Newest Review: ... a strong flavour. **In conclusion** I love my tomatoes, I find them pretty easy to grow and they bring me pleasure as well as a healthy ... more
These will make you live longer - ask the Italians!
Member Name: Stewwydablue
Advantages: Very versatile tasty fruit
Disadvantages: Blight can be devastating
As it's British Tomato Week starting on May 21 st, I thought a review about tomatoes would be timely right now as it would give you enough time and incentive to get some seeds planted so that when May comes, you'll have a stock of healthy plants that will give you their juicy fruits a month or two after that. Tomatoes are ubiquitous in most styles of cooking, and like many great things are often taken for granted so I'll try to big up the little fellows too and inspire you to grow your own.
Tomatoes are in the same family as potatoes, nightshade and peppers. There is a long standing argument about whether or not they are a fruit, but as they contain seeds, they can be classed as a fruit - even though they're not the sort of fruit that you'd put in a trifle or fruit salad! They are thought to originate from South America, and the word tomato comes from an Aztec dialect (Nahuatl) - tomatl, which means "the swelling fruit".
They are now grown all over the world, and in temperate climates like the UK they are commonly grown in greenhouses, although there are some hardier outdoors varieties available for growing in the frozen wastelands of Lancashire and the rest of "oop North".
Thanks to years of experimentation by commercial growers and seed producers, tomatoes come in many different shapes, sizes and plant types. You can get small cherry types that are white in colour and form a small compact bush, and contrastingly you can get huge beef type tomatoes that are striped and grow up from a vine that needs support. You can even get tomatoes that have been bred to taste like tinned tomatoes, with that metallic tang that is common to all tinned types.
GROWING YOUR OWN
Tomatoes are slightly more demanding to grow than say, a sage plant grown from seed or onion sets which can pretty much be left to their own devices once the seeds start to grow. Don't be put off though, you don't need a greenhouse or have to be out for hours every day lovingly tending to your tomato plants to have success and produce your own crop of tomatoes. First, choose a type you want to grow, taking into account your garden conditions - absence of a greenhouse, space etc. Late winter / early spring is the ideal time to plant seeds indoors for a good crop of tomatoes in the summer. My northern frozen wasteland of a backyard gives a good enough home for Gardeners' Delight (a small red cherry red tomato - and it gives us loads per plant) and Moneymaker (bigger than cherry tomatoes but not as big as beef type tomatoes and gives quite a good crop). Most seed packets will tell you if that particular type tomato is best suited to growing outdoors or in a greenhouse.
Place one seed into a 3 inch pot that has been filled with compost and watered beforehand. Keep these pots indoors on a sunny window sill or in a greenhouse, if you're lucky enough to have one. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of fine grit (vermiculite works well) or compost, then sit back and wait about a fortnight for the first green shoot to pop up through the layer of grit. During this time, keep the compost moist but not sodden or the seeds will rot.
About six weeks after you see the first seedlings appear, they will be big enough to handle and transplant to larger pots to allow the roots space to grow. As we'll still be in late spring by this point and therefore cannot safely say that the danger of outside frosts will have passed, these larger pots should still be kept indoors in the warmth. By late May, most areas of the UK are out of the frost danger zone, so they can be transplanted outside into their growing positions - the back of the seed packet will tell you how far apart to space them.
The soil should always be kept moist - infrequent watering will make the fruits split and crack, which will allow diseases to enter and ruin your crop. Before the first fruits appear, the plant should be fed with a liquid feed that is high in nitrogen to promote lots of healthy foliage. However, too much foliage will mean that the plant's energy doesn't go into growing fruit. Therefore, side shoots should be nipped out to divert the plant's efforts only into those vines that will bear flowers then subsequently fruits. Side shoots grow at a 45 degree angle away from where a horizontal stem branches off from the main vertical growing stem and can be easily removed by pinching them off with a thumb and finger. When the first fruits start to appear (after the little yellow flowers have died off) the plants will need feeding with a liquid feed that is high in potash - this helps the fruits grow. Also, vine type tomatoes will need support as the fruits start to swell and gain weight - I use one bamboo cane per plant pushed into the soil next to the plant and tie the fruit bearing vines and / or the main stem to it with a figure of eight loop of garden string. The figure of eight method gives enough room for movement in the wind without being too tight and snapping off your vines - never tie a plant directly to the support cane.
For best yields, I never allow more than 4 vines on one plant and remove any others that grow higher up the plant - we simply don't get enough warmth and sunshine to sustain more fruit growth in Lancashire. If you're lucky enough to live "darn sarf", you could leave 5 vines on for the midlands area, and try for 6 vines per plant if you're really lucky and live in Devon or Cornwall.
