The humble tomato is the highlight of the summer bounty for me. If you were to ask me the one crop to grow yourself I would undoubtedly recommend the tomato. In my opinion it represents the number one reason for growing your own veg, taste. Nothing rates higher in yum factor than a sun kissed tom freshly plucked from the vine.
For the commercial tomato grower prime considerations are shelf life, ability to transport and uniformity of fruit shape and size .Unfortunately taste factor is near the bottom in the list of priority. A primary reason for the lack lustre flavour is variety. Heirloom tomatoes have been shown in many studies to have a higher brix content (which measure sugar levels), than commercial varieties. There are hundreds of varieties in every shape size and colour. A tomato harvest can be as colourful as box of Smarties. How every many of these varieties have been rejected by the commercial grower, with just on average 10 varieties available in UK supermarkets.
Here in Gooseberry Gardens we grow a range of tomatoes. My personal favourite is Sungold. This golden orange gem wins the flavour Oscar hands down, its sugary sweetness balanced with just the right amount of acidity. The gardener’s staple Gardeners Delight never fails to perform for both taste and the constant fear for the Irish gardener that those green fruits will never ripen! Sweet Million as its namesake suggests bears masses of nuggets of sweet beauties. Yellow Pear has an exotic flavour almost a pineapple hint, not a hundred miles away from old fashioned pear drops. Other yummy varieties we grow here at Virginia Park Lodge are heirloom varieties, Chocolate Cherry, Brandywine and Tigeralla.
Growing tomatoes does require some effort. They need heat, weather in the form of a poly tunnel or a greenhouse. Seeds should be sown in mid-February ideally in a propagator, or alternatively on a warm windowsill. They are then planted out April/ May. Tomatoes may be bush or cordon varieties. It is necessary to train cordon tomatoes along a string to prevent the tomato becoming an ungangly mass with small fruits that fail to ripen. This involves twisting the plant clockwise around the string removing the side shots which develop at a 45 degree angle along the stem. This task should ideally be performed weekly to keep plants under control. It’s a therapeutic task, the rhythmic twisting and turning, snapping and snipping. Your fingers become blackened with the tomatoes sap and the unmistakably delicious scent of tomatoes lingers in the air casting you to the Mediterranean even if rain is hammering against the poly tunnel roof.
Another weekly task is to feed tomatoes, as the plants are heavy feeders requiring a high dose of potassium. I recommend a liquid sea weed feed or homemade comfrey feed. Oh and please please please don’t overwater! This dilutes the flavour. Reducing water has frequently shown to increase crop flavour and nutrient content without reducing yield.
Once 6-8 trusses of fruit have set its time to stop the tomato plants this involves removing the growing tip of the plant. This encourages fruit to ripen. Once the first truss for fruit begins to ripen remove the lower leaves to this truss to help air circulation and also help fruits to ripen. Inevitably there will some fruit which fail to ripen, you just need a good green tomato chutney recipe! This is the stage we are at now. Plants will remain in the ground until October, when they are stripped and composted to make way for winter salad crops.
With the poor summer we have had here in Ireland, the tomato harvest always brings a little sunshine to our day. It’s truly a vine romance!