Harvesting tomatoes

A holiday earlier this month and a few busy days last week meant I was unable to go to the plot for nearly 10 days. During this time, it rained and rained and rained. This weather is obviously great for keeping the allotment watered at peak holiday season, but it can also herald the thing that can wipe out one of the most precious things on my plot: tomato blight.

Tomato plants in pots on my paths, when they were in flower

Blight, or late blight, thrives in warm and wet conditions – exactly like those we’ve had in the last few weeks. It can reduce tomatoes and plants to brown mush within days. There are blight-tolerant (rather than completely resistant) varieties, like ‘Ferline’, ‘Fandango’ and ‘Red Alert’, which will be worth growing next year if my late crop is wiped out.

My tomato plants are grown in pots, spaced out on paths so plenty of air can circulate around them and keep disease at bay. Growing in pots is a challenge for watering during holidays – so you either have to ask a kind allotment neighbour for help, or take a risk with the weather. I’d seen the forecast was rain, so was pretty relaxed. But the rain was so relentless I feared I would arrive at the plot to rows and rows of soggy brown plants and blight-ridden fruit.

Happily, when I finally got down there at the weekend all my tomato plants were green and lush and the branches were studded with red, yellow and purple fruit. Harvesting tomatoes is one of my highlights of the whole season, because it is the (literal) fruition of eight months of work, the end result of that optimistic seed-sowing in a propagator in my attic room in January, when nothing else is growing.

Tomato ‘Red Cherry’ on the vine

One of the many reasons I love growing tomatoes – apart from the hundreds of varieties, some with fantastical, outlandish names and long heritage – is that they ripen on the vine in stages. Unless you are on top of succession sowing, crops like lettuce, beetroot, potatoes and carrots are ready all at once, and it is a rush to preserve or store. But a tomato plant can offer its first red fruit in the first week of August and still be churning them out in September – as long as the dreaded blight doesn’t blow in.

This year’s first tomato crop

This is not to say I don’t have a glut: my first picking at the weekend produced about 50 tomatoes and this is just the start. We are using them in salads and roasted with fish and chicken but at some point I will have to start making passata and soup to stop them going bad.

A side-note on keeping tomatoes: I do not put mine in the fridge but keep them in a bowl on the kitchen table. Chilled home-grown tomatoes are obviously not as bland and watery as those bought in supermarkets, but they really don’t taste as good as those gently warmed to room temperature – as if eaten straight from the vine. You just have to keep eating and picking to keep them fresh.

Varieties left to right: Shirley, Tigerella, Golden Sunrise, Milla, Red Pear, Yellow Pear, Indigo Blue Berries

I have 20 varieties growing, but these are the seven that were ready to pick:

Shirley – bankable medium-sized fruit, long harvest season.

Tigerella – medium-sized, orange and red stripes, fun for children to grow.

Golden Sunrise – yellow, medium-sized and heavy cropper, great sliced in salads.

Milla – a small plum variety, fleshy and good for sauce-making.

Red Pear – very sweet heritage variety, pear-shaped but small fruit, prolific on the vine.

Yellow Pear – a tasty heritage variety whose fruit looks like lemon pear drops, and a reliable grower, until this summer my favourite type – see below.

Indigo Blue Berries – a cherry variety which starts off purplish-green, then as it ripens turns to deep indigo with red undertones. Delicious, but I have also noticed this variety has been the best performer on my plot for the last three years – the plants are huge and lush, the fruit prolific. This year it has surpassed ‘Yellow Pear’ as my favourite tomato.

I’ve been lucky to avoid blight so far, but if the heavy rain continues it could still affect my tomatoes. A friend of mine (on another site) has lost all of hers because of blight in the last week. If you are growing tomatoes outside there is little way of avoiding it, unless you grow one of the blight-resistant varieties mentioned above. Otherwise, grow in a polytunnel or greenhouse – although you need space and money for those. I am growing six plants in a plastic greenhouse just in case the outdoor ones are hit. They don’t get to soak in direct sunshine, so are don’t taste as good, but you can guarantee they will be blight-free.


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