My top tips to grow tomatoes in the UK
Growing tomatoes is a true joy, and there is something lovely about popping small cherry tomato in your mouth straight from the plant. A few simple tricks will help you successfully grow tomatoes in the UK- read on!
Tomatoes are originally from Mexico, so they enjoy warm and moist weather. That's not quite the weather we have in the UK, but there are ways to ensure your tomatoes germinate and produce fruits nonetheless. Contrary to Mexico where you can just throw seeds on the grown and watch your plants flourish and produce dozens of fruits, in the UK you need to manage your plants more actively to get them to fruit: you need to sow them right, pick the good variety, and prune them appropriately and you will experience the joy of sweet tomatoes straight from your garden!
Sow early, sow indoors, sow local
Tomatoes’ love of heat means that they are unlikely to germinate before it’s a 18 degrees minimum. So make sure you sow them early - late January or February is ideal, and in a warm and bright spot, that doesn’t get too cold at night.
Using locally saved seeds is also important, as it is possible over the course of many generations to select tomato plants that can handle cooler weather than its ancestors. That is exactly what seed saving companies do- they select plants that are better suited to the local climate, and produce well and consistently. Of course if you travel abroad and get tomato seeds, do sow them, but also sow a couple of locally saved seeds to ensure you get some germination.
For example our saved tomatoes from Sicily didn’t germinate very well and struggled to produce fruits. Whatever they produced didn’t really ripen either. Check your local seed saving companies, I live Tamar Organics and Real Seed as they save non F1 and non GMO seeds, and are part of the Open Pollinated initiative- meaning you can save your seeds too, and they will even tell you how.
Sow the right variety
If you intend to grow tomatoes outdoors, I would suggest going for smaller fruit types like cherry tomatoes as they are more likely to ripen in our uncertain summers. I do like green tomato chutney, but I prefer eating my tomatoes ripe! When growing tomatoes in a polytunnel or a greenhouse, you can go for bigger fruit varieties. You can even try varieties with very big fruits like beef heart type, but it’s likely you won’t get many fruits.
There is another twist in the tomato world, which is the separation between ‘indeterminate’ ‘vine’ or 'cordon' varieties, the ‘determinate’ or ‘bush’ varieties, and new kid on the block: the ‘centiflor’ tomato.
Determinate or bush tomatoes grow up to 4 feet tall in a dense bush (no surprises here). They will benefit from being held in place by a stake (or two), but don’t need pruning. They tend to produce most of their fruits in a single flush and often don’t flower or grow much more again after that. Bush tomatoes are great if you have a short season and you want all your fruits at once. They also need less care overall than vine tomatoes.
Indeterminate, vine or cordon tomatoes grow like a vine (again, no surprises here), and left to their own devices would grow along the soil like a fruiting snake. Obviously any fruit left on the floor would be consumed quickly by slugs, insects and mice-alike garden visitors, so vine tomatoes are traditionally grown up, using stakes or string hanging from a frame. Vine tomatoes continue growing and fruiting throughout the warmer months until the first frost kills them - so you get a steady flow of fruits over a few months. To successfully grow vine tomatoes you need to have strong stakes, and time to regularly prune them to ensure their fruits ripen. They are the most common variety of tomatoes.
The 'Centiflor' tomato is a new variety that combines the ease of a bush tomato (they don’t need pruning) while producing fruits for a long period of time. These bushy plants have highly branched flower trusses with literally hundreds and hundreds of flowers on them. The flower trusses bear tomatoes in a huge grape-like cluster, with ripe fruit about ¾ of an inch across - like a small cherry tomato. I have never grown them: they are pencilled in for next year- and I’ll go for Real Seed variety ‘Millefleur’.
Pruning your vine/ indeterminate/ cordon tomatoes
Getting your vine tomatoes to produce ripe fruits requires a bit of work, and some serious pruning. Your plants will look a bit bare by the end of the summer- and that’s exactly how they should look! Don’t worry, there are only three simple steps, and I have drawn an example to make things easy - see below.
1- Go for a bare bottom: that’s right, you read that well! The bottom 10cm/ 4 inches of your tomato plant should not have any leaves. Bare bottoms allow for air circulation and promote fruit growth. Snap the leaves straight from the stem, they will come out easily.
2- No suckers: all the leaves growing between the main stem and flower trusses or leaves need to go. You are aiming for a single, central main vine, with only single leaves or flower trusses coming out. Anything in between needs to go. If your suckers are big, you pan put them in a glass of water and once they start creating roots you can transplant them in soil- and you’ve made a new tomato! You should also cut any leaves that come out of the existing trusses (number 4 of my drawing).
3- Count to 5: at any time you should never have more than 5 trusses of flowers/ fruits on your plant. If the summer is rubbish and/ or you are growing outside/ in the north of the UK, consider leaving only 4 trusses at all times. By following this advice, you’ll ensure the existing fruits ripen before the plant grows new flowers. As the bottom tomatoes ripen and are harvested, you can allow another truss to stay from the top of the tomato plant until late August.
Finally, once you get into late August/ September and you want all the existing tomatoes to ripen, strip your plants from ALL its leaves except a couple at the top. It will look like a bare vine with fruit truss only. I know it’s a weird look, but it will help the last fruits on the plant to ripen. Tough love is what a tomato needs in the UK.
My go to varieties
They all work well outdoor but they will produce even more if grown in polytunnel or glasshouse.
Yellow pear: This variety dates back to the 1800s and is a vigorous indeterminate/ vine tomato. It produces an abundance of small, yellow pear-shaped tomatoes that are sweet, but mild in flavor.
Chocolate Cherry: a very sweet vine cherry tomato producing delicious purple- brown small fruits.
Sunglod are a sweet orange round cherry tomato. Productive, sweet and tangy, there vine variety can be very productive.
'Maskotka' is a dwarf bush/ determinate variety that is well suited to pots and containers and will thrive on a sunny balcony.
All the ‘tumbling toms’ varieties are also great for containers - they are small bush tomatoes that tend to tumble over the side of containers and produce trusses of delightful small red fruits.
'Gardener’s delight' is grown in every allotment I have ever visited, and for good reasons: the fruits are bigger than cherry tomatoes but small enough to consistently ripen. They are tangy and thin skinned (vine tomato).
I love ‘Green Zebra’ as they produce stunning stripy mainly green fruits that are tangy and tart (and stay bright green when ripe). It’s one of the best tasting tomatoes I have had! A vine variety. ‘Tigerella’ is a striped red tomato also really fun to grow, although I prefer the taste of the ‘Green Zebra’.
‘Roma’ tomatoes are Italian plum tomatoes (generally bush), and they are great for cooking as they tend to have a more floury texture with a sweeter taste.
Tomato ‘Black Russian’ bears medium-sized purple-brown tomatoes with a delicious sweet flavour. I love unusual looking toms, and this one is really lovely. Vine tomato.
‘Moneymaker’ is a great all rounder that has been proven to produce well during wet and cold UK summers. Vine variety.
All plants want to live and produce fruits/ seeds. So if you don’t have the time to prune your vine tomato, it will still produce, but likely you will end up with more unripe fruits. Not the end of the world, and this great green tomato chutney recipe can help you deal gracefully with a late summer glut of green toms.