The comforting rituals of growing tomatoes

Last summer’s harvest: Davis tomatoes with yellow courgettes

I love growing all kinds of veg, from the humble radish to the stately sweetcorn, but for me there is always something special about tomatoes. While it’s only recently that I’ve had the opportunity to grow a wider array of vegetables, I’ve been growing tomatoes since we bought our first shared-garden flat in south London in my mid 20’s, and it would now be an impoverished summer indeed with home-grown toms.

Who, after all, doesn’t like tomatoes? And who, given the choice, would choose an imported, cold and watery one wrapped in plastic on a supermarket shelf over a warm, sun-ripened jewel-like beauty growing in your own garden (or balcony)?

Cherry tomato ‘Miel de Mexique’ growing against the wall

They’re incredibly versatile and easy to fit in around everything else. I used to grow them in black plastic pots up the concrete steps leading down into our little garden. I still grow some of them in plastic pots, but these days it’s against a warm, sunny wall. Others go into the ground, or scramble up the framework of those mini-plastic greenhouses.

Portuguese beef tomatoes growing in the veg bed, supported by chestnut fencing and sticks

I love the ritualistic nature of growing them most of all. Firstly, selecting varieties from the enormous choice out there. This year, it was easy. I chose the same three varieties I grew last year, because they were all so good. A Portuguese beef tomato, given to me as seedlings last year by neighbours, who bought the seed in Portugal. Then a dependable all-rounder with with a boring name but perfect plum-shaped fruits and good disease resistance, Davis UC-82, and finally, a sweet, juicy and prolific cherry tomato, Miel du Mexique (Mexican Honey – a variety that copes with some drought).

Then comes the sowing stage. They are some of the earliest seeds to be sown, in dismal, dark mid February, when the thrill of handling seed and soil is like a shot of horticultural Prozac.

The first signs of life on a dark mid-February morning
These LED lights are fantastic for helping along seedlings

Then come all the stages in between. The germination – helped with a bit of warmth from one of those plug-in heat mats also enjoyed by geckos, and this year, with assistance from LED plant lights, which I wholeheartedly recommend as a cure for leggy seedlings, but which are a luxury, not a necessity. Then, potting on, which I am getting on with now, as each seedling is carefully transferred to its very own little nine inch pot.

The first potted on tomatoes this year

Then, in May, the planting out, into big pots or into the raised veg bed. Regular watering begins now too, daily if the weather is hot, and once the fruit set, feeding with tomato feed every couple of weeks – these are hungry plants and need the extra TLC. The staking and tying in of course accompany this stage – neglect this to your peril, as your tomatoes will flop to the ground and often break their stems with the weight of the fruit.

Lots of support is essential to stop flopping over – a bit haphazard here!

Then comes one of my favourite tomato-growing rituals, the pinching out (for the cordon varieties only – if you’re not keen on this, the bush varieties are lower-maintenance). It was my late father-in-law, an enthusiastic tomato grower, who first showed me how to pinch out the side shoots so that the plant’s energy goes up into the central stem’s fruit trusses. Do this in the morning, when the stems are firmer, and enjoy the satisfaction of it.

Then, as the fruit set, there’s the waiting stage, which feels interminable, and you wonder if those green tomatoes will ever turn red. One day, miraculously they do, and that’s a great day.

Then, you wonder, what happens when you have too many tomatoes? No such thing! They go with virtually everything, and if you get a glut, just roast them in the oven with herbs and garlic, and whizz into a sauce that you can then freeze.

A tomato-based supper: lasagne and salad

So, tomato growing requires faith, hope, dedication and service. The rituals nourish the believer, and give the faithful flock of growers a sense of purpose and fulfilment. So, worship, yee faithful, at the altar of tomato growing: it can only be good for your soul!

A loaf and well

During our first lockdown in Belgium, in the spring of 2020, seeking to stay at home as much as possible, I picked up a new skill: bread baking. I’d never done it before, and had assumed it must be difficult and time-consuming. Of course, it’s no such thing – after all, bread-baking is one of humanity’s most universal and basic skills. If you can mix flour and yeast, and indulge in some really quite therapeutic kneading of the dough, then you can make bread.

