In an ideal world I would be picking our first tomatoes just the day after I'd used the last of the previous year's crop from the freezer. That's happened only once in my gardening life. I ran out this week and now there are probably four months to wait until we start picking our own again. Last year's crop was fantastic because the tomatoes were grown inside rather than out. The new greenhouse meant that at last, the plants were not plagued by blight.
The greenhouse has a long earth border down 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 so last year I ordered 'Pannovy', 'Sungold', 'Sparta', 'Chiquito', 'Gardener's Delight' and 'Costoluto Fiorentino'. They arrived in late April and I grew them on in small pots before planting them out in the border.
The best of this bunch was 'Pannovy'. Though the first two trusses didn't develop into much, the subsequent crop was fantastic: big, smooth, beautifully flavoured fruit. It was still producing superb crops in late September. 'Sparta', another F1 hybrid, was equally good, setting heavy trusses of fruit, the taste sharp, sweet and rich, equally good raw in salads, or cooked in a sauce. I'm growing both of these again this year.
The most disappointing variety was 'Costoluto Fiorentino'; a surprise, since it is heavily hyped. It came into flower later than the other varieties and the fruit did not set well. The few we picked tasted woolly and bland. 'Chiquito' was slow too and not as worthwhile as the other cherry-size varieties we grew. It has small, pinkish plum-shaped fruit, very pretty, but the flavour was nowhere near as good as that of 'Sungold'. Both 'Gardener's Delight' and 'Sungold' performed very well, but not as well as 'Sun Cherry Premium', which was astonishing.
I grew 'Sun Cherry' from seed (Thompson & Morgan £3.29) sown on 1 April in a 13cm (5in) pot. There were only six seeds in the packet but fortunately they all germinated – at that price you don't want failures. I transplanted the seedlings into 5cm (3in) pots and then, when the roots were beginning to burst out of the bottom, shifted them into their final homes, big black plastic pots (37-40cm across). These were three-quarters filled with our own compost, and topped up with bought-in multipurpose stuff.
I'd not grown tomatoes in pots like this before and was astounded how successful they were. The pots stood in a big lead trough that runs along the south side of the greenhouse and 'Sun Cherry', regularly watered and fed with Tomorite, grew and cropped with astonishing vigour. The trusses were enormous and the fruit exceptionally sharp and sweet.
Bush tomatoes tend to fruit earlier than cordon types, and often bear their fruit in all of a rush over four to six weeks. By contrast, cordon tomatoes like 'Sun Cherry ' keep producing 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, but while we were away in Italy, new stems shot out from the base of the plant (I'd planned to pinch then out) and they started producing all over again with fresh trusses setting on the new growth. It was November before I finally tipped the pots and their contents back onto the compost heap.
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. You also need to tie the main stem to a cane as it grows. For the narrow greenhouse border last year, I chose cordons, and by the end of the season they were nearly eight feet high and hitting the roof. The nectarine suffered, because it was completely swamped by the leafy hedge of tomatoes growing in front of it.
So this year I've chosen four cordon varieties to grow either side of the nectarine and two bush varieties, 'First in the Field' and 'Legend' to set directly in front of it. I hope that, in this way, more light and warmth will get through to the tree to ripen the fruit.
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" say Simpson's Seeds (which provides both seed and young plants of 97 different kinds of tomato). 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. 'Legend' is famous for its resistance to blight, so if you grow tomatoes outside, as I used to do, it would obviously be a good choice.
You can't be in too much of a hurry to get plants in the ground outside though. They hate frost. And as our greenhouse is kept just frost-free, not heated, I won't be in a hurry to sow seed either. Early April worked fine last year and I'll do the same this season.
When I planted them out, I set the tomato plantlets quite deep in the border and pots, so the first pair of leaves almost sat 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. 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.
While you don't want to be planting yet, you might want to get your orders in soon: orders for Simpson's tomato plants need to be in by 27 March for delivery between mid April and mid-May. Six plants of the same variety cost £7.80, a mixed pack of six costs £9.30.
Simpson's Seeds : 01985 845004, simpsonsseeds.co.uk; Thompson & Morgan: 0844 573 2020, thompson-morgan.com