about 1/3 it's volume of good garden soil into it. This saves on compost & also helps to retain more water - which gives the plant more resilience.
I grow taller cordon varieties in the polytunnel border - either by tying them up gently to tall bamboo canes or by twining them around strings where I have crop support bars in my larger tunnel. Your tunnel needs to be pretty strong for this as when you have lots of trusses of fruit developing on plants - they are very heavy!
I grow all the bush varieties in large pots - usually 15 litre pots - or large bucket-size, as the fruit hangs down conveniently over the sides. Growing in bucket-sized pots or tubs avoids the fruit getting dirty by resting on the surrounding soil or being eaten by slugs! A 1/3 soil - 2/3rds potting compost mix works well, with an extra small handful of organic granular fertiliser and another of seaweed meal. Or alternatively - you could re-purpose a stepladder for the summer and grow them in large square containers on the steps! Growing in pots is also a good method if you've grown tomatoes too often in the same soil and it's become what's known as 'tomato-sick'. This is when there is a build up of disease-causing pathogens and nutrient deficiencies. This is another reason I get a lot of queries. The only normal remedy for this is to completely change all the soil to a depth of 18ins or 45cm! Growing a green manure mustard called 'Caliente' can help to remedy this problem if it's not too bad, as it produces bio-fumigant isothiocyanate gases when chopped and dug in after growing for around 6 weeks - but obviously you don't have time for doing that after the end of March.
Don't plant too early - tomatoes need a temperature of about 20-12degC to crop well and they also need a warm soil. I normally plant out into the polytunnel border when the flowers are just opening on their first truss - depending on the weather. This is usually around early to mid-May here and that works fine for me. If plants get frosted, they literally turn blue with cold and may get a severe setback. Cover individual plants with horticultural fleece to protect them at night if necessary. I plant the bush ones in the bucket-sized tubs a bit earlier, usually mid-late April, as these large pots tend to be warmer for the roots than soil - especially if they're black and attract solar heat.
You can grow tomatoes in a greenhouse, polytunnel, or even in a sunny porch for the best crops - but NEVER outdoors here in Ireland if you want more than just one or two tomatoes! You'll always get people who say they've grown them fine outdoors - but their idea of a good crop and mine would be vastly different! I don't like wasting time or money! You won't get a good crop of tomatoes outdoors here - our climate is far too damp and we get blight very quickly, as soon as conditions are right. This can now be anytime from early June onwards depending on the weather. It seems to strike earlier every year. Blight loves warm, damp, humid conditions and the spores are always present in the air waiting to strike as soon as the weather warms up. You may well get away with growing a crop outdoors in the drier parts of the UK, Europe or other parts of the world where blight is less prevalent.
Make a hole, adding some good garden compost or worm compost if you have some - or just a small amount of very well-rotted manure if you have it and lightly fork it in. If you don't have either - add a small handful of a good organic fertiliser like Osmo general granular fertiliser and a very small handful of seaweed meal - again forking in lightly. Be very careful with manure. If you get it from a non-organic farm it may contain pesticides, weedkillers that can seriously affect plant growth or possibly residues of worm treatments that can adversely affect soil life. You don't want to eat these in your tomatoes either! You're much better off using your own compost if you have any, or worm compost made from kitchen waste, which is far higher in nutrients and also contains lots of beneficial microbes. It's like rocket fuel for plants! After that you can mulch plants - more on that later.
I plant all my plants at a distance of about 60cm or 2 feet apart - not the usually recommended 18 inches - as this gives far better air circulation and is another organic method of preventing fungal diseases like blight developing, which is more likely to happen in close, muggy conditions.
