Posts Tagged Tomatoes
Tomatoes are one of my favourite foods so I grow as many as I can fit in my garden and choose varieties for their flavour, use and season and I make sure of a good crop by really taking care of them. As with most plants if you give them a good start and the best growing conditions you will be rewarded with better crops and stronger plants that need less care in the long run.
Choosing Tomato varieties
My favourite eating tomato is still Noir de Crimee, a black Russian heirloom; odd shape, odd colour but fantastic taste. Cherry tomatoes are a must for me as they are great to graze on while pottering around the garden. Next I make sure I have plenty of tomatoes for preserving, some varieties being better than others, the best I’ve tried so far are San Marzano and Roma for paste and sauces see the page on best preserving tomatoes. The other thing to consider is the length of the season. Some tomatoes bear fruit more quickly than others and are normally described by the number of days from planting out to first fruit ripening i.e. Early 55-70 days, Mid-Season 70-85 days and Late beyond 85 days. Next is variety of flavour and colour which makes for wonderful mixed tomato salads so it is nice to grow a few mild white tomatoes, acidic green ones and puunchy orange ones.
The first thing about tomatoes is that they need plenty of nutrients to produce all those lovely fruits, but the nutrients need to be added as they grow, if you put too much in at the beginning they are more likely to have too much leaf growth at the expense of fruit.
Tomatoes need a constant medium level of moisture. Too dry, too wet or too much fluctuation often causes blossom end rot resulting in unusable tom
atoes. Prepare the soil where the tomatoes are to be grown either by preparing planting holes, troughs or the entire bed. I prefer to prepare troughs as this helps to direct the most nutrients and moisture to the roots and it makes it easier to water when needed. Dig a long ditch 2 spades deep and 1 spade wide. Put a layer of chopped comfrey leaves on the bottom and half fill with a mixture of well rotten compost and manure 9 parts compost to one part manure and water heavily to fill the trough.
Plant the tomatoes in the bottom of the trough, as deep as you can, right up to the first set of true leaves, remove the remaining baby leaves. Roots will grow from th
e stalks giving the plant more stability and ability to draw more moisture and nutrients from the soil cover with dry soil but leave sides to the trough. This will help protect the young plants from wind and help direct water to the plants.
Spacing and Staking
Tomatoes need a fare bit of space as they don’t like to be crowded. It depends on how you plan to grow the tomatoes as to what distance apart they should by anything from 40-75cm apart works. I normally set out at around 50cm apart and grow them as cordons, that is straight up a pole with one main stem or sometimes two depending on how vigorous the variety. Cordon tomatoes need to be staked, I use 2 meter metal, chestnut, or cane poles with a cross brace on windy sites. Tie in the plants as they grow so that the tops are firmly but gently attached to the poles.
Once the tomatoes are in place add a top dressing of organic soil enhancer such as seaweed meal or well rotted manure. The dressing will gradually be brought down into the soil by water and the soluble nutrients can then be drawn up by the plant as it grows.
Applying a mulch, a top cover, over the ground around the tomatoes will help protect the soil and plants and conserve the moisture level in the soil. For more details on mulching read Using Mulches
Intermediate tomatoes have a habit of growing into bushes which produce a lot of leaf and plant growth but less fruit. In order to concentrate the plants energy on the fruit it helps to pinch out the side shoots. That is the little sprouts that form between the main stems and a leaf branch. Pinch these out with your fingers when they are less than 12cm. If you have missed a few and they have got bigger cut them off with clippers or a knife so as not to tear the plant.
Tomatoes benefit from a liquid feed, applied every 2 weeks, once the fruit start to form. You can buy ready made preparations but why not make you own. For more details on liquid feeds read Making Organic Liquid Fertilisers
Russian Comfrey is one of the most versatile plants for the organic kitchen gardener as it is a fantastic natural source of potash-rich organic material and liquid feed. It’s many uses include; compost activator, liquid feed, potting mix, soil enhancer, mulch and bee attractant.
The real value of comfrey lies in its composition. The roots bring up potassium, phosphate and other minerals from deep in the ground to the leaves which are also high in nitrogen. Comfrey has 2-3 times more potassium than animal manure, which makes it especially good for the production of flowers, fruits and seeds.
Beware Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) is quite a different plant from Wild Comfrey. (Symphytum asperum). Russian Comfrey is a hybrid and is sterile so does not freely seed. Wild Comfrey seeds madly and can be a real nuisance, we had some growing in our garden in England and I could not get rid of it.
In 2008 I grew a selection of tomatoes for preserving because I wanted to see if there was anything better than my usual favourite, San Marzano. Now that I am thinking about what varieties to grow this year it’s a good time to review my little trial.
Tomatoes make some of the most useful and delicious preserves for winter, things like: passata, coulis de tomate, tomato concentrate, pastes and sauces and of course dried tomatoes so I like to grow plenty of tomatoes to conserve. With any comparison it is worth bearing in mind the criteria; I am looking for tomatoes that produce in abundance, with dense, dryish flesh, few seeds, easy to peel/process, with good colour and of course flavour; I want intense deep flavours when cooked or dried. Here’s what I found.
Large, 10cm long, blocky plum shaped, red tomatoes, with dry flesh and few seeds. The fruit is almost hollow with only two seed cavities and dry flesh, which makes it excellent for drying and great for bottling whole.
