As a keen cook, gardener and advocate of fresh produce and ingredients, our founder Jennifer gives advice and insider tips for growing your own tomatoes, right in time for those colourful summer salads and tasty homemade sauces.
When and where to grow
Good news for those of you who blinked in Winter only to find it’s June already – it’s not too late to grow, mature and feast on your very own tomatoes.
Experienced gardeners reading this are probably rolling their eyes, thinking that if you wanted to plant tomatoes you should have done it months ago. If you’re growing from seed, well yes. But there is no shame in leapfrogging straight to a young tomato plant this time of year.
Even a seemingly sparse packet of seeds will yield far more fruit than a home-gardener needs, so ask your green-fingered friends if they have a surplus of plants they’d like to gift or swap. I love the variety you get when you share.
Failing that, nip to your local garden centre where you can pick a few up cheaply. You can assuage any feelings of cheating you may have by lovingly nurturing your young plant until its bursting with plump, juicy tomatoes.
Tomatoes can be grown in a bright spot in your house. I have friends who grow them on windowsills close to the table so they can reach over and nibble a few. Bear in mind that some varieties can grow as tall as 6 ft!
I’m lucky enough to have a greenhouse which gives them a longer growing season. But as I live in the south, I often grow them outside and they are delicious. I’ve found that growing tomato plants in pots, rather than directly into the ground, is better for the prevention of disease.
In order to grow a big plant, you need a big pot. Transfer your young plant as soon as possible so it can spread its roots and make itself at home. Some people love to replant and replant from pot to pot as the plant grows, but I prefer to go big immediately. For large varieties, I select a round pot approximately a foot in diameter.
Fill the bottom with a layer of little stones for drainage before chucking in some enriched soil. Make a hole equal to the size of the plant’s original pot, water well and then carefully transfer the young tomato plant. It’s important to minimise disturbance of the plant as you transfer it and the key here is to be very delicate with the exposed roots.
Your gentle approach to repotting will be rewarded with some serious growth. Keep this going by regularly watering your plant and feeding it. If you are new to growing, you should probably pick up some food at the garden centre. The experienced gardeners among you may have their own recipes for food. I’ve heard some that are hilarious (but work) and include things like the hair from their pets or even droppings from rabbits!
I will put one or two plants into each pot. At first, they look lost, but within a month you will understand why big is best. Grow bags are also an excellent alternative.
Ideally, you want one main stalk with lots of nice strong arms. In order to achieve this, you need to control the plant. I really enjoy my weekly pinch out and I love the way my fingers smell after it!
Many people are nervous about this part but have no fear. To get the best crop of tomatoes you want the plant to put lots of effort into the fruit and not so much into its arms, so you’ll have to pinch out the laterals or side-shoots. When my father was teaching me how to do this, I imagined that the plant had armpits and so allow the plant to grow but keep an eye on the armpits of the plant, this encourages the plant to grow upwards. Each lateral should be singular but if you see another little sprout coming from just above, then be ruthless and pinch it out! (If growing bush tomatoes you won’t need to remove the laterals from the plants).
You’ll know when the tomatoes are ripe as they change colour and feel slightly soft to the touch. Pick and enjoy.
Types of Tomato
Tomatoes are just like people in that they come in all shapes and sizes – from the huge beefsteak to the petite cherry tomato, there’s plenty of choice. A few of my favourite tomatoes to grow are Sweet Aperitif, Indigo Rose, Tutti Frutti and San Marzano, all of which are bursting with flavour and produce the most wonderfully vibrant salad. Colours range from deep crimson to orange, yellow, green, purple and even chocolate.
How to use Tomatoes
Tomatoes make a fantastic base to create classic Italian dishes such as pasta sauces and salads. To make the pasta sauce simply add garlic and onion to a pan, shallow fry and then add peeled ripe tomatoes.
If you do have a glut of tomatoes, then you may want to cut them into segments and slowly roast them with herbs and garlic and preserve them by covering them in oil and storing them in the fridge.
A great Spanish recipe from my cookbook The Balance Diet is Gazpacho. It is made using plum tomatoes and served cold and is the perfect recipe for a hot summer’s day.
One of our favourite tomato recipes on the Balance Box menus is our Italian inspired Tomato, Borlotti Bean and Basil Soup, or Peri Peri Chicken or Mushroom with Tomato Rice. Order your Balance Box to enjoy tomato-based dishes like these and more.