When you start to pick the tomatoes as they ripen, you'll notice that they ripen from the bottom fruit (furthest away from the plant) up towards the plant's main stem. If you haven't got the patience to wait for them all to ripen, green tomatoes can be removed and "forced" to ripen by placing them in a dark drawer with a banana - bananas give off a gas called ethylene as they ripen and this gas encourages other fruits to ripen too. Top tip - if you've got a fruit bowl, keep bananas separate or they will shorten the life of your apples and pears!
PESTS AND DISEASES
The two most common pests and diseases that most people might encounter when growing tomatoes are whiteflies and the dreaded blight. Whiteflies are exactly what they sound like, tiny white flies that look like white greenflies - these lay eggs on the underside of the leaves and their resulting offspring will eat your plant. You can treat with chemical sprays, but I prefer to wipe the eggs off with a damp cloth, it's much more eco-friendly and you won't make polar bears cry or poison anyone that eats your tomatoes.
Blight strikes fear into most tomato growers' hearts. It is a fungus which will initially rot the leaves then start to rot the fruits too. You can tell if you've got blight as the leaves will turn brown and start to die. Unfortunately, there's no cure for it, and any affected plants will have to be ripped up and burned to kill any blight fungus spores and therefore prevent it spreading further. The only thing you can do really to prevent blight is remember that it's spread by water and wind - so be very careful when you water your tomatoes not to wet the leaves as this will knock off any blight spores onto the soil and activate them - always water very slowly onto the soil around the plant so it doesn't kick up any spores or knock them off the leaves. Good luck with that!
Blight also affects potatoes, so if you see it occurring first on one but not the other, it's only a matter of time before it will spread to both your spuds and tomatoes. Some people will preventatively spray their tomato plants with a copper sulphate solution - this has fungicidal properties and may kill off any spores before they develop. To be honest though, from what I gather in the course of my research for this review it's not massively effective and you would be better off keeping a wary eye out for blight and removing any affected plants quickly before it spreads round and destroys all of your plants.
There is another fairly common disease called "blossom end rot" - caused by irregular watering of the plant. The bottom end of the fruit will go black and mushy, rotting away and ruining your crop. It's caused when the soil dries out and prevents calcium from the soil's nutrients getting to the growing fruits through the plant's roots. Dead easy to prevent this - keep your soil moist and never allow it to dry out.
This is the bit where all your efforts are rewarded in the form of the tasty fruits you should have copious amounts of. Tomatoes have a range of culinary uses - eaten raw in salads, cooked and turned into a sauce, they can be stuffed, oven roasted, grilled, pureed (pasata), or bottled. I use a very good recipe from the Monty Don book, "Fork to Fork" which makes a very tasty tomato sauce which then gets used as the base for all sorts of dishes - from curries to pasta sauces. In a nutshell, the tomatoes get roasted in the oven with herbs and garlic then blitzed in a blender. Delicious.
If you're interested in bottling tomatoes (or canning as our American friends call it - two nations divided by a common language and all that), then please read up on it before you do so as there are some very important safety precautions which require your attention so as to prevent botulism from spoiling your day.
If you cook the tomatoes in a pan to make a pasta sauce, but don't want the little shrivelled up skins that inevitably appear, then you can dunk the tomatoes in boiling water for a few seconds before hand and the skins will peel off very easily. Also, unripe green tomatoes are excellent to use in chutneys - a preservative mixture of vinegar, spices and vegetables, a bit like a savoury jam.
Tomatoes are a good source of vitamins A, C and E. Also, they are jam packed full of anti-oxidants, which are basically good at preventing types of cancers. It's no coincidence that there are villagers in rural Italy (who's diet includes lots of tomatoes) that live till very old ages - there's been a few books written about the positive health benefits of the "Mediterranean diet" which is largely tomato based. However, they are part of the nightshade family, which is a well known poison - the toxins in tomato plants stay in the leaves and not the fruits, so DON'T EAT THE LEAVES!
A very versatile cooking ingredient with proven health benefits, grow your own and live longer!
Summary: Try growing some for yourself
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- Pitcher Plant - Sarracenia
- Cobra Lily - Darlingtonia Californica
- Cherry Tomato Seed Starter Kit
- Dalefoot Double Strength Wool Compost
- Suttons Grow Your Own Italian Flavours
- Touch Of Ginger Weird Seed Pods - Mimosa
- Marshalls Ultimate Windowsill Plant Propagator