I’ve spent the past few days suffering from a chest infection. Everyone in our house has been affected by colds and flu viruses, the sort of back-end-of-winter bugs that knock you out, take away your voice and stop you from going to the allotment for longer than about an hour. I went down there yesterday to check on my undercover seedlings, which were fine, and then did some weeding to keep the circulation going, but really I should have been getting warm indoors, because by this morning I was at the doctor’s getting some antibiotics.
It seems right, then, that a crop packed with flu-fighting vitamin C is my Star of the Week: tomatoes. I also have a recipe – courtesy of my Dad, who visited our house the other day armed with healthy fruit and veg to help us fight the colds – that puts tomatoes together with a vitamin C-charged fruit: blood oranges. It’s not the season in the UK for tomatoes, while citrus fruit is only possible in this country if kept under cover from October to May. So you can either look away now or, if you’re not self-sufficient and like me buy quality, delicious veg during the late winter/early spring hungry gap, then you can make this tonight.
You only need two blood oranges for the dressing, but buy as big a bag of this fruit as you can and make juice out of the rest – it is a delicious red and sweet medicine that will make you feel 100 times better.
Dad’s heritage tomato salad with blood orange dressing
Five medium-sized, multi-coloured heritage tomatoes – available from good farmers and food markets, or grow your own this summer
Two blood oranges
Salt and pepper
If heritage tomatoes are too expensive – and they can be, which is why I’m such an advocate of growing them from seed for a fraction of the price – then ordinary tomatoes will do. This recipe is more about the dressing.
Slice the tomatoes widthways about half a centimetre thick and arrange in a salad bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Halve the blood oranges, cutting through their “equator” rather than pole to pole, and squeeze the juice into a measuring jug. Whatever the amount of juice, measure double the olive oil – the normal ratio for salad dressings is 3 parts oil to 1 part acid, like vinegar or citrus, but here you don’t want the blood orange juice to lose its edge, and because it is sweet rather than sour it is not overpowering. Drizzle over the sliced tomatoes and leave for 15 minutes, before enjoying with some Parma ham or just a simple plate of bread and cheese.
Now that it’s March, it is time to sow tomato seeds undercover if you haven’t already done so. I always go early because I am itching to get the growing season started in January – but any time between then and the end of March is fine, as long as you have a frost-free place to keep the growing seedlings in pots, where they will need to be until May.
Tomatoes are my Star of the Week, but they are also one of my favourite veg of the entire season: there are hundreds of varieties available to buy from UK nurseries and seed companies, and are available in a range of colours and sizes, with brilliant names from both heritage and F1 hybrid types.
I usually end up with about 30 varieties, one plant of each, just to see if a new favourite emerges. This year, I am growing some for the first time and others are returners because they are either reliable high-croppers or just quite pretty.
Some I have chosen just because of their brilliant names: for example, I have gone for ‘Bloody Butcher’, a heritage variety available from DT Brown, because of its quirkiness/goriness. The heritage seed market is full of these vividly-named varieties that are the polar opposite of bland PR. This is something mass food producers should take on board. On the subject of blood oranges: some supermarkets have renamed them “reds” or “red oranges”, presumably because they (wrongly) think the word “blood” is too upsetting for consumers’ sensibilities? This is just another example of infantilising customers – see also renaming clementines, satsumas and so on “easy peelers” – but it also denies people the full information about what they’re buying.
Thankfully the gardening world is not guilty of this slide into blandness. So here are the varieties I am growing this year (unless stated that they are determinate – or bush – varieties, meaning they don’t need support, all varieties listed are indeterminate/cordon. This means they must be trained up string or bamboo canes and have their side shoots removed to encourage flower and fruit growth).
‘Red Pear’ – the colour and shape are as they sound; I have grown this variety for a few years, and it is normally successful.
‘Cream Sausage’ (determinate) – more like a pale yellow slightly elongated cherry variety. I grew this for the first time last year and it did well.
‘Bloody Butcher’ – I am growing this for the first time; it is a medium-sized variety with dark red flesh, as the name suggests.
‘Virginia Sweets’ – striped yellow and red beefsteak tomato.
‘St Pierre’ – French heritage variety, mid-sized fruit.
‘Brandywine’ – a beefsteak variety with a deep red colour; I grew this for the first time last year.
‘Pink Brandywine’ – a beefsteak variety in a pale red/blush colour which is debuting on Plot 35a in 2016.
‘Marmande’ – French heirloom beefsteak which is semi-determinate, meaning it grows like a bush tomato but may need some support.
Then there are three varieties I am trialling for Rob Smith, which I believe are also heritage varieties, and for the purposes of this blind trial are known merely as ‘Tomato A’, ‘Tomato B’ and ‘Tomato C’.
‘Tigerella’ – striped like a tiger, medium-sized.
‘Golden Sunrise’ – yellow and an old favourite on my plot.
‘Apricot Dream’ F1 – oval shaped, orange colour.
‘Rosella’ – deep pink cherry tomato.
‘Indigo Blue Berries’ purple to almost black coloured cherry tomato.
‘Nimbus’ F1 – medium-sized, red cherry tomato that I’m growing for the first time.
‘Tomatoberry Grande’ F1 – heart-shaped variety, also a first-timer on my plot.
