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!

Chaos theory in the garden

How much chaos is tolerable in the garden, and to what extent should we strive for order and its accompanying neatness? I’ve been thinking about this recently as I wonder just how many exuberant nasturtiums and calendulas I should weed out of my veg plot. When romantic tumbling cottage garden charm becomes untidy, is it time to be ruthless?

Colourful chaos – there are veg in there somewhere!

Ordered rows of veg and flowers can be both extremely practical and visually appealing, like well-turned out units on a military parade. Each veg group occupies its own space, and as a whole the crisp, clean lines exude efficiency and pride. Weeding and harvesting is easier, and there is less competition for space and light.

A stray calendula provides a resting spot for a colourful visitor.

There are no military parades in my plot this year, it’s more like an improvised demonstration of unruly students. A bit messy for sure. The amazing thing is that the veg still pull through, mingling with the flowers and popping up cheerfully yet haphazardly here and there.

Broccoli pops up!

There’s something lovely about seeing the veg like this, mixed in with everything else. You start seeing them as plants in their own right, with beautiful leaves, striking forms and interesting fruit. The grey-blue brocoli pictured here is a wonderful contrast to the greener growth around it. It has a strong presence and its flower head is not only edible but interesting, like a sedum.

Sweetcorn going strong.

One of the biggest stars for me this year has been the sweetcorn. I have just seven plants, grown from seed. They look as statuesque and handsome as any bamboo, and mine are just starting to show their feathery flower-heads. Beneath them is a magnificent courgette with massive marbled leaves, a great contrast with the tall, straight stems of the corn.

Courgette and corn combo.

Apart from the interesting effects of mixing the veg up with other plants and flowers, there’s also the value to wildlife. This year I planted some colourful varieties of echinacea and some salvia right by my veg area, and the bees and butterflies love them. The borage was also a huge hit with the bees, though it did get out of hand and sadly I had to pull a lot of it out. Perhaps it’s just a bit too unruly for a small space, and next year I should try to plan a separate borage patch nearby.

Echinacea and butterfly
The bees loved the salvia, backed by day lilies.
A dwarf sunflower – there is almost always a bee in here!

So overall, I’ve embraced a bit of chaos in my garden this year. The veg are still coming on strong, the flowers are doing their thing and the insects are definitely at home. It would be a good idea to keep a few straight lines in for paths and tidy up the edging, but apart from that I think I prefer my unruly students to the neat parades of veg, disciplined as they are.