Popular Varieties: Gardeners Delight, Moneymaker, Alicante
Store At: Room Temperature
Comes From: England, Spain, Portgual, France
Seasonality: UK May to October, but available all year round
Tomatoes are odd in many ways, least of all the fact they are a fruit, but many people think of them as a vegetable (an indeed, we have grouped them in the salad vegetables class). They are very closely related to potatoes; their leaves are similar, their flowers are practically identical (except in colour), they suffer the same diseases, and green tomatoes contain large amounts of the metabolic poison solanine, like green potatoes. You can even get hybrid plants with a tomato grafted onto a potato rootstock. But here, the similarities end.
They come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from the massive beefsteak tomatoes which can be bigger than your hand at one end of the scale (the largest on record was 3.51 kg or 7 lb 12 oz) to the tiny, super sweet delicious grape tomatoes (somewhat poorly named as baby plum tomatoes in the UK). Tomato plants are usually grown as annuals, and range in height from 1 to 3 metres. There are two main types of plant, determinate (or bush, which grow to a genetically pre-determined height then stop growing) and indeterminate (or cordon which keep growing forever in theory, but the largest on record grew to 65ft in Lancashire, UK in 2000).
The types of tomato are as follows: beefsteak, which are especially large and commonly used for slicing and in sandwiches; regular or plain (or globe or slicing) tomatoes which are your typical size bog standard tomato; plum tomatoes which usually less watery and good for sauces or pastes; cherry tomatoes which are sweeter and usually eaten in salads; and smaller grape tomatoes.
In the UK, grape tomatoes are known as baby plum tomatoes, which we at FFC is somewhat misleading. Some varieties, such as Santa, do indeed have a baby plum shape, but that is the only thing they have in common with plum tomatoes, whilst other varieties like Ruby are just round. They are so sweet and have such little of the traditional tomato tang that the taste is simply indescribable. Plum tomatoes simply aren’t as popular for eating as any others, and we believe because of this grape tomatoes aren’t taking off as well as they should. Indeed, in California in the USA, grape tomatoes now outsell cherry tomatoes, and farmers growing cherry are switching over to grow grape to keep up with the demand. A poor marketing campaign perhaps, but unfortunately one it seems we’ll have to live with in the UK.
A favourite for the home grower, especially for children, tomatoes are amazingly easy to grow. They grow best and will crop heavier under cover in greenhouses, but even in temperate climates such as the UK, they grow well outdoors; some varieties more than others.
There has recently been a resurgence in growing older varieties which have largely been lost from commercial cultivation; these are commonly known as heirloom or heritage varieties and are usually “different”; varieties such as Black Prussian and Cherokee Purple are dark purple almost black, Banana Legs are elongated yellow fruit, Beauty Blanc produce almost white medium sized fruit, while Jersey Red fruit are shaped like large 5-6 inch long red-orange chilli peppers. Hundreds of heirloom varieties are available.
Tomatoes are fantastic nutritionally; they contain large amounts of Vitamin C, and good amounts of Potassium, Iron, Phosphorus, Vitamin A and B. They also contain a compound called Lycopene, an antioxidant; this is a substance which fights particles called free radicals in the body, which can interfere with normal cell growth and activity, which can lead to cancer, premature aging and heart disease. Unlike many nutrients found in fruit and vegetables, lycopene is not destroyed by processing, and is found in tomato ketchup and other canned tomato products in similar quantities to which it is found in fresh tomatoes. Not only that but a single medium tomato has the equivalent amount of dietary fibre as one slice of whole wheat bread, at only 35 calories!!).
Unfortunately tomatoes aren’t all good for you; as previously mentioned, green tomatoes contain a compound called solanine, a glycoalkoid metabolic poison. Unfortunately green tomato chutney, a classic recipe from days gone by, also contains solanine, so should definitely be avoided except in the smallest amounts. Symptoms of solanine poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, hallucinations, paralysis, birth defects, and in extreme cases, death. However the levels in ripe tomatoes are very minimal.
When choosing tomatoes, ignore your eyes and use your nose; smell the blossom end (opposite to the stem end), and it should give off a hearty tomato aroma. Unfortunately if you’re in the produce aisle at the supermarket this isn’t of much use. Supermarkets typically chill tomatoes to increase their shelf life, which is like kryptonite to tomatoes!!! It all comes down to a chemical called Z-3 Hexenel, which is responsible for the taste and smell of a tomato; the more a tomato has, the better it smells. Z-3 hexenel is the result of a chemical process within a tomato that starts at linolenic acid and ends at Z-3 hexenel; this process is stopped dead by refrigeration. That’s why tomatoes should where possible be stored at room temperature; unfortunately this does somewhat reduce storage time.
