Stepping into a New Year, the winter gloves are off and greenfingers are tingling with excitement. For many gardeners, the growing season starts here. Hard to contemplate when you look out the window, only to see Jack Frost waving back at you. But, give a gardener a warm greenhouse, and they’ll have a tray of seeds sown before you can say ‘Happy New Year!’
In recent years gardeners have been pushing the boundaries with new and heritage varieties of tomatoes. You only have to look at social media to see its filled with proud gardeners showing photos of their weird and wonderful looking harvests. Whether it’s beef, plum, standard or the sweet-tasting cherry tomato, there are over ten thousand varieties worldwide to choose from.
So, if you want to enjoy the taste of summer this growing season, then now’s the time to sow those greenhouse favourites, including: tomatoes, chillies, peppers and aubergines.
Now, before you start panicking and make for the seed box let me just say, “There’s no rush!’ Although peppers, chillies and aubergines do require a long growing season, February’s fine, even March. What matters this early, is that you have both a light and heat source to help seedlings successfully grow on through these dark, cold months. No one wants a leggy plant, so hopefully propagators, heat matts and plant lights were on your Christmas wishlist.
Although tomatoes were made to soak up the heat and sunshine of summer, these can be sown as late as March. Once germinated, they’re quick to put on growth. Whether grown in a greenhouse, hanging basket or outside on a sunny balcony, nothing tastes better than a homegrown tomato. And with so many varieties, shapes and colours, there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re a first-time grower or gardening expert, anyone can grow tomatoes.
Did You Know?
Aubergines are also known as eggplants or brinjals, and have been grown in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Although considered a vegetable, they’re actually a fruit and part of the nightshade family.
The sweet pepper is the only member of the pepper family that doesn’t produce the chemical capsaicin, which is responsible for the burning sensation you get when you eat a chilli.
Originally grown by the Incas and Aztecs, tomatoes didn’t arrive on European shores until the 16th century. But commercial growing didn’t start until the 19th century. Botanically defined as a fruit, the tomato is considered a vegetable by nutritionists. Grown everywhere from Iceland to outer space, tomatoes are considered one of the world’s most popular foods.
Tomatoes fall into two categories. Cordon/Intermediate – This plant continues to grow straight up on one long stem, producing several trusses of tomatoes and will need to be tied into a support. The other, is Bush/Determinate – A low, bush growing plant which is ideal for pots and hanging baskets.
How To Sow?
I like to keep things as straightforward as possible, so I sow all my greenhouse favourites the same way. Tomatoes need heat and light to germinate and grow successfully. Sown indoors from January to April in the UK, they’re best suited to greenhouses and windowsills. So, if you want a season of fresh tomatoes, here are ten easy steps on how to grow them.
1. Use small 9cm pots, or seed trays, filled with Dalefoot Wool Compost for Seeds.
2. Tamp the soil down to create a firm surface, and sow several seeds 2cm apart. Cover seeds lightly with compost.
3. Gently water the top of the compost with a spray bottle or watering can fitted with a fine rose. Finally, place somewhere warm and bright.
4. Once seedlings have their ‘true leaves’, prick out by holding the plant by its leaves, never by the stem, and remove gently. Plant them individually into 9cm pots or seed modules filled with Dalefoot Wool Compost for Potting. Water, label and place somewhere warm and sunny.
5. If roots start to appear at base of the pot, re-pot into a larger pot to grow on. Once there are several leaves on the plant, its ready for its final growing position. Ensure you grow no more than three plants to a grow bag. If growing in large pots, fill with fresh compost. Dalefoot Wool Compost for Tomatoes is ideal for both planting arrangements. If growing outside, prep the soil with organic matter. A week or two before planting, place the plants outside every day, for a few hours, so they can acclimatise. This is called ‘hardening off’. Finally, plant out when all risk of frost has passed.
6. If growing indoors, ensure there’s plenty of ventilation to regulate temperatures and let in pollinators. You can also give the flowers a little ‘tickle’ to help spread the pollen between them.
7. Remove any side shoots that appear on your cordon plant, between the main stem and branch. This transfers the energy back towards the growing fruit.
8. Continue to tie-in your plant to encourage growth, and support the weight of the swelling tomatoes.
9. Maintain a regular watering regime.
10. With four or five trusses on the plant, remove the top of the main stem. This will encourage fruit to set, allowing you to harvest as they ripen.
Mention tomato blight and you will see gardeners visibly shake with fear. A common problem, this fungal disease can cause leaves to brown and fruit to rot. If blight strikes, remove the effected plant at once. Do not add to the compost bay as this will encourage the spores to spread. Instead, remove from site or burn immediately. Ensure when planting your crop, there is plenty of ventilation and avoid planting near potatoes as they too are susceptible to the disease. If it proves to be an annual problem, grow blight-resistant varieties to ensure you produce a healthy crop of tomatoes.
Blossom end rot occurs in tomatoes when’s there’s a calcium shortage to the plant, often due to irregular watering. Maintain a regular watering regime and water either in the morning or at dusk, when there’s less water evaporation. To avoid scorched leaves, ensure you water at the base of the plant and not over it.
If aphids prove to be a problem, spray them off gently with water, Or, try companion planting with marigolds. Their distinct smell distracts the pest, leaving your tomatoes aphid free.
When sowing tomato seed, give each variety their own pot. Different tomatoes can have varying germination times, and trying to identify emerging seedlings can cause confusion.
Plant basil alongside your tomatoes will not only encourage pollinators and distract pests, but will enhance the flavour of growing tomatoes. Both tomatoes and basil are also the perfect recipe companions.
Make an attractive feature by planting up bush variety tomatoes in hanging baskets or decorative pots that will sit throughout summer on a sunny patio.
Whether you have a sprawling garden or a small, sunny courtyard, growing tomatoes is a rewarding and tasty way to enjoy summer.
I’m Ade Sellars the Good Life Gardener, and I’m an award-winning writer, filmmaker, presenter and content producer with a passion for growing my own food in my kitchen garden. As well as running my own gardening business, I write for magazines, produce tailored video content for gardening brands, flower shows and outdoor events and I regularly deliver talks and demonstrations around the country. I also recently won the 2023 Garden Media Guild, ‘The Beth Chatto Environmental Award’.