Notes from a Head Gardener ~ Superb tomatoes start today!

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Great tomatoes start today. Chillies, peppers and aubergines too, but it’s tomatoes that I love the most. Current lockdown circumstances mean that I am not yet able to get out to the big Cotswold garden that I help look after. If I was there I would have sown tomato and chilli seeds at least a couple of weeks ago and it was during these weeks that I experienced a strange anxiety. I know that people are suffering huge troubles during lockdown but the thought of a year without tomatoes was simply unbearable.

Chilli seeds all ready to sow but with nowhere to go? Unthinkable!

At work I have access to a super smart professional propagator and this is key to the successful propagation of tomato and chilli plants this early in the year. The reason for starting so early is to have robust plants in late spring that are ready to fruit throughout summer months. I had no way of producing such strong seedlings at home. My greenhouse is unheated and inhospitable and any seeds sown on windowsills will become weak and leggy as they search for the light. Research was undertaken. A suitable propagator was identified and purchased. A first sowing took place a couple of days ago. Tomato anxiety over!

The new heat adjustable propagator complete with lights for dull days sat alongside the first sowing of tomato, chilli and sweet pepper seeds. My excitement is off the scale!

It is astonishing how quickly after the seeds germinate that it is time to prick them out into individual pots. Tomatoes and chilli plants are voracious growers with all the thirst and hunger that come with it. If I was at my big work glasshouse I would have plenty of warm space in which to grow the plants on and give them the individual space that they need. Last March, with the first lockdown imminent, I grabbed several plants from work and bought them home to look after. My bedroom windowsill became the new glasshouse because it was still too cold for them to go into my unheated greenhouse.

March 2020: The young plants getting used to their new abode

The new propagator was chosen because it is large and will accommodate lots of young plants in 9cm pots. Before we know it they will outgrow the propagator and that’s when the kitchen will become the new greenhouse. The Cotswold area regularly experiences frosts well into May as well as gloriously warm days so the ever-growing plants will be moved in and out of the kitchen until they are too big to be lifted. At this point I will bite the bullet and take them out to their permanent greenhouse home.

The kitchen becomes the glasshouse in March and April
Tomato and chilli plants enjoying life outside on a warm spring day

Sometime in April I will pot the tomato plants into their permanent containers and get them into position in my greenhouse. Space is at a premium so I choose cordon variety tomatoes. This means that I can train a single stem up a string that I have attached to a horizontal bar and each plant can have enough air and light around it to grow with less chance of getting attacked by pests and diseases that thrive in cramped and humid conditions.

Tomato and chilli plants in their permanent summer positions. Plenty of water and seaweed feed applied to the growing media in the pots will mean that they will be too heavy to move.

I must not be complacent and I must keep a close eye on the weather forecast. If late spring nighttime temperatures look like they are going to drop below about 9-10 degrees I will wrap the young plants up in fleece. The fleece will be removed every morning to let allow light and air to the plants. There were late frosts in May 2020 that I was prepared for. My plants get five-star treatment because I know that they will reward me with lots of juicy fruit.

A May fleecing brings rewards in June

If you have sown your tomato and chilli seeds in January or February then you may well be tasting your first fruit in June. What a treat. There’s nothing like that first one. Savour it. They’ll be coming out of your ears before you know it!

My first tomato fruit in 2020. A Bolivian Orange cherry tomato from seed gifted to me by the wonderful seed-saver extraordinaire Adam Alexander.

If your plants do not appear to be readily producing fruits you can give them a helping hand. The flowers on your tomatoes and chillies contain everything needed to make a fruit but sometimes they need a tickle to get them started. Just a gentle waggle with a finger will be enough.

This is me doing the tomato tickle in the work greenhouse.

Those first few handfuls of fruit are precious and should be enjoyed straight off the vine. Some might even make it as far as the kitchen. Last year I grew some of my favourite tomatoes ever. One particular favourite ‘Brandysweet Plum’ was from the Heritage Seed Library. I have sown some from saved seed and I have fingers, toes, everything crossed that I have even more this year. I have never tasted a tomato so sweet.

The pinkish fruits in the centre of my colander are ‘Brandysweet Plum’ – my new favourite tomato
June: an enjoyable squeeze. Dahlias yet to be planted out and tomatoes rocketing skywards.

Soon enough your plants will be taller than you ever imagined they could be and you will have to start thinking about removing side shoots almost daily. Later in the season it is advisable to snip off lower leaves to let light and air to fruits in order for them to fully ripen.

These plants have had their lower leaves removed to encourage fruit to ripen by increasing light levels and air flow.

If you have a productive greenhouse and / or garden you may well be harvesting lots of fruit and vegetables by late summer. The tomatoes will be slightly less special than they were to you earlier in the season. They even start to become a little less attractive as plants. I believe that this is nature’s way of making it easier to say goodbye and compost them when the growing season is finally over.

Harvest time. Tomatoes sharing the stage with other fruits and vegetables.

This is when I start to think about winter and how I will be craving that taste of summer when the days are unrelentingly grey. I will make small batches of roasted tomatoes sauce and freeze them. I usually start craving my roasted tomato sauces after heavier Christmas meals have left me feeling sluggish. It’s like medicine!

A glut of tomatoes ready to slow roast in the oven with garlic, basil and extra virgin olive oil

Sometimes I include chillies and peppers in my roasted sauces. My favourite sweet pepper from 2020 was a variety from the Organic Gardening Catalogue called ‘Tequila Sunrise’. I have sown seed from last year’s fruits and I will be thrilled if I have spares to give away to family and friends because it was delicious and I would love to share it.

Sweet pepper ‘Tequila Sunrise’. Fruits are attractive, tasty and very juicy.

Tomatoes grown in the large glasshouse at work taste delicious but there’s nothing quite like a home grown fruit. Even the cat agrees.

On second thoughts, it’s probably the jungly atmosphere that Rafiki enjoys rather than the tomatoes themselves.