There are six stages of ripening in tomatoes:
1) Green, where the tomato is completely green;
2) Breakers, the tomato has started to turn yellow or pink-red on no more than 10% of the surface;
3) Turning, where 10-30% of the surface has started to turn yellow or pink-red;
4) Pink, where 30-60% of the surface is pink or red (or whatever colour the final colour will be);
5) Light-Red – 60-90% of the fruit is a pink-red colour, and
6) Red, when more than 90% of the surface of the fruit is red, and the tomato is fully ripened. This is the stage at which most supermarket tomatoes are at, but it is not the stage at which they were picked…!)
Commercially grown tomatoes are actually picked in Stage 1 of ripening, when they are completely green. They are then boxed, and taken into huge gas chambers, where they are blasted with Ethylene gas, which controls the ripening process. They are ripened in this manner because the ripening can be controlled more uniformly, and you get evenly ripened tomatoes.
So vine-ripened tomatoes are better, right? Wrong! Don’t buy into propaganda. Vine-ripened tomatoes are, technically, vine ripened… but not plant ripened, or sun ripened. They are taken (still on the vine) off the plant when they are in Stage 2, where the surface has just started to tinge pink, and once again packed into boxes in gas chambers, where the ripening is controlled. That’s why you can get for instance long stems of cherry tomatoes on the vine, when if you were growing them yourself, they would ripen over a 3-4 week period, not all at once.
The original varieties of tomatoes originate from the Andes of South America, around the time of the Incas, although it is not believed that the Incas cultivated tomatoes for food. Tomatoes probably spread to Central and North America around 2,000 years ago with early human migrations, along with maize. It was not until Spanish explorers (Conquistadors) arrived during the Spanish conquest of the 1500s that they were eaten, at this time mostly cherry tomatoes were in cultivation, in particular in Mexico. The word tomato actually derives from the original Mexican “nahuatl” which was dropped down to tomatl, and eventually tomato.
Tomatoes were first brought to Europe in the 1520s, although they were not used for food for quite a long time; at first they were thought to be very poisonous and used as ornamental plants. It was, as you would imagine, in Italy that tomatoes were first used in cooking, a fact that can still be seen today by the extensive use of tomatoes in Italian cuisine.
As with many other foods introduced from the Americas, it was considered to be an aphrodisiac, which when considering its Italian name of pommi dei mori, translates to French incorrectly as pomme d’amour or love apple. A Frenchman, Tournefort, botanically classified tomato as “Lycopersicon esculentum”, which literally translates to wolfpeach; peach because of it’s shape, and wolf because it was originally thought to be poisonous. Widescale acceptance of it being perfectly edible did not happen across Europe until the 1800s, although it was being widely eaten in Britain by the mid 1700s, after being introduced around 1590.
The earliest reference to tomatoes in British North America was in 1710, although it is likely that other cultures were eating them long before, after they spread up from South and Central America in the 1500s. Once again, at first people thought they were poisonous; after all, red is usually a warning colour. One unconfirmed story tells how in 1820, Colonel Robert Johnson announced that at midday on September 26, he would stand in front of the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey and eat a whole basket of tomatoes. Thousands of people turned up to watch him die a horribly painful death, and no doubt many were disappointed when he didn’t!
It has only been in the last 20-30 years that tomatoes have gained such huge popularity, both in Europe and America. In Europe, they are an immensely important food for cooking, be it pizzas or pastas, and in America they are possibly the second most popular “vegetable” after potatoes.
The uses of tomatoes are in fact somewhat limited when compared with other crops, such as bananas, where much of the plant can be used for purposes other than eating; tomato plants (the leaves and stems) are in fact poisonous, so the only part that can be eaten is the fruit.
Different types of tomatoes are used for different purposes; beefsteak are preferred for slicing for sandwiches due to their large size, whilst cherry and grape tomatoes make great additions to salads.
Plum tomatoes are good for processing into sauces and pastes for pizzas or pastas, due to their high solid content.
