Gardening: Time to plant out your summer love-apples

The best way to get truly tasty, thin-skinned tomatoes is to choose your varieties carefully, and then to grow your own. By Ursula Buchan
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The Independent Culture
IT'S MAY Day. Clouts have been cast, pulses have quickened, and at last we can have some fun. In the vegetable garden, at least. The boring, tiring tasks have been done, the workaday seeds have been sown and the potatoes buried, and we can turn to cultivating those vegetables that are enjoyable to cook and taste delicious, and never become so cheap that growing them seems a waste of effort. It is time now to sow the seed of sweet corn and courgettes in the soil outside (in the south of the country, at least), and to look around for sturdy tomato and sweet pepper plants to buy for planting out at the end of the month (or the beginning of June in the north).

This is the jolly, almost glamorous, part of kitchen gardening, growing produce that you would genuinely want to eat, rather than all those worthy but dull carrots and plain Jane parsnips.

The tomato is, surely, the most rewarding vegetable (or berry, to satisfy any pedants there may be) to grow - it is gloriously fruitful and full of taste, and many have skins thin enough to make a supermarket tomato shiver.

It can also be cultivated in a number of ways: enthusiasts grow them in heated or unheated greenhouses, in growing bags, in "rings", or in the greenhouse soil itself. That is agreeable but time-consuming, so it is just as well, for busy people without the advantage of propagating- space or glass protection, that many (although not all) are suitable for growing out of doors, in growing bags, containers or the open ground, if planted after the chance of frost has gone.

The tomato, like the sweet pepper, courgette and potato, is not a hardy beast. Far from it. A touch of frost and its leaves will burn and blacken, and its fruits turn to mush. That is why it must be grown quickly, between May and October. Fortunately, it is usually more than willing to do that, and the problem is far more likely to be restraining its leafy exuberance, so that the fruits get to a proper size, than failing to get it to grow well at all.

Outdoor varieties divide into two types, those with an "indeterminate" habit, which need to be grown on the "cordon" system (don't blanch; it is not complicated) and those "determinate" ones that can be grown as sprawling bushes, and have masses of smallish fruits.

The cordon system requires you to plant the tomato plant next to a bamboo stake to which it can be tied, at intervals, as it grows. The side shoots, which appear in the elbows of the leaves, must be ruthlessly removed when they appear, and this is easily done with a nip from thumb and forefinger. Towards the end of summer, after several trusses (bunches of flowers) have set fruit, the top of the main stem should be cut off, to prevent it from becoming any taller, and to concentrate the plant's resources on growing and ripening the fruits before the frosts. If you yearn for an easy life, or at least wish to avoid the sickly, nightshade smell of crushed tomato leaf, which lingers about you like the odour of sanctity, I suggest you grow "bush" varieties.

No two people will agree on which tomatoes do best or taste sweetest, but, for what it's worth, my money for cordon growing is on `Alicante', which has heavy crops of medium-sized fruit, `Sungold' F1 hybrid, the deliciously sweet, orange-skinned cherry tomato, and `Tigerella', if you would like a jolly, stripy variety for salads. Among bush cultivars I favour `Red Alert', `Tornado' F1 and `The Amateur'. You may come across `Sleaford Abundance' F1; it is certainly abundant, but without a very definite taste, which rather defeats the object.

`Totem' F1 and `Tumbler' are dwarf bush varieties, and are often recommended for planting in tubs, containers or hanging baskets. That would seem to be an ideal solution if your space is restricted to a patio, but resist the temptation if you can, for their coarse leaves are not sufficiently decorative for display in a really prominent place.

Tomatoes need a sheltered spot in full sun. After setting fruit, they require a continuously damp soil, so it makes sense to sink a plant pot into the ground next to each plant; if the pot rather than the soil is watered, the roots will get most of the moisture, with little evaporation. Not everyone sees the need to feed outdoor tomatoes, but I find I ensure the best flavour if I feed with a high-potash tomato fertiliser, such as Tomorite, every week, after the first fruits have set.