When planting into the ground or into a container - bury the plants more deeply than they are in their pots, even up to the first set of true leaves. This promotes more roots to form higher up, growing out from the stem. It means that the plant can access more food. Also dusting the bare roots and the planting hole with a small amount of a beneficial micorrhizae preparation such as Rootgrow helps the plant to access more food - as the beneficial funghi in it forms a mat of fungal threads called hyphae which interact with the plant's roots helping it to access more food. That's what is known as a symbiotic relationship. As science is learning more about soil life now thanks to modern microscopy - we're learning that for the healthiest plants possible - you need a healthy living organic soil, with all the soil life that nature intended and originally put there. To a plant - the soil acts in the same way that our stomach does for us. Agrochemicals kill much of that soil life in exactly the same way that antibiotics kill many of the beneficial microbes in our own gut. That then affects their immune system just as it does ours!
Planting a few single-flowered annuals like french marigolds, tagetes, annual convulvulus, alyssum or any single flower between plants and on the ends of rows will attract beneficial insects like hoverflies which help with pest control. It's very important that these are single flowers - not the double French marigolds one often sees recommended. Insects and bees can't access the nectaries of double flowers! If your plants and soil are healthy and you grow lots of flowers in your greehouse or tunnel - then you shouldn't see any pests! Pests are usually a sign of soft, sappy growth on an unhealthy plant - often caused by using too much manure or chemicals used planting - which promotes soft, sappy growth that insects like greenfly love. Occasionally you may get whitefly on bought-in plants - if so there are biological controls available online. In just the same way - diseases can be a sign of bad growing conditions. Plants need healthy food and lots of fresh air - just like us!
Mulching between plants helps to retain water, keeps moisture in the soil and stops roots getting too hot as the temperature rises from mid-summer onwards. Keep any mulch about 4-6 inches away from plant stems or it can rot the stems.
Bare soil loses both water and nutrients very quickly. If soil is left uncovered and bare in summer - worms also go much deeper to avoid dryness and high temperatures, which they don't like. You want them to stay in the upper layers of the soil, processing organic matter to make plant foods available for your crops and adding beneficial microbes. Worms actually dramatically increase the potash, phosphates and other nutrients available to plants. Mulching between plants to keep soil cool and moist is really therefore a must for the best crops. Worms are vital to the whole ecology of soil and are some of your best co-workers! Any sort of organic matter can be used as a mulch - grass clippings (untreated I should add) compost, comfrey leaves, in fact anything that will help to retain moisture, keep roots cool and increase worm activity. You could even sow a green manure like red clover between plants after planting, which helps to increase beneficial bacteria and makes soil nitrogen more available to plants. These can sometimes get a bit rampant though and can start to reduce air circulation, if you're not careful to keep them trimmed fairly low. So if you're growing tomatoes for the firs time I wouldn't use them. Mulching is easier instead.
Care - side-shooting and stopping
This is something many people get very confused about and I must say it took me years to work it out when I was just starting to grow them! Bush varieties are called 'determinate'- or in other words - they're determined to be bushes! (Check the packet details again before you start to remove side shoots!). Don't take off side-shoots off bush varieties - they're meant to be bushes! Actually - all tomatoes are naturally bushes - but some are more amenable to training. The varieties that can be trained more easily are called 'indeterminate' varieties - or in other words in plain English - you make up their minds for them! With these upright, cordon or indeterminate varieties - start to take out the small side shoots as soon as they're big enough to pinch out cleanly, or the plants will put energy into those and they'll fruit later. They will also become a tangled, disease-prone mess! (Pantano Romanesco is a bit enthusiastic at doing this bless it - even occasionally making new shoots on the end of flower trusses which should also be cut off - but all is forgiven when you taste it!)
I usually 'stop' plants, by taking out the tip of the plant two leaves beyond the last truss which has set, when it has set about 8 trusses - or basically whatever I can reach!