Tomatoes in general are excellent for canning; their high acidic content means they store well (compared to many vegetables which are high in sugar which turns to starch when stored).
They are usually grown from seed (although you can buy small plants from garden centres or nurseries and skip this step, although I find it too much fun to skip).
The seeds should be sown on the surface of a free draining compost (don’t keep it too wet) and covered with a thin layer of compost or vermiculite. They should be kept warm (anything over 15° will do, but keep it under 25°C), and depending on the variety they will germinate in anything between 7-15 days (although last year mine were kicking out in about 4 days). They are extremely strong seedlings, and will grow quickly. You can either grow them in individual cells or scatter a few seeds in a pot, and transplant them when needed.
Even though they are strong, be careful when transplanting them, and lift them by their seed leaves only (the seed leaves are the first pair of leaves to appear, and are usually stronger than the “real” leaves). I prefer to plant several seeds in a pot and transplant them (known as “pricking out”), because mine invariably grow too tall and I can plant them quite deep! It doesn’t matter if your seedlings get a bit spindly, because if they are planted deeper, tomatoes will actually put out roots from the stem all the way up until the first set of leaves – this is to our benefit, because it helps anchor them into the soil better.
Tomatoes generally have a high germination rate, and are relatively large seeds, so are a prime candidate for trying out some peat free compost, and if you prefer, mix in a little peat compost too.
Once the individual plants are about 6 inches high, they should really be planted out. Depending on when you sowed the seeds, where you plant them can vary; if you want to plant them in a heated greenhouse, you can start pretty much as early as you want, even as early as January (in the UK). If you want to plant them outdoors, or in a cold greenhouse, it depends very much on the weather and how mild the spring is; tomatoes, while easy to grow, will not tolerate frost at all. A plant which has been frosted will actually turn slightly blue (particularly the leaf veins) and will never fully recover, so if planting outside, it’s best to wait until the last frost has passed. They will take approximately 4-6 weeks from sowing to getting to a planting out size, so time it according to the weather as best you can (we fully acknowledge that the weather forecasting services in the UK are in fact really quite rubbish, so just do your best). A good guide in the UK is to sow your seeds around Easter time.
Where should tomatoes be planted? Outside, any good soil is fine, but not where potatoes have been grown the previous year, because they share too many diseases such as blight. If growing in a greenhouse, the bigger the pot the better; it’s traditional to grow tomatoes in growbags, but this really doesn’t give them enough soil, for they have huge root runs when given the space. You can buy devices to fit in the hole of a growbag, to expand it upwards much like an upside down bucket – in fact an upside down bucket works just as well!!!!).
Growing tomatoes in containers is perfectly acceptable – a 12 inch diameter bucket will be more than sufficient, and you can get an excellent sized crop growing this way, as long as you remember to keep them well watered – when the surface of the compost dries out, this is a good indication to water them. They should be fed with tomato feed 2-3 times a week once the first flowers have set into fruit.
There are two main types of tomato plant, bush (determinate) and cordon (indeterminate). In theory, bush tomatoes should be self-supporting, and this can be true but only until they produce fruit – last year, my bush tomatoes had more support than a set of scaffolding, there were canes and rods and frameworks all over the place, because they were carrying so much fruit. Indeed, with some varieties, particularly Red Alert, you may even have to remove some fruit from the plants to avoid them breaking under the weight, particularly when wet. Bush plants need lots of support, but they won’t need any tips pinching out, because they grow until they reach a pre-determined size (by the genetics) and stop growing.
I’ve read several articles and books that say bush tomatoes set their fruit and ripen them all at once, providing a glut, but I haven’t found this to be true at all – last year my bush tomatoes started ripening fruit in late June/early July, and didn’t stop until the plants had been all but killed off by blight and frost around late October, and this was growing outside in the UK climate! Like mentioned earlier – tomatoes are easy to grow, and you have to ignore a lot of the literature and just go with what you think works best.
