Growing tomatoes

Garden Life
From Sarah's garden to yours

Tomatoes are one of the world’s most popular crops to grow, but it wasn’t always like that. They originated in what is now Peru in South America and were bought back to Europe by the explorers in the mid 1500’s. They were treated with suspicion and thought to be poisonous as they resembled the deadly nightshades which they are, in fact, related to, along with peppers and potatoes.

Tomatoes are far from poisonous and, as we now know, are actually very good for you. They contain loads of vitamins A and C, calcium, potassium, and lycopene. Lycopene is the pigment that gives tomatoes its gorgeous colour and, being an antioxidant, is especially good for you and can protect against cell damage. A little known fact is that cooked tomatoes are better for you as it makes even more beneficial nutrients available for absorption. Also good to note is that storing tomatoes in the fridge can reduce quality and flavour.

The humble tomato had a bit of a brush with the law back in the 1890s in the USA where, for taxation purposes, it was declared a vegetable, and therefore included in tariff laws that at the time imposed duties on vegetables whilst not on fruits. The logic used which is still used today by many is that the tomato was eaten as part of a savoury meals and not sweet desserts. Truth be told though that it is actually a fruit. As a reminder, the technical definition of a fruit is that its edible part containing seeds, whereas a vegetable comes from the stem, leaf or root of a plant.

Since its journey across the ocean from South America to Europe, the tomato has travelled far and wide to become a staple crop across the world. It has even gone into space! Back in 2001, the Canadian Space Agency initiated the Tomatosphere project, where tomato seeds were sent to the International Space Station, returned to earth and then sent to thousands of school children, along with strictly earthbound tomato seeds. The goal of the experiment was to grow them and observe if zero gravity had an effect on the tomato plants.

Beefsteak tomato

Although these days, the most common colour of the tomato is red, it may come as a surprise that the first ones brought to Europe were yellow, hence their Italian name ‘pomodoro’ which means ‘Golden Apple’. Of course nowadays, tomatoes come in many different colours including pink, purple, black, orange, green, white and even a striped combination of colours. There are over 10,000 different kinds of tomatoes around the world today, all with different flavour profiles ranging from incredibly sweet, to tangy, to slightly acidic.

They also vary in size and texture, from the tiny sweet cherry tomatoes that are great in salads to the big beefsteak tomatoes that grow to fist size and can fill a sandwich or a burger with a single slice. Then there are the meaty fleshy varieties that are great for cooking. There is a tomato for everyone’s taste, although sometimes that may mean growing them from seed, as this is where the most interesting varieties become available.

Tomato seedlings

Tomatoes are quite easy to grow and are the stars of the summer garden. They can be started from seeds in a warm indoor environment in early spring. Keeping them warm and the soil moist will ensure they germinate within 7 – 10 days. Once they pop up, make sure they have good access to the light to prevent them growing leggy. However, it they do get elongated stems they are one of the few crops that can be planted deeper than where they started without the risk of rot, due to an incredible ability to grow roots from the stem.

They can be planted outside once all risk of frost has passed and will grow into large plants. Bearing this in mind, the ideal planting distance is at least 70cm away from each other with about a metre between rows. It is important to give them this space, if not more, as they are susceptible to fungal diseases including Blight. Blight comes in an early and late form and while Late Blight is disappointing, it comes at the end of the season when you should hopefully have had some kind of harvest. Early Blight strikes early in the season, often before a harvest, and so can be devastating. Good airflow can reduce the risk.

Tomato plants

Tomatoes can grow up to 2 metres in height so it is essential to give them proper support so they can grow tall and be able to hold the weight of the ripening tomatoes. Pop a stake firmly into the ground at the time of planting so you don’t damage the roots and can tie the plant to it as it grows.

It takes about 12 weeks from sowing seeds to getting a harvest and tomatoes are either determinant or indeterminant. Determinants are generally the compact bush varieties that produce all their fruit at once whereas indeterminates producing fruit over time. There are countless ways to enjoy this delicious fruit hot, cold or somewhere in between.