As any keen home-grower knows, early summer is tomato time, as the house fills with the delicious scent of their leaves. Some are already flowering, but it's not too late to start, especially as meteorological fingers are crossed for a vintage tomato summer.
For the cultivation tips of a real expert, I quizzed Gail Harland, tomato aficionado. "If there's a funny one, a stripy one or a furry one, I want to try growing it. I'm addicted," she laughs. From growing a few plants when her children were little, Harland has spent the past 15 years trying more than 100 varieties, sourced from obscure websites and gardening-society seed swaps.
She is passionate about encouraging first-time growers. "Tomatoes are great for beginners – they are one of the easiest things to grow. I remember going on a school trip to a sewage farm during biology A-level, and there were plants that had sown themselves from seed out of the sewage. They were happily growing by the side of the cleaning tanks, with fruit on them!"
Her techniques are simple, though more salubrious. "Get cheap buckets from pound shops," she advises, "drill holes in the bottom for drainage, then buy Gro-Bags and empty the soil into the buckets. That way the plants get a longer root run." Most of us could get that far, I agree, but we are all slightly daunted by that stuff about pinching out the sideshoots. "If you don't do it," says Harland, "you'll still get a crop. It's not worth worrying about; just get on and have a go."
Our biggest problem as British tomato growers in the past few years has been wet summers, and the blight it brings. There's no cure or treatment – you just have to destroy your crop. Though predictions suggest this year may be different, Harland has some tips anyway. "If we do have a rainy summer, remember that it's wet foliage that makes the plant vulnerable. So grow your tomatoes in a porch, or on a balcony that's shaded from the rain."
Harland has now put all her expertise into a wonderful little compendium, The Tomato Book, (DK £12.99). Though it's great for beginners, it also illustrates more than 160 varieties with comments about flavour and fruiting time, and is thus a bible for the most experienced tomato enthusiast. The book comes replete with a tomato-lovers' recipe section.
Her final tips? "Join a garden society, such as the Cottage Garden Society – they give away veg seed, too, in the yearly seed swap. Look on the internet for European seed sites such as the amazing Kokopelli. And try to get to West Dean's Totally Tomato Show [http://tinyurl.com/ omrge9], on 5-6 September. They have a wonderful collection, loads of growers and varieties to try, and it's a real family affair."
The best home-growers
By Gail Harland
"Some home-growers knock it, but it's easy to grow and reliable. And nice in a sandwich." Single plant, £1.59, Sainsbury's
"I got the seed from a seed swap, but it's the best-flavoured beefsteak I've ever tried." 15 seeds, £1.30, www.chileseeds.co.uk
Yellow Current [sic]
"A tiny yellow tomato, incredibly sweet, crops well, and popular with children because it looks like a jelly baby." 20 seeds, £1.35, www.nickys-nursery.co.uk
'Sub Arctic Plenty'
"I grow it every year. Will grow even in cool summers. Tangy taste, and reliable." 30 seeds, £2.49, www.thompson-morgan.comReuse content