Outdoor tomatoes crops are much easier to grow in the south of the UK than in the north where protected growing is more likely to produce good yields. Very versatile as a food, they are eaten cooked and raw and can be at their most delicious eaten raw from the vine still warm from the sun!
Some varieties provide a very easy to grow plant that will provide a huge satisfaction as they begin to provide fruit across 3 or 4 weeks of harvesting.
There are 2 distinct types of tomatoes, a bush type and a cordon type. The bush type requires less attention, doesn’t need its side shoots removing and are usually varieties that do better outdoors. The Cordon type represents a host of different variety tomatoes which have been developed for their high yield and quality.
Bush types will grow as the name suggests, bushy. They vary in size but on average have a 60cm height and spread - although larger and smaller varieties exist, and growing conditions will influence how big they grow.
Bush varieties are probably a good choice if you are new to growing tomatoes, with less precise care and tasks to be completed good watering and feeding will very likely produce a good yield of tomatoes to enjoy.
There are varieties of bush tomatoes that can be grown in containers, growbags and hanging baskets, and even indoors on a windowsill. There is also a variety of different fruits - large beef through to very small sweet tomatoes in varied colours from dark purple to pastel yellow. Growing a few different varieties provides extra interest and versatility in the kitchen.
Cordon types need support to grow, this is provided in protected growing conditions with strings from the roof of polytunnels and glasshouses, strings tied horizontally at about 4ft between 2 stakes or with an individual stake for each plant (best to do this when you plant them out to avoid root damage).
The cordon needs to be secured in this way to encourage tall straight growth and provide stability. Cordon types can get heavy and will fall under there own weight if they are not supported well or provided with a good depth of soil.
Additionally, cordon tomatoes need their side shoots removed. The side shoots develop on the axil between the main stem and a branch, it could be seen as a 2nd branch coming from the gap between first branch and main stem. Removing these either by pinching out carefully when they are very small or using secateurs or scissors when they get bigger will promote growth in the main body of the plant and eventually the fruit.
As well as side shoots, cordon types need their growing tips removed at about 4-6ft depending upon variety, space and support. Cordon types also benefit from having their fruit trusses (a group or cluster of smaller stems where flowers and fruit develop) limited. Recommendations vary between 3 -6 trusses dependent on plant size and growing conditions - it's not a precise science and as you get more experience growing in your garden, you will start to make good choices for this. Bush types can be left, but some still prefer to take out a few trusses on highly flowering plants.
Tomatoes like full sun (more than 6hours per day) but there are some varieties developed to cope with less light. Plants and seed packets will suggest tomatoes as either indoor or outdoor and although this is best followed in some very sunny and warmer parts of the country you can probably get good yields from indoor tomatoes outside and of course outdoor tomatoes till grow in protected conditions.
There are some heritage varieties, stemming from Russian varieties, that will be best suited to grow in the far north of the UK or in cooler conditions. They are varieties that grow, fruit and can be harvested in the shorter summer where frost is possible into late May and even June.
If growing in containers try to use something large sized - the bigger the space, the more growth and fruits. Growbags can be an easy solution but sometimes and particularly in windy gardens, the depth isn’t adequate.
One way of improving this is to use a pot (1ltr to 3ltr) to provide additional depth, cut the base off and turn the pot into the soil until nice and secure, then add additional compost into the pot and plant the tomatoes within it, adding an extra 9-15cm of depth for the roots. Planted in the ground in sunny positions tomatoes will flourish and have the best chance of producing yields that leave you very busy and inventive in trying to use all the tomatoes you’ll get.
Watering your plants is important to get right, when first planted out they will require a good soaking. Watering should probably be repeated for a couple of weeks until they are established, and you start to see an accelerated growth. Once the growth starts in earnest if growing outdoors, they will only need watering if we have a dry spell.
Tomatoes are quick to show signs of drought with leaves turning in but will bounce back if this does happen. Once you have a few trusses of flowers then watering is needed again. At the flowering and fruiting stage each plant will need somewhere between 7 and 14ltrs of water a week dependent on size of plant. Too much water and tomatoes can split their skins not enough and the fruit won’t grow so well, and you can end up with a tougher flesh for eating. If growing in containers and growbags watering may be needed throughout the growing season if rain is infrequent.
Feeding is not so necessary if growing in the ground. For container and growbags feeding from the flowering stage on is likely needed. Tomato feeds are readily available in garden centres, nurseries and supermarkets and although some are labelled as for tomatoes a general seaweed based organic feed is perfect.
You can also make you own feeds using comfrey or nettles. Fill a bucket half way with comfrey or nettle and cover to the top with water and cover, then wait a few weeks (usually 2-4) until it begins to smell (it can get pretty wiffy so be warned), then apply using a watering can at about 1 quarter of a bucket per medium-sized watering can.
Harvest as they ripen! Tomatoes will continue to ripen on a sunny windowsill and so if you pick a few which on closer inspection are still too firm then let them sunbathe for a few days. Some people like to pick a few green early in the season, especially if they are being ambitious with the number of trusses. Green tomatoes can be used in the kitchen as well.
Once your tomatoes begin to ripen you can expect to be picking every few days and with 2 or 3 plants, you can become self-sufficient with tomatoes for the rest of the summer. Once September (October for protected crops) comes and days start to cool it may be that we take off all the remaining green tomatoes before our plants go to that big compost pile in the sky (just behind the shed actually) at the first frost.