The Great Tomato Catch-Up! Don't Fret If You Didn't Plant Seeds in March, Says Toby Buckland, Here's a Beginner's Guide to Buying Tomato Plants You Can Raise at Home
Now that we're all foodies and into flavour, the tomato is the nation's favourite crop. It's versatile, colourful, sweet and tangy, and there's no better taste than when it's picked from your own garden. Organised gardeners will have started them from seed back in March, and by now they could be 2ft high and carrying the first small fruits. But, thanks to the instant, ready-grown culture of garden centres, it's not too late to go and buy some tomato plants. They can go straight into a sunny border or a pretty terracotta pot on the patio.
You don't have to buy a growbag to raise tomatoes - although millions do because they are economical and, I suspect, many enjoy the paraphernalia of cane holders, watering tubes and drip feeders. But if yellow plastic pillows and the like detract from your garden style, you can grow toms in a pot or hanging basket.
There's also the new upside-down tomato grower - a plastic sack of compost with a hole in the bottom for planting a tomato with the roots above the stems. The makers claim that this increases yield and disease resistance, as watering is far easier than in a growbag, which can be difficult to soak properly. And if your garden is shady at ground level, you can hang it in full sun. At first I thought, 'That'll never work,' but I have planted a couple at Greenacre, the Gardeners' World garden. You can see if I'm proved wrong on the show later in the year.
Choose your plants carefully at the garden centre, making sure you get the tallest plants with the most leaves and flowers, so that all their energy will go into that tasty crop instead of putting on growth. You should also buy some tomato feed, 5ft bamboo canes and some twine and, if you've never done this before, a watering can, too.
Garden centres sell a limited range of varieties, and the numbers you need of each depends on what you go for. The tumbling types, such as 'Tumbler', are good for hanging baskets and the sides of pots, and are easiest for beginners because they crop quickly and don't need 'sideshooting' (more on this in a minute). Plant up to three in a 14in basket or pot in a multi-purpose compost and, if you're worried about keeping up with watering, add water-retaining crystals to the mix.
Then there are the bush tomato varieties, such as 'Red Alert' and 'Super Marmande'. Like 'Tumbler', these can be left to grow and crop unpruned in sun-drenched borders or singly in a pot. Support the lax, arching stems by lashing them to a bamboo cane as they grow. Bush types tend to produce a single large crop at once, particularly the Italian and beefsteak varieties, which are mouthwatering when sliced, salted, drizzled with oil and stacked with mozzarella. The downside is that they tend to arrive in late August so, as you hand over your money, say a silent prayer for a good, long summer to ensure a bumper harvest. The most prolific are the cordon types, such as 'Ailsa Craig', 'Moneymaker' and 'Alicante'.
These are your classic, medium-sized tomatoes. There are also cherry toms, such as 'Sungold' and Gardeners Delight', for picking sunwarmed from the plant for that popin-your-mouth explosion. Cordon refers to the unbranched stem and here's where 'sideshooting' comes in. As your plants grow, loosely tie the main trunk to a bamboo cane and, using your finger and thumb, pinch off the shoots that sprout from where leaves meet the stem. If you don't, you'll get leaves instead of fruit. Don't worry that you might pinch off flowers - these form on bare stems away from the leaf joints.
Some tomatoes are bred to grow in the heat of a greenhouse, while others, such as 'Alicante' and 'Sungold', will give bigger harvests indoors but taste sweeter and more juicy grown in full sun. …