There was only one problem: everyone else had the same idea. Everytime I went to the shops, whether they were large supermarkets or small artisanal shops, the shelves stocking flour were empty (ditto for the infamous loo roll shortage, of course, but strangely our survival depends less on that). There was also a bit of a blackmarket / barter economy springing up around yeast, with friends of mine offering loo roll in exchange for it. I’d managed to get hold of yeast, more or less legally, but not flour, until I spotted this unwanted bag in my little local supermarket.

Not really knowing what it was, I picked it up anyway. In Belgium, food has to be labelled in both French and Dutch (and sometimes German too), to reflect the official languages. This can be a help, and here there’s a clue in the Dutch: Speltmeel. So this is Spelt flour, an ancient grain in the same genus as wheat but a different species.

So I did a quick bit of research, and it turns out that Spelt is just fine for bread-making, and can be easily substituted for wheat flour. Even better, it’s somewhat more nutritious than wheat, easier to digest (with slightly less gluten, so it feels less filling) and has an interesting, nutty, sweet flavour. High in fibre and protein, it also is rich in quite a few vitamins and minerals. One thing that is a definite plus for me at this time of year, is that it can boost energy levels due to its complex carbs, which are digested more slowly and therefore give you energy over a longer period of time. I don’t know about you, but I could do with that, even in hibernation.

To make things more interesting, I added some of these black sesame seeds to top the loaf.

When the aroma of baking bread fills the home, you can almost forget the rather depressing grey, cold weather outside. I admit to one major error: this time, I forgot to grease the baking tray before sticking the loaf in the oven, so it was something of an ordeal to unstick it. But you can’t see the loaf’s bottom in my photo, so it doesn’t matter! Also, as I baked bread today, I feel no need to cook an elaborate dinner tonight: looks like it will be beans on toast and bread with butternut soup.

January calls for comfort food

January is a miserable month, in my opinion, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s also the month of my birthday, so I need to make an effort to stay positive. It’s now getting too cold for gardening – we are hovering at zero degrees C or just below, without the upside of actual snow. To compensate, there is reading and eating, both essential for good winter hibernation.

So here’s a meal that really lifted my spirits this dismal Monday in January, and whilst being classic oven-baked comfort food, is a healthy version. If anyone’s looking to cut down on meat and minimise dairy, as well as increase fibre, I recommend it. The wholewheat lasagne pasta actually makes it even tastier, it got the thumbs up from my somewhat fussy 13 year old as well as my slightly less fussy but not-a-natural-vegetarian husband.

Healthy Veg and Feta Lasagne

The recipe if anyone’s interested (this serves 3 people):

  • 8 or 9 strips of wholewheat dry lasagne sheets
  • 2 finely cut shallots
  • 1 or 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 red pepper, sliced
  • a generous handful of mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tin of whole tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons of dried herbs: herbs de provence, dried celery and sage
  • Salt and pepper
  • One pack of fresh feta cheese
  • Basic bechamel sauce: 1 tablespoon plain flour, 250 ml milk, 2 bay leaves

Method: Heat your oven to 180 degrees. Fry the shallots in vegetable oil until soft, then add the garlic and red pepper. Add the spices, then the mushrooms. When the veg softens slightly, add the tinned tomatoes, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste (just a pinch of salt, as the feta is quite salty). Allow to simmer while you make the bechamel sauce. Heat some vegetable oil in a pan, add the flour, then stirring quickly, add the milk, stir continuously to avoid lumps. Crumble one third of the feta cheese into the sauce and add the bay leaves. Allow to thicken.

Find an oven-proof dish, and add some of the tomato-veg sauce to cover the bottom. Layer 2 or 3 sheets of lasagne on top, then top with more tomato-veg sauce, followed by a layer of bechamel sauce. Continue to make layers in this way. For the third and final layer, top with bechamel and then place strips of the remaining feta cheese on top.

Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Serve with a fresh green salad. We had watercress and tomatoes. Feel duly comforted!