Growing Tomatoes Without a Greenhouse in SE England (Part 2)

12 Nov

growing tomatoesMy name is Rhys Jaggar, and I live in north west London, UK. I was invited to become a guest blogger by Annette and Lucia, co-authors of the book How to Grow Juicy Tasty Tomatoes. This blogpost is part 2 of my story about growing tomatoes without a greenhouse, and I hope it inspires other growers to experiment too!

You can see Part 1 of my story here: Growing Tomatoes Without a Greenhouse in SE England (Part 1)

Q: What sorts of experiments have you tried out on specific phases of the tomato’s growth cycle?

Well, the first thing I was interested in was germinating seeds reliably. When I started I wasn’t very good at it and there’s nothing more frustrating than reading that seeds should germinate in 7 – 10 days and you’re still waiting after 21!

growing tomatoes

Young seedlings love to be kept warm inside

Then I was interested in ensuring that transplanted seedlings didn’t die when potted into 8cm pots. A sunny day in April might be enjoyable to you but I nearly killed about a dozen seedlings this spring through having them sit outside on a verandah table as I transplanted them all. I never lose one when I do it indoors on the kitchen table! When in doubt, keep young seedlings warm inside.

Then I was interested in whether any factors affected the rate of early seedling growth, like the compost used, how you watered the plants, whether adding aeration enhancers was beneficial and whether any liquid nutrient products were helpful. One dose of RootIt First Growth two weeks after seedlings were transplanted into 8cm pots gives you wonderfully healthy young plants and Seaweed Extract is fantastic from 6 – 12 weeks – one dose every three weeks is enough.

I was also interested in whether you should feed using foliar sprays or adding to the soil mix and whether different supplements (like Seaweed, comfrey tea, Tomorite etc) worked best at different stages of the cycle. I’ve not suffered much Blossom End Rot (BER) due to a lack of calcium, either by putting crushed eggshells in the final pot or adding a handful of Volcanic Rock Dust, but I have suffered BER due to soil drying out. So I was interested in ensuring that that didn’t happen.

I have been particularly interested in how to ensure plants get a regular supply of water. Balancing the need for water with the need for warmth in the soil/root zone is important, but 30cm pots standing in a saucer continually topped up with water works perfectly in summer, though if it gets cool, then letting the plants dry out away from such a set up is sensible. I’ve been told not to do this by a variety of people, but the past two warm dry summers proved it to be advice not borne out in the crucible of actually growing tomatoes.

I was interested in how to balance the dream of a few perfect tomatoes through ripening on the vine and producing enough tomatoes to eat for several months through harvesting tomatoes ‘on the turn’, namely starting to ripen but not yet fully mature. Most orange tomatoes become red and juicy within 3-5 days of harvesting indoors, so we have a few bowls of ripening ones and a few bowls of ready to use ones in our summer kitchen. This isn’t an issue inside greenhouses, but it can be an issue for growing plants outside.

Finally, I was interested in making sure I harvested the best seeds to improve my plants each and every year, making them better and better adapted to the climate I’m growing them in. Whilst I found that commercial seeds benefitted from an overnight soaking in dilute seaweed extract prior to sowing, with my own seeds, germination is so rapid and vigorous that I never bother any more.

On a more philosophical note, this year, I was also looking at whether growing using the moon cycles of Maria Thun is worth it: I didn’t do a formal experiment, but the plants did very well using that approach. I’ll definitely give it another go next year.

Q: How much money have you spent on ‘products’ etc?

Obviously, there’s a minimum you can’t do without. I’ve probably spent £100 on pots, trays and saucers, but they should last for 5 – 10 years at least. A propagator cost around £25 but I only got that when I won some vouchers at a local show: I was germinating tomato seeds very successfully in ice cream tubs sat atop old newspapers on an external gas boiler before that. Each year, of course, you need to buy various composts to grow the tomato plants in and that is about £1 per plant usually. I usually spend around £10 a year on various additives like high-potash tomato feed or seaweed extract, but I’m trying to eliminate that through the use of various natural ‘teas’ like comfrey, nettle etc as well as making my own compost and through keeping a wormery. I’ll probably take 5 years of experimentation before I ditch the reliable commercial compost/manure though. I also spent around £30 over a couple of seasons buying various seeds of tomatoes (mostly heritage), but now I’m making my own, that cost has been eliminated.

There’s a lot you can spend on products providing certainty, security, efficiency etc etc. For example, I tried out some ‘Rhizopots’ this year, which have a breathable fabric and handles so you can carry the pot around easily. They were absolutely fantastic in terms of aerating the roots and generating perfect fruit set, but they do tend to see the compost drying out very quickly which means far more watering is required and you may end up with a bit of Blossom End Rot as a result. If you could marry the breathability of the fabric with a reliable water retention/access mechanism, you’d have a wonderful system.

My advice is this, though: start low-tech and as your skill increases, you’ll both benefit more from advanced products as well as understanding whether or not they’ll be value for money or not. Most professional violinists spent several years honing technique with workhorse instruments without getting anywhere near a Stradivarius, after all! I learned growing up that a better violin was no substitute for a better teacher!!

Q: Obviously, there’s enough in there for several blog posts. If you could give three tips for outdoor growers right now, what would they be?

Firstly, prepare your own seeds from your best tomatoes each year. You have selected through the season for tomatoes, which thrived in your own climate and grew the way that you are going to grow them. Commercial seeds are grown in different ways and I’ve certainly found that my own seeds are incredibly vigorous in terms of rapid and efficient germination. Yes, some F1 strains are very good, but my Alicante, Shirley, Maskotka, Black Cherry and Super Marmande have been self-selected for outdoor pot-based growth for up to 5 years now and they seem to get better rather than worse as a result.

Secondly, if you don’t have a south-facing area which gets 10 – 12hrs of sunshine a day in summer, then moving plants around with the sun to achieve that can make a huge difference. In our garden, the carport catches the early sun and from 1 – 2pm until sunset, the front garden is bathed in sunshine. Simply moving plants once or twice a day can more than double their sunshine hours, thereby accelerating development, fruit set and harvest. Obviously, that is only possible for those capable of performing that chore regularly during the week. If you have a retired neighbour, a self-employed tradesman/woman or a stay-at-home mum who’s happy to do that for you, cut them into the increased harvests you’ll undoubtedly get!! It’s actually most beneficial at the time that the plants are not so laden with fruit, so you’re not doing too much weight lifting until late July!growing tomatoes

Thirdly, be prepared to use your home as a temporary ‘greenhouse’ for two or three months in late winter and early spring. Upstairs windowsills can host 24 – 36 8cm pots as you establish your young plants and a large French Window can be the focus for your plants in 15cm pots and, for the earliest ones, in their final 30cm pots too (eight 15cm pots and up to four 30cm pots spent March and/or April progressing indoors).

Q: Have you read ‘How to Grow Juicy Tasty Tomatoes’?

I sure have! I’ve invested a few years in trying to find reliable sources concerning tomato growing and what I’ve found is that no one source is exhaustive but feeding off a combination and contributing to blog sites gets you there in the end. What I like most about Annette and Lucia’s book is that it’s one single comprehensive source covering all aspects of tomato growing. ­­

Chapters 12 and 13 were a trove of ideas for me to experiment with and much of what I have tried out the past two years were stimulated in part by reading those two chapters and having my eyes opened to all the factors which can impact upon tomato growing.

I’m looking forward to seeing what I can achieve in 2015.