Whether raised in grow-beds, containers, borders or even hanging baskets, tomatoes remain a popular British plant to grow, offering lots of variety for salads, sauces and other recipes. They vary in taste, size and style and can be grown at different times depending on whether you have a greenhouse or not.
Types of tomatoes
Tomatoes are generally divided as two growing types:
- Cordon tomatoes, also known as indeterminate or vine – these will grow very tall and need support.
- Bush, or determinate – these tomatoes don’t need support when growing and are a low, bushy-type plant.
Growing tomato plants from seeds
The most common and easiest way to grow tomatoes is from seed. Seeds can be grown in outdoor soil from late March or the start of April when the spring conditions begin to get warmer, or the middle of February in a greenhouse that’s unheated.
If growing in a greenhouse, place a tomato seed into a small pot or tray that’s filled with watered multi-purpose or seed compost. Sow the seed straight on top of the compost surface, then cover the pot or tray with vermiculite granules.
Place on a sunny windowsill inside a plastic bag or keep in a heated propagator at around 21°C (70°F) so that seedlings begin to emerge.
When two leaves appear that are large enough to handle, transplant into a larger pot. This is known as ‘pricking out’ and you can use a dibber or pencil to slowly tease the seedling from the tray into a bigger pot. Seeds should be ready for pricking out after about two weeks. Water them using tepid water if possible.
When there’s no frost risk, usually after the end of May, and the roots are filling the pots, the tomatoes can finally be moved outside and re-planted in sunny spots in grow-bags, soil or containers. Make sure the plants’ first flowers have appeared before moving outside.
Hints and tips for growing tomatoes from seeds
- Tall cordon-type plants need support from canes, stakes or suspended string to grow.
- Cordon varieties also require ‘pinching out’ once the first flower trusses (cluster or group of small steams) appear. Pinching out is when side shoots from the main growing stem are firmly snapped off close to the stem. Side shoots thicker than pencil size may need to be cut.
- Vine-growing plants can be stopped at the desired height by simply pinching out the top growing points.
- Bush and hanging basket tomato plants do not need pinching out.
- Plants grown inside often benefit from a very gentle shaking to help dislodge pollen. Outdoors the pollination will happen automatically.
If plants are being placed into open soil, it’s a good idea to create a shallow reservoir in the soil circling the plant to help boost water retention.
Tomato plants in bags or containers benefit from regular tomato feed, whereas soil-growing tomatoes are less reliant on this.
Growing tomato plants from plants
Tomato plants, either cordon or bush, are grown in the same way to seeds, except they have a much shorter growing period. Young tomato plants are sent to you in May or June, ready to be planted into larger containers or direct into the soil if there’s no risk of a frost.
- Young tomato plants received in the post may have bent stems. This is natural and stems will straighten after exposure to daylight.
- Tomato bush plants can also be grown in a long vegetable trough. A plant such as Montello is a spreading variety and one plant can cover a trough with flourishing tomatoes. Water well but do not overwater.
- Some heavy, bushy plants may need a little support by tying them loosely to canes, to stop them bending over too much.
How to harvest tomatoes
For the best flavour, let tomatoes ripen naturally on the plant. When they’re ready to pick, simply hold the tomato and twist to release from the plant.
As it gets towards the end of the season, it’s a good idea to trim back any old leaves which will help sunlight reach further into the plant and continue to ripen any remaining fruit.