If you want a few extra new plants - you can even root some side-shoots! A great way of getting free plants to save money! Let one or two of the lower side shoots develop to about 10cm/4inches long. Snap them off carefully - pushing first one way and then the other sideways - they should come out neatly and easily at the junction of stem and plant without tearing the plant. This is easier in the morning when the plants are more naturally turgid - not in the even or the plants are more likely to tear. At this leaf axil/junction most plants have an extra amount of natural plant hormones that promote rooting. Tomato shoots can then easily be rooted just in just a jar of water on a sunny windowsill - no need for faffing around with cutting compost etc.! This is how I kept a Rosada cutting going over last winter 2016/2017. I took it from my best plant in late September - after the Tomato Festival - stuck it in a bottle of water on an east-facing windowsill and it's now already grown into a sizeable bush, flowering for a couple of weeks and producing it's own side shoots! I would normally grow it as a cordon - but leaving it to be a bush, which tomatoes are naturally - means I can take lots of side-shoots to make new plants! Happy days!
Feeding & watering
I water the plant in well when planting and then after that, I only ever water between plants. When they're growing - cold water from a hose at the roots gives plants a set back, they prefer a warm even temperature - not a freezing cold shower! Do NOT water every day - but only when soil starts to look a little dry on top beside the plant and this depends on the weather and whether you have mulched them or not. Don't let the plants dry out completely as this can cause something called blossom-end rot - a nasty black spot at the end of fruits, where the fruit may start to rot. This is caused by poor calcium transport to the plant by erratic water availability.
I've seen some people recommending that you water every day - apparently whether the plants need it or not! This can be an absolute disaster for plants! Always keep an eye on plants and if you're in doubt - just scratch around a little with your finger about an inch or so down in the soil beside the plant. If it feels very dry, then water. When you do water - then only water when really necessary and soak the soil thoroughly between the plants - not at the roots. Over-watering affects their flavour as dilutes it - and serious over-watering may even cause roots to rot!. If not over-watering but still just giving a little every day - this encourages shallow rooting with roots too near the surface. You want the plant's roots to go as deep as possible. This makes them more resilient and helps them to access more food, helping them to support bigger crops. If plants are in containers - water from underneath if they're on a grow bag tray or large saucer - or water very well around the outside of the container. Any that then drains into the drip tray or grow-bag tray will usually be taken up again fairly quickly.
Remember - over-watering reduces the flavour of tomatoes, can split the fruits just as they're ripening, causing disease and crop losses - and if excessive too often - can even rot the roots.
I start to feed weekly with a good organic tomato feed like Osmo as soon as the first truss of flowers has set and is developing tiny fruits. You won't get magnesium deficiency using Osmo organic tomato food. This can be a problem with chemical-based tomato foods. As plants get bigger and are developing heavy crops of several trusses - then I may feed at half strength at every other watering - especially if they're in containers and more dependent on me for extra nutrients.
Not usually a problem - but allowing them to ripen fully is best if you want the very best flavour. Some varieties can tend to split very quickly when ripe or if watered when too many ripe fruits which have 'set' their skins are still on the plants. This tends to vary in different varieties. Sungold can tend to do this more than some others - so pick it as soon as it's ripe. Pick when warm or at midday for the best flavour in tomatoes. Picking with the calyx or flower stalk still on the top of the tomato - just snapping it off from the truss - means that the tomatoes will keep far longer. You never see the calyx left on in shops, as this is a dead give away as to how fresh the fruits are! They tend to dry out and shrivel after a couple of days so they're always picked without them!
Never ever keep tomatoes in the fridge - it absolutely ruins their flavour. Even shop-bought tomatoes may develop a bit more flavour if left out at kitchen temperature for a few days. Although they're usually pretty tasteless varieties to start with - having been bred for travel-ability and long shelf-life - not for the best taste!
Any tomatoes we don't eat fresh in many and various ways - I preserve by making into sauce and freezing in handy portions, semi-dehydrating and freezing, or just throw into the freezer whole if I'm in a hurry! Again varieties all differ in how good they are for dehydrating and for other methods of preservation. More about that later in the year in our mid-summer edition of 'From Tunnel to Table'. My very popular 'Totally Terrific Tomato Sauce' recipe, which you can even make with tinned tomatoes, can be found here: http://nickykylegardening.com/
index.php/recipes/372-totally- terrific-tomato-sauce-from- tunnel-to-table-recipe-for- august - That's all for now!
(Please note. I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard won-experience. Thank you.)