‘Shirley’ F1 – a classic mid-sized tomato which delivers a decent yield.
‘Moneymaker’ – mid-sized tomato that I have grown before, its name is due to its heavy crop.
‘Alicante’ – similar to ‘Moneymaker’, with a rich flavour.
‘Red Alert’ (determinate) – cherry tomato that ripens earlier than others and grows well outdoors.
‘Sweet Million’ F1 – cherry tomato that produces a high amount of fruit on one plant – hence the name.
‘Gardener’s Delight’ – one of the classic varieties, a cherry that produces large yields and grows well outdoors.
‘Red Cherry’ – a very sweet cherry tomato.
‘Milla’ – a small plum variety.
‘San Marzano Sel Redorta’ – large, succulent plum variety which is great for pasting into rich Italian tomato sauce.
‘Big Mama’ F1 – large plum variety which is also excellent for making into sauce.
‘Ferline’ F1 – not quite a beefsteak variety but a decent size with which to make tomato salads. I am growing this variety for the first time.
‘Beefmaster’ F1 – large fruits that are ideal for stuffing, reliably grows outdoors.
‘Beefsteak’ – as its name suggests, and is great for slicing and drizzling with olive oil.
That’s 31 varieties, but if I had the space I would grow dozens just to compare their taste and growth.
Tomato seeds need to be started off in warmth, around 20-23C. I use a heated propagator, but a warm windowsill or shelf on a heated greenhouse will do, as long as they don’t get too cold at night-time. I sow two seeds per module – station sowing like this means I can choose which emerging seedling looks stronger, and remove the weaker sibling. Water the compost first before placing the seed on top, as the seeds are small and could get washed lower into the pot. Then sprinkle a light covering of compost on top of the seed – there is no need to water a second time. The seeds should germinate in 7 to 10 days.
Don’t let the soil dry out but also do not overwater as this can cause damping off, particularly in humid conditions. Once the seedlings are 2-3 inches high, they need to be removed from this intense heat to somewhere at room temperature – a cooler windowsill, maybe – and potted on into slightly larger pots. After a week at this new temperature, start to introduce to a cooler climate – leaving them in a frost-free shed, as I have done with mine, should work, but cover the set of plants with fleece just to ensure they don’t get caught out by a late hard frost.
In London, where I am, I move my tomatoes outside in May, and they produce perfectly good yields outdoors. Once or twice I have put them outside in mid-April, when it was an unseasonably warm spring, and they were fine. If you are growing them at home, you can harden them off by moving the plants outside in the day time and back under cover at night for the first few days before leaving them outside once and for all. As I’m growing mine at the allotment, where I can’t be every day, I will have to do the straight switch to outside in one go, but by May the nights rarely get so cold.
Further north than the M62, you might need to hold off from moving them outside until June. You might feel growing tomatoes outdoors is impossible, and they should be kept in a polytunnel or greenhouse. It all depends on the microclimate – a south facing set of steps by the house would be ok.
By May, the plants should be a substantial size and need to be transplanted to their final position. I have tried different types of growing method and, in my experience, I have had bigger, more successful yields when I grow in pots or in the ground. Grow bags never produce a decent crop compared to these other two methods. Of the three methods, I prefer pots most of all because I can save on space – my pots go along the paths of Plot 35a rather than gobble up two beds – and you can adjust feeding, staking etc according to the individual plant, as some will grow faster than others.
The pot must be 9 inches (22cm) wide or larger in order to sustain a productive plant. Whether growing in the ground or in pots, use compost or well-rotted manure to dig the plant in. Give it plenty of water. When the first flowers emerge, start feeding once a week with a liquid tomato food, which is high in potassium, helping the flowers to set fruit. I use Maxicrop seaweed extract or comfrey tea, which are both organic.
If you are going away for the summer, and are growing tomatoes (or anything else) in pots, make sure they are standing on saucers to hold the water in. To keep the soil hydrated you can make little water tanks for each pot out of plastic water bottles – 500ml size is good. Cut the bottom off the bottle but keep the lid screwed on. Using a pin or needle make tiny holes around the neck and shoulders of the bottle (the plastic in the lid is too tough) then turn it upside down and insert the top end into the soil – making sure the tiny holes are underneath the surface. When you’re about to go away, fill the bottle with water to the top and this will seep into the pot gradually and prevent any holiday disasters.
Tomatoes do not suffer badly from pests, but they are vulnerable to blight, a disease which strikes in late summer after heavy rain, and also affects potatoes. Remove leaves that look brown and shrivelled, but you might have to destroy the whole plant as it spreads quickly. Do not put the infected material in the compost, but burn or throw in the bin. There are blight-resistant varieties of tomato, including ‘Mountain Magic’, ‘Crimson Crush’, ‘Romeo’, ‘Losetto’. I have never experienced an entire crop of tomatoes destroyed by blight, so stay optimistic and keep checking the leaves.
Tomatoes planted out in May should start to produce crops in August. The tomatoes will ripen at different times on one plant, so keep checking. Pick before they get too soft, as they will be over-ripe. If by the end of September you still have green tomatoes on the plant and they are refusing to turn red, pick them all and put them on an indoor windowsill to ripen, or make green tomato chutney as an early autumn treat.