Grow a taste explosion!

Tomatoes are the nation’s favourite patio fruit and they’re so easy. Helen Billiald explains how to get them started

As a nation we’ve taken tomatoes to our hearts. From tomato ketchup and pasta sauces to the cherry tomatoes that grace every summer salad, we love the sweet and sharp flavour combination of this juicy fruit.

When you’re choosing a cultivar, ask yourself what you like to eat and how you intend to grow it. Are you after a beefsteak for slicing with mozzarella, fleshy plum tomatoes for a rich sauce, or perhaps you’re after juicy little cherry tomatoes to pop into your mouth straight from the plant?

How you grow your plant will depend on whether it’s a cordon or bush cultivar. Cordon (sometimes called ‘indeterminate’) tomatoes are grown as a tall main stem, removing any side shoots as it grows. These are ideal for greenhouse growing, or sheltered sites where you can set up supports.

Alternatively, grow bush (determinate) tomatoes. These are lower-growing, branching types where you don’t need to pinch out the side shoots. They’re often earlier to crop although may not crop for as long. They suit patio containers and hanging baskets where their branches will tumble over the side.

Tomato troubleshooter

Q. Why didn’t my tomatoes ripen?
A. Tomatoes originate from South America and it can be hard to give them a long enough growing season with enough sunlight and warmth. Choose an early fruiting cultivar; bush cultivars tend to fruit earlier than cordons. Try ‘Latah’ a super early bush salad tomato (£3.27 for 20 seeds from Real Seeds

Q. Have they got tomato blight or are they just too dry?
A. Look out for brown patches on leaves and stems, ultimately spreading on to the fruit, which then swiftly rot. Outdoor plants are more prone to blight because there’s more chance of them being exposed to wind-blown spores. There are some excellent blight resistant cultivars now on the market (see panel).

Q. Why did my tomatoes split?
A. Cracked fruit is a sign of erratic watering. Outdoor fruit is prone when downpours follow dry weather, in the greenhouse it’s up to you to keep things constant.

Q. What’s blossom end rot?
A. Fruit develops black circles at their tip. This isn’t blight, it’s ‘blossom end rot’ a sign of calcium deficiency caused by too little water, most commonly seen in greenhouse plants. Set up an automatic drip irrigation system if you can’t water daily.

Q. How can I get the tastiest fruit?
A. Cultivar choice has a huge influence on taste but a second factor is how you grow your plant. Fruit from heavily watered plants seems more insipid than plants grown a little ‘harder’ where flavours appears more concentrated.


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Grow nature's little extroverts

By Helen Billiald

Chillies are the extroverts of the veg patch. They make handsome pot plants, offer brightly coloured fruit in a huge range of shapes and sizes, and of course add their famous kick to the kitchen. The headlines might be full of the latest heat-breaking cultivars with record-breaking Scoville scores,but that’s only a part of the chilli story.

What sn’t mentioned as often are the dozens of fragrant, fruity and spicy cultivars that will add depth and taste to your cooking, or the thick-fleshed types that stray more into vegetable territory than fearsome fire-bringer. So if you’ve spent your time ignoring chillies due tofear of their flames, then perhaps it’s time to reassess their qualities?

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Grow a foraging hedge

By Helen Billiald

There’s something deeply satisfying about hedgerow foraging. The gathering of nuts or making of jams, jellies, liqueurs, syrups, fruit gins or vodkas to squirrel away in a store cupboard must appeal to our ancestral hunter-gatherer instincts, as well as our taste buds.

If you’re not surrounded by miles of native hedgerows, planting your own in the garden couldn’t be easier. November until March is bare-root hedge planting season, so now’s a great time to get new woody planting schemes into the ground.

There’s a wealth of hedgerow plants offering something for the kitchen, the trick is tailoring the plants you choose to the space you have and the upkeep you can offer them. If you wish for a typical British hedgerow mix then you do need room – lots of room – to do them justice. A foraging hedge could include hazel, wild cherry, crab apple, damson, cherry plum (sometimes called myrobalan plum), wild pear, hawthorn, blackthorn and elderberry. Allow some brambles and dog rose to scramble through and you’ve a cornucopia to pick from. Should you be keen to go the staunch native route, keep in mind plant provenance and contact nearby nurseries, you might be able to source trees that have been propagated from your local area.

Two plants, blackthorn and elder, should only be included by the bold. Blackthorn suckers like an advancing army and its spines are horrific – you can see why it makes such good livestock-proof barriers, while elder also has wandering tendencies.

For a more formal looking hedge, reduce the planting diversity. You could grow hawthorn with standard crab apples and it wouldn’t look out of place in the suburbs. Even blackberry can be tamed, with plenty of large-fruiting, thornless cultivars on the market. You could go as far as a single species mix – Rosa rugosa produces hips just like the dog rose (Rosa canina) and its fruits are perfect for Vitamin C-rich cordials.

How often you prune will also have a big influence on what you can pick. Hedgerows tend to be cut back just once a year, or allowed to grow for several years before laying. If you cut too tight, too often, you’ll forfeit future harvests. You can get round this by including trees as standards, with a more tightly pruned hedge running between, try damson, crab apple or wild pear as well-spaced standards. 

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