Of all the crops we grow here at home, nothing gives me more pleasure than tomatoes. Last season was terrific and for once, the outdoor tomatoes cropped even more heavily than the ones in the greenhouse. That's a sweeping statement. Shall I say instead that I had enough seed-raised plants of two varieties of tomato to grow them both inside and out and that in both cases, the outside ones did better? On 'Sungold' (Simpson's Seeds, £1.90 for 10 seeds) each truss on the outdoor plants had at least 20 fruit. Inside, there weren't so many trusses and not so many fruit on each one.
Much depends on the season and last summer suited outdoor tomatoes. We had no blight and even rose-pink 'Rosella' (Simpson's Seeds, £1.75 for 20 seeds) did well outside, even though the seed packet advised "best grown in the greenhouse". But I'd run out of room in the greenhouse so half of the 'Rosella' plants I raised from seed had to go out.
Each season I grow a couple of varieties of tomato from seed and order half a dozen different plantlets from Simpsons Seeds. This way, I can combine safe bets such as 'Sungold' (without doubt the best cherry tomato I've ever grown) with unknowns such as 'Rosella'. This is another cherry tomato, with a smoky, dark-pink skin and equally dark flesh. The flavour is intense, both sweet and sharp at the same time.
In a heated greenhouse, you can start tomatoes from seed in February, but ours is only just frost-free. So I sow seed in a 13cm (5in) pot around mid-March and it germinates without heat. You can expect almost 100 per cent germination with tomato seed. I use John Innes seed compost and cover the seed with vermiculite. But there's still time to sow seed in April, especially if your plants will eventually be growing outside.
When the stems seem sturdy enough, I prick out plants into individual 8cm (3in) pots and then finally shift them into their permanent homes – which may be the greenhouse border, plastic pots at least 28cm (11in) across or a narrow outside border. If I'm using pots, I use our own compost to fill them. The tomato plants get fed regularly with Tomorite, so the compost's most important job is to anchor the roots rather than feed them.
Tomatoes growing in pots have more room to root than in grow-bags. They are also easier to support and since both 'Sungold' and 'Rosella' are straight-up-and-down cordon types, they both need to be staked. I use bamboo canes 150cm/5ft long and fix the top of each cane to a wire strung along the rafters of the greenhouse roof. This makes a strong support which you need because the trusses of fruit on cherry tomatoes are so prolific. Long before the end of the season, the plants will have got to the top of their canes; you tie in the stem as it grows up. Cordon varieties produce sprouts of new growth from the angle of each leaf and you need to pinch these out as soon as you see them.
Before we had the greenhouse, I raised tomato plants on the kitchen windowsill. The seeds germinate with no trouble, but the young plants tend to get lanky, with weak stems. The problem is lack of all-round light. You can encourage seedlings to develop stronger stems by brushing them over with the edge of a piece of card. But a greenhouse or polytunnel gives much better results, especially if you have a shelf high up near the roof, where the seedlings can grow on.
Our greenhouse has a long earth border along the west-facing wall. A nectarine is trained out on the wall itself but we made the border wide enough to grow tomatoes as well. There's room for six plants set 50cm/20in apart and last year I grew a couple of plants each of 'Pannovy', 'Orkado' and 'Aspero'. The plants (£1.75 each) came from Simpsons Seeds who offer more than a hundred different kinds of tomato, both plants and seed.
'Pannovy' has become a great favourite and I've grown it for the past three years. It makes a vigorous, exceptionally leafy plant and produces an abundant crop of big, smooth, beautifully flavoured fruit. It was still producing superb crops in late September last year. 'Sparta', another F1 hybrid, has been equally good, setting outrageously heavy trusses of fruit, with a sharp, sweet, rich taste, equally good raw in salads, or cooked in a sauce.
All the tomatoes I grow are cordons, because they fit more easily into the space of a greenhouse, either in the border or in pots standing in a big lead pig trough that runs along the south side. If I were growing on a balcony I'd probably choose bush tomatoes and put them in grow-bags. Then there's no need to stake and no wind-resistance either.
Bush tomatoes, such as 'First in the Field' or 'Garden Pearl' tend to fruit earlier than cordon types, and often bear their crop all in a rush, over a period of four to six weeks. Bush tomatoes don't need training or pinching out. You just plant them and let them grow as they will, low and sprawling. 'First in the Field' is "prolific and tasty" says Simpson's Seeds and it's an old variety which seems to me a plus point. Surely no one would have bothered to keep it going unless it had some positive attributes.
Cordon tomatoes produce new trusses of fruit as they grow, so they crop over a longer period. I thought our plants had finally exhausted themselves in late September last year, but while we were away, new stems shot out from the base of the plant (normally I'd have pinched them out) and they started producing all over again with fresh trusses setting on the new growth. It was late November before I finally tipped the pots and their contents on to the compost heap.
If you grow tomatoes outside, you can't be in too much of a hurry to get plants in the ground. They hate frost. Traditionally, the end of May was reckoned the safe time. When you plant them out, you can set the tomato plants quite deep in the ground (or in pots), so the first pair of leaves almost sit on the ground. New roots will often grow from the underground stem and the more roots, the better. Tomato plants are greedy. Most cordons will grow to at least 200cm and in August, you need to stop the plants by pinching out their tops. Then they can concentrate on ripening the fruit that has already set. Orders for Simpson's tomato plants need to be in as soon as possible for delivery between mid-April and mid-May. You have to order in multiples of six. Six plants of the same variety cost £9.30, a mixed pack of six costs £10.50.
Simpson's Seeds Ltd, The Walled Garden Nursery, Horningsham, Warminster, Wilts BA12 7NQ, 01985 845004, simpsonsseeds.co.uk
WHAT TO DO
* Prune late summer flowering shrubs such as caryopteris, cutting the strongest stems hard back to a new bud at the base. Take out weak stems altogether.
* Lawns are looking at their worst. The grass has been growing but there has been little opportunity to get out and cut it. The first cut of the year should be higher than normal. Then you gradually work down to the height that you want.
* Feed soft fruit such as currants and gooseberries by mulching generously round their roots. They are already breaking into leaf and a thick mulch will gradually break down to improve the structure of the soil and maintain moisture round the plants.
WHAT TO SEE
* Great Dixter at Northiam, East Sussex TN31 6PH, celebrates its re-opening for the season with a spring plant fair this weekend (11am-4pm; admission £8). Will you be able to resist buying primroses from Barnhaven, trilliums from Kevin Hughes, or spurges from Cotswold Garden Flowers? Of course not. Nor should you. It's been a long winter and nothing lifts the heart like a new treasure for the garden. For more information go to greatdixter.co.uk or call 01797 254048