The story of the tomato
The Incas and Aztecs first ate the wild tomato that grew in the valleys of Peru and Ecuador, and from here it spread into Central America and Mexico, where the tomatl, as it was known, began to be cultivated by American Indians. Spanish conquistadors brought the tomato back to Europe in the sixteenth century, where it was first enjoyed in Spain, Portugal and Italy. In Europe further north, and in North America, people were slow to catch on to the exotic new plant. As it is a member of the nightshade family, many people believed it to be poisonous, and all sorts of myths were circulated about the dangers of eating it. But by the end of the eighteenth century, the scare-mongering had died down and the tomato became more widely accepted, eaten as it is now, both raw and cooked.
Growing tomatoes under glass is particularly rewarding as there are so many interesting varieties to try. Bog-standard red tomatoes are still the most widely grown commercial types, but more adventurous gar deners can try yellow, orange, pink, brown and purple varieties in all sorts of different shapes and sizes – although it is flavour, of course, that should drive your choice, above appearance. Cordon varieties such as 'Conchita' and 'Elegance' are trained up strings attached to hooks in the ceiling, while smaller tomatoes such as the prolific “Ildi', with its masses of pear-shape yellow fruits, are grown in pots. Reaching several metres in height in a single season, cordon tomatoes (or indeterminates) are designed to grow as one main stem, with all the side shoots pinched out. Once the plant has produced four or five trusses of flowers, they should be 'stopped' by pinching out the growing tip so that the plant puts all its energies into producing more fruit. Bush, semi-bush and dwarf tomatoes don't need to have their side shoots pinched out and need less support.
Outdoor tomatoes are more limited in choice, but there are some that produce reliably good results. Of the cordon types, 'Black Cherry', ‘Gardener's Delight and the sweet cherrytomato 'Sungold' are small and easy, ripening quickly, while ‘Black Krim' from Russia has large, beefsteak fruits with dark skins. Cordons are best grown in grow-bags or large pots, or in a bed next to a warm wall, and need to be tied to tall canes or stakes. Bush or semi-bush types are more suitable for the vegetable plot as they don't need pinching out as they grow, and the smaller ones won't need staking or supporting at all. “Red Alert' and 'The Amateur' are both small bush types that ripen early and usually produce a reliable crop if the weather is favourable. Larger plants such as 'Legend', a beefsteak tomato that has been specially bred for growing outside with good blight resistance, may need some support to keep the fruits from trailing on the ground and rot ting. Unfortunately the inescapable scourge of outdoor tomatoes is blight, a wind-borne fungal disease that is likely to affect plants towards the end of the summer, especially if the weather has been damp and grey. It can't be prevented but it can be deterred by applying a fungal spray earlier on in the season, although if you like to grow your vegetables organically, the only option is to choose an early-ripening, blight-resistant variety and plant in the most sheltered spot you can find.
Tomatoes are easy and rewarding to grow from seed and should be started off indoors in seed trays on a warm window sill, where they will germinate readily at temperatures of 18–20°C. They grow quickly, and once they have two or three leaves the seedlings can be pricked out into individual 7cm pots and left to grow on in a warm place. As they grow bigger, they can either be potted on into larger pots for the greenhouse, or hardened off and planted outside once the threat of frost has well and truly passed. All tomatoes are greedy feeders and need a rich soil prepared with lots of well-rotted organic mat ter. Container-grown plants will benefit from a high-potash feed when the fruits are beginning to form - either a proprietary liquid feed such as Tomorite, or a home-made com frey tea, made by steeping comfrey leaves in water for a week or two and diluting the resulting liquid 1:10. As an alternative to growing from seed, small tomato plants are easy to find in garden centres, although choice will be limited. You could also try growing some of the grafted tomatoes offered by mail order, by companies such as Suttons. I haven't tried them, but the idea is that the most flavoursome varieties have been grafted on to a more vigorous and disease-resistant rootstock, so that in theory they ripen two or three weeks earlier and are more resistant to the dreaded blight.
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This originally appeared on House & Garden UK | Clare Foster