The tomatoes are easy to peel once scalded, when cooked the tomato flavour intensifies and so does the colour so they are great for sauces and passata. I find the plants are best grown as double cordons (that is with two stems trained up a hefty metal pole). Plants are robust and will stand up well to high temperatures and strong winds but San Marzano tomatoes really don’t like to get too dry at the roots and are prone to blossom end rot if there is too much moisture fluctuation, so they do need an extra bit of care to grow well. San Marzano are prolific producing huge vines of long red plum tomatoes over a long period, typically in my garden from July right up until the first frosts so even if dry spells affect them early on in the season they will still carry on and produce good fruit later on. Verdict Still top of the pile in my opinion as an all round conserving tomato, particularly for passata, drying and bottling. If I could only grow one variety for conserving it would be this one. If you raise them carefully they are a great, if not the best, conserving tomato.
The other classic conserving tomato is Roma, popular with the canning industry and I can understand why, it is so easy to process and tastes great. It is a wonderful deep red, plump plum tomato with a little point on the blossom end. The tomatoes are thin skinned, with thick juicy flesh and a deep rich tomatoey taste. Plants are very productive, I grew six plants, which produced buckets of fruit. This variety of Roma is a determinate one and the bulk of the crop was ready to harvest at the same time, which can be useful if you want to do your conserving in one big batch. It was also pretty resilient and had no problem with blossom end rot when San Marzano was affected.Verdict Roma really came out as contender because the tomatoes were actually better than San Marzano for flavour and texture when cooked but the messy sprawling growth habit and short cropping season meant that San Marzano would win out in my garden. However I think growing both is ideal for my purposes, a big crop of tomatoes for preserving in quantity as well as a steady supply over 4 months. Perhaps a double row; with San Marzano at the back and these shorter plants on the front of a south facing row.
Now this tomato was a real surpsrise, producing great big pointy pepper shaped tomatoes with solid meaty flesh, good taste and easy to peel once scalded. I found it was able to withstand dry / wet fluctuations (a real problem with the summer we had in 2008) and seems to be less prone to blossom-end-rot than San Marzano. However the big downside was that it was not an abundant producer and produced only a small number of fruits. Plants were frail in comparison to San Marzano with thin straggly stems that needed lots of support. Individual fruits are larger and meatier than San Marzano, so 1 or 2 fruits were enough for most dishes, but the plants sadly did not produce very many fruits. NB I only grew 2 plants in this trial so it is a limited sample from which to draw any firm conclusions. Verdict All in all I loved Cornu Des Andes despite its low productivity, it had great flavour and a wonderful dense, smooth texture. It really is a superb cooking and conserving tomato. I’ll definitely grow it again and maintain the seeds. Hopefully I will be able to select the seeds over the years to develop a more robust and productive strain in the future because I’ll want more of these little beauties.
Very disappointed with this variety. I chose it from the Kokopelli seed catalogue because it said the variety is easy to peel which would be an advantage for a conserving or cooking tomato, however I found it impossible to peel untreated and no easier than Cornu des Andes or Roma VF and in fact I found it more difficult to peel than San Marzano, once scalded. The tomatoes are a slender plum, pale red with poor mealy flesh. The plants are determinate and in my garden they sprawled about the place and were a mess in no time. It provided a fairly meagre crop compared to the others in this trial. All can be forgiven for a tasty tomato but this one failed even that and had no particularly distinguishing taste. All in all a pretty poor show. With so many other great tomatoes I won’t even give this one a second go.
This was the biggest disappointment of my trial of 2008. I had such high hopes for this tomato because every reference I’ve found for it claims it as the best variety for drying. Sadly, in my experience, nothing could be have been further from the truth and any one of the other tomatoes I tried drying made a better sun-dried tomato than these did. The skins are so thick, the flesh was thin and watery and there are so many seeds in these small tomatoes that by the time they are fully dried they are actually difficult to eat; a tough almost inedible morsel that tastes of very little because all that is left is skin and seeds. Nasty!
On the plus side the plants are prolific and produce big bunches of small, deep red fruit, plum shaped with a point on the blossom end and lots of them, however the determinate habit also means that if left alone the plants get a bit wild for my liking and end up spilling over neighbouring crops. I ended up taking out some of the side shoots to calm the things down.
Verdict I don’t want to reject this tomato on the basis of only one season’s growth but I did give it a fair chance with six plants, and frankly I don’t want to grow lots of useless tomatoes. I got the seeds in a swap so it may be there are better strains out there and I could give this variety another go with another batch of seeds if anyone has seeds they can recommend trying. As it stands I think they are really too small, seedy and tough skinned to be a good conserving tomato, they make terrible sun-dried tomatoes and are not well flavoured enough as a salad tomato. They do have one advantage however and that is that the tough skins mean they store well and seem to last a really long time, particularly if left on the vine. I also tried freezing this variety, which worked quite well, you still have the skins and seeds to deal with, but they provide a useful winter soup or stew ingredient.
I grew an old variety from Texas called Porter in 2007 because I was looking for tomatoes that could stand dessert conditions. I ended up with a few ‘volunteers’ turn up in the potager 2008, which made for a useful comparison when looking for the best conserving tomatoes in my trial. The fruits are of a similar shape and size to Principe Borghese but are a dark pink colour with dense flesh and fewer seeds.
Verdict These tomatoes can work as a sauce tomato as they have thin skins and less seeds and can easily be put through a passata machine or sieve to make a fairly decent, though less red passata, particularly if roasted first. In comparison however, they really are not as good as San Marzano, Roma or Cornu Des Andes for cooking nor as good as some of the cherry or olive types for eating fresh. However, the big plus for Porter in my garden is that they are robust, prolific and will stand high temperatures, dry conditions and even neglect and still crop well. So I think it is worth carrying the seeds forward and growing them every few years to keep the supply going.
A few others worth a mention
Not strictly conserving tomatoes but I found that the juicier beefsteak tomatoes: Double Rich and Cuostrallee also make particularly good chutneys and sauces.
Read more about making tomato paste and preserving tomatoes on my recipes site, Kitchen Garden Recipes.