Beat the supermarket rations and start growing your own tomatoes at home
A tomato shortage is sweeping the nation's supermarkets, with adverse weather conditions in the south of Europe and northern Africa causing supply issues, and soaring energy costs impacting produce grown in greenhouses.
Sales of some fruit and vegetables have been limited by most of the country's largest supermarkets, including Tesco, Aldi, Asda and Morrisons. With supermarket shelves left bare and no end in sight to the changes we are seeing in weather patterns due to climate change, growing your own food has never been more relevant.
'With the shortages expected to last until at least May and prices set to rocket as supermarkets struggle to secure stocks, there never has been a better time to start growing your fresh produce,' say British Garden Centres, the UK’s largest family-run garden centre group.
The 'grow your own' movement is of course not new, although since skyrocketing during lockdown, it is now a recurring garden trend and the momentum will continue in 2023.
'With financial considerations at the forefront of a lot of families' minds, many are embracing the grow your own movement,' agrees Angela Slater, garden expert at Hayes Garden World. 'Growing vegetables has many additional benefits; aside from producing nutritious food, it gets you into the fresh air and exercising, as well as showing children how tending to something gives rewards.'
Nothing is more satisfying than growing beautiful, fresh tomatoes in your garden, or from a container on a balcony or windowsill. So we've asked the experts, the team at British Garden Centres, Craig Wilson, a gardening expert from Gardeners Dream, and Matt Jordan, gardening expert at The Greenhouse People, for an expert guide on how to grow tomatoes. Plus, we share some recommendations from Burpee Europe on the best tomato varieties to try and where you can buy them.
Choose the right tomato variety
Before you can begin to prep for growing tomatoes, establish which tomato variety you want to grow.
'With over 10,000 varieties of tomatoes to choose from, it's important you select one that is suited to your climate and the space you have available,' Matt says. 'Gardener’s Delight, for example, is one of the most popular varieties to grow thanks to its reliable properties and sweet, bite-sized cherry tomato fruits.
'Alternatively, grafted tomato plant varieties might be more suitable for those looking for an abundant crop that won't be affected by soil-borne diseases.'
When to plant tomato seeds
The cheapest and most efficient way to grow tomatoes is growing from seed. Late February to early April is the prime time to begin sowing tomato seeds – simply fill a small pot or starter trays with seed compost, water well, then sow three or four seeds (about ¼ inch deep) on the surface.
Tomato seeds need warmth (around 21 degrees Celsius) and take on average between seven to 14 days to germinate. 'Either leave them on a warm windowsill indoors or make the most of a greenhouse,' Matt explains. Keep the soil moist but be careful not to overwater, as it will make the soil soggy and inhibit growth.
How to grow tomatoes
Once germinated, the tomato seedlings can be transplanted into ¾ inch pots. 'Once seedlings are large enough to handle, around five inches tall, transfer them into individual containers or a seedbed,' says Craig.
But, only plant outside in your container, hanging basket or grow bag once the last frost has passed, the team at British Garden Centres warn. If night temperatures drop below freezing, keep them inside. Wait for late May or maybe even early June before introducing your plants to outside conditions.
You need to give your tomatoes the best chance of growing plump and juicy – and it all starts with the quality of your soil. Tomatoes favour well-draining soil: you'll need rich, fertile soil or peat-free potting compost, and a good spot with plenty of sun (around eight hours a day) and shelter. Craig shares the following tips:
Remove any larger weeds and debris
Treat soil with weedkiller
Dig over the soil to a depth of at least 12 inches, then rake until the ground is level, which aerates the soil, helping oxygen and moisture reach the roots to encourage growth.
Before planting, water the soil and work in a fertiliser (or use your compost comprising old fruits, vegetables, and coffee grounds to help fertilise your plants at no extra cost).
You need to dig deep enough for the soil to cover about two-thirds of the plant to encourage strong roots and healthy growth. 'Each plant should be around 20 inches apart in rows, and the spacing of each row should be double that,' Craig explains.
Top tip: Don’t grow tomatoes near cabbage, fennel, corn, or potatoes, as this will harm the tomatoes' growth.
How often to water tomato plants
Tomatoes require consistent watering – about an inch of water per week – and will need even more if they're being grown in a pot. 'When watering, check the soil’s moisture; the water should go around ten inches deep,' adds Craig.
But of course, you need to be careful not to over-water your tomatoes: too much can lead to root rot while irregular watering and fluctuating moisture levels can damage the tomato fruit, affecting its taste.
So, keep the soil moist, but not waterlogged. 'Watering at the base of the plant can help here, taking care to avoid the leaves,' Matt adds.
How to support tomato plants
Tomato trellises and support stakes can help your plants to grow. As your tomato plant grows, its fruits naturally become heavier, and while this is a sign of a healthy harvest, the increased load can weigh down stems and put tomato fruits dangerously close to the ground. Subsequently, this can attract pests such as slugs and increase the chance of picking up soil-borne diseases.
'Damaged stems will also cause the plant to divert any energy into healing, leaving you with smaller tomatoes come harvest,' Matt warns.
The solution? 'Stakes, cages, and trellises can all be used to keep the plant upright and support the fruit,' Matt says. 'Supporting tomato plants early will ensure they are protected when they are most vulnerable to damage and avoids any headaches later on when the plants are already heavy.'
Side shoots may appear on your tomato plants – you can prune these, which helps reduce the risk of disease and how much support is needed. British Garden Centres add: 'Pinch out the growing tip of the plant when six trusses have begun to develop and remove any side shoots that appear. A tomato truss is a group of smaller stems where the flowers and fruit develop.'
Fertilising can be a great way to boost plant growth and ensure a high yield come harvest.
'Tomatoes in particular benefit from regular fertilising since they need a lot of nutrition to produce healthy fruits. However, too much nitrogen can result in a plant with lots of foliage but few fruits,' Matt warns. 'Use a fertiliser specifically formulated for tomatoes and feed once a fortnight once the first flowers begin to show, increasing water and feed as the tomato fruit increase in size.'
If you're unsure, follow the fertiliser package instructions for the best results.
It is safe to harvest tomatoes in the summer, from July to October. Tomatoes ripen after picking but wait until they are beginning to change colour before harvesting. They should come off the vine easily. If not quite ripe, keep them in a well-ventilated area in your home until they are ready to eat.
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