Cordon tomatoes require a little more work; they usually grow with one main stem, from which fruiting trusses shoot out of the leaf axils. Any side shoots that don’t have flowers on them should be pinched out immediately, to concentrate the plant’s energy, and the tip pinched out at approximately 6 feet, height permitting. Apparently you are supposed to limit the number of fruit on a cordon plant – if you don’t pinch out the tip, they will keep growing, easily reaching 20 feet, but not putting much energy into ripening fruit
The ideal number of trusses to limit a plant to varies; on a beefsteak variety this may be just two trusses with only 2-3 fruit on each; a regular mid-sized variety about 4-5 trusses; a cherry variety 5-6 trusses; my personal favourites are the grape or baby plum varieties; the ones I grew last year, Santa, were limited to 9 feet tall, and approximately 10 trusses per plant. Every 2 weeks I had to pinch out approximately 20 sideshoots from each plant and remove another 4 trusses of fruit; some of the trusses left to develop and ripen had upwards of 50 fruit per truss, and a fantastic harvest was taken; this from a variety which according to the packet, “produces quite poorly outdoors”.
Finally, ripening; tomatoes ideally need sunshine to ripen; as the fruits on a plant ripen, they ripen from the bottom to the top, and the leaves should be gradually taken off the plant as the ripening moves up the plant, allowing the sun through to the fruit. Don’t allow fruit to overripen; depending on the variety they should be picked at the peak of their colour. If they overripen, they will often split, and then be somewhat unpalatable. Also, if they are overwatered they can split, and if they are overwatered, they will taste very watery, just like supermarket tomatoes, which we don’t want!
At the end of the season, if the frosts are fast approaching, any remaining tomatoes can be taken off the plant, and kept on a sunny windowsill; they will often continue ripening.
There are quite a few diseases or bugs that tomatoes are susceptible to, but the two main ones are blight and whitefly. Blight is a fungal disease that first starts on the leaves, and then spreads to the fruit, covering them with brown blotches. Any infected leaves should be removed when first spotted and disposed of (do NOT compost them), and the plant sprayed with Bordeaux Mixture. This is an organically acceptable solution of copper sulphate, which has some effectiveness against the fungus, although it does tend to leave unsightly white streaks over the fruit until it washes off.
Whitefly are another thing however; notoriously difficult to kill due to their two stage lifecycle, whitefly will be found mostly on the underneath of the leaves, usually either the lowest down leaves, or the young smaller leaves. There are some organic solutions to whitefly (ladybirds are good) but unfortunately none of them are particularly effective.
- Indepth information on tomatoes
- Heriloom tomato varieties
- Tomatoes on Wikipedia
- Grape Tomatoes
There are too many varieties to list all of them (although we’d like to), so we’ll try and include some old favourites and represent all the different types; from the beefsteak variety of Marmande and Ferline, through the regular/mid-sized varieties of Alicante and Shirley, to the Cherry varieties of Moneymaker and Gardeners’ Delight to the delicious grape varieties of Ruby and Santa.
A classic grape tomato variety, it was originally bred in Taiwan in 1996 and at first was a complete flop; but not anymore. This cordon variety is an extremely vigorous plant, producing over 30 fruits per truss, and upwards of 6 trusses per plant, even in the mild UK climate. A somewhat thick skinned fruit, it has an excellent, supersweet taste with very little tomato tang, with fruits that can be eaten like sweets.
An excellent cordon variety, Alicante gives many of the things sought for in a tomato; a heavy crop, an early crop, and a largely greenback (the stem end of the fruit which sometimes fails to ripen) free fruit, with excellent flavour.
A heritage or heirloom variety, this is a variety which produces medium sized red-black tomatoes on compact plants. The fruits aren't technically black, they are are more accurately very dark red/mahogany.
A recently developed cordon F1 hybrid, Ferline produces small to regular beefsteak sized fruits; it also has good resistance to blight, fusarium and verticillium wilt. It is a vigorous plant, producing fruits of up to 150gm (5oz) in weight.
An old favourite, Gardeners Delight produces long trusses of round cherry fruit. Excellent for growing in the greenhouse or outdoors, this cordon variety is widely believed to have one of the best classic tangy tomato tastes available.
A well known variety, this much loved cordon type produces medium sized fruit on heavily laden trusses.
A classic bush variety, Red Alert grows well outdoors in containers or in the ground. Producing a large crop of heart shaped fruits ranging in size from half an inch to nearly two inches across, this is a good tasting, long cropping variety, producing yields of 4 â€“ 5 lb (1.8-2.25kg) per plant.
One of the new grape tomato varieties, this cordon type is very vigorous, producing long trusses of currant sized fruit around 10g each, with over 30 fruits per truss with a huge crop over the season.
A huge beefsteak variety, supersteak produces meaty fruits weighing anywhere between 450 to 900 grams (1 to 2lb) each on cordon plants.