DESPITE their association with savoury dishes, tomatoes are, of course, not a vegetable but a fruit — a mature plant ovary containing the seeds of the next generation. To a botanist, they are actually berries, along with dates and grapes. What matters here is that tomatoes really are worth growing at home. They can be very productive, even in a small space, and the aroma and flavour of a fresh harvest can be every bit as delightful and complex as a glass of wine.
Tomato plants can be so-called bush types, also referred to as determinate, where the plant grows to a certain size; or cordon (indeterminate), where, in perfect conditions, they would just keep branching and scrambling. The latter need their side-shoots removing, which can be surprisingly tricky to spot. Either type can provide cherry, salad, or beefsteak tomatoes, depending on the individual cultivar, and the fruit can develop into an array of colours — again dependent on the exact variety.
The ripe fruit can be green, yellow, orange, red, purple, or almost black in the case of “Indigo Rose”, which was bred by Oregon State University to be anthocyanin-rich, and thereby extra nutritious. It looks great in a mixed salad, but, to my palate, the flavour is disappointing. I prefer to grow “Black Cherry”: it is a less dramatic dark-cherry colour, but juicy and flavourful.
For many years, the cherry tomato “Gardener’s Delight” came top in taste trials. It has been toppled, and not just because of new star tomatoes discovered by breeding programmes. It seems there has been some cross-pollination with an inferior tomato, so that the seed available to gardeners gives mixed results. “Sungold”, “Rosella”, and “Suncherry Premium” are good alternatives.
Which tomato you grow depends on how you like to use them. Cherry tomatoes are bite-sized, and great for lunch boxes and salads. Salad tomatoes speak for themselves, and slice well for sandwiches. I recommend “Matina” for early ripening and flavour. If you want to make a sauce, you cannot beat “San Marzano”, a cooking tomato that is rather spongy eaten raw.
This month, sow two tomato seeds per 1-litre pot in multi-purpose seed compost on a warm windowsill. If both germinate, discard the weakest seedling. Keep them growing on the windowsill until the weather warms up in late May/early June. Then plant them in a greenhouse, or gradually acclimatise them to outdoor conditions.
I prefer to plant them in the ground, but if you have only a patio, growing bags and large pots can give good results, provided you can water daily, and feed weekly, using a tomato fertiliser. If you can shield plants from rain in some way with a makeshift clear canopy or porch you are less likely to have problems with blight. Spores of this fungal disease are airborne, and then rained down on to plants, where they develop on damp foliage. Tomatoes need sunshine; so you need to balance protection with exposure.
If we don’t have a good summer, there is more to green tomatoes than chutney. They are delicious sliced, coated in flour, and fried, or in Asian curry and stir-fry recipes.