Hartley Magazine

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Don’t grow tomatoes

New to gardening? Don’t grow tomatoes, says Jean Vernon

oct 2015There I’ve said it. Don’t grow tomatoes if you are starting out. They are not for beginners.

They might be one of the most popular seeds and plants to grow, as I keep being told by industry manufacturers and suppliers, but I honestly don’t think we should be encouraging new gardeners to grow tomatoes; there are so many other, much easier and exciting things to grow.

Marketing gone mad

When I see the little packs of pre-sown tomato seeds ready to help gardeners grow tomatoes, sown with pretty predictable (and mostly boring) varieties that you can buy plants of anywhere, that equate to £1 or more per plant, I think, great, teach new growers to grow from seed, but let’s have some easier and more interesting crops please. Let’s have some exclusive chillies, something a bit more exciting and something that will not just grow the plants but will nurture a love of growing and so much more.

Yes, it’s fantastic to taste real homegrown tomatoes. Yes it is wonderful to pick them from the plants and eat them still warm and juicy from the greenhouse, but NO they are not the best plants to grow for newbies. It’s a bit like wanting to drive a high performance car before you can actually drive. Yes you can get into it and probably start it, but you will likely crash and burn before you get up to speed.

Easy tomato alternatives

My advice is to grow chillies instead. Why, because they are really, really easy to grow, you don’t need many plants to satisfy your chilli needs and you can grow something really different to suit your tastes and needs. There are hundreds of amazing varieties to grow from seed and pretty much all of them will give you great results. You don’t need to buy ready grown plants, (but you can), because chillies are fast to germinate, easy to grow and apart from watering and a little feed, they need very little extra care and attention. You can even grow one or two plants as houseplants. If you don’t like spicy food, then you can grow mild varieties for their flavour, but if you do? Well turn it up to ELEVEN and grow something that will challenge your taste buds.

Big effort

By comparison, tomato plants are high maintenance. Even if you buy a plant or get them germinated from seed, the work is not done, in fact that’s really the easy bit. Unless you can plant them outside and let them get on with it (and many are too blight susceptible or British weather intolerant to do well), I really would think twice. Tomatoes can and do suffer from all sorts of pests and diseases; blossom end rot, the devastating blight as well as whitefly, red spider mite and more. They also need pollinating to get them to fruit, so that means bees and particularly bumblebees, because they have mastered the buzzy technique required, need to get into and out of your glasshouse all summer.

Big expense

Tomato plants generally need loads of mollycoddling to get great results and if you buy all the apparently necessary contraptions, feeds and support gadgets to grow them, well you can spend a fortune. And that my gardening friends, is the crux of the matter. You want to grow tomatoes, understandably and ‘they’ want to ‘help’ you because you will need all the rest of the stuff to get a decent crop. If you cost up the paraphernalia, boy can you spend a lot of dosh.

Grow something interesting

Is it worth the effort? Sometimes. It’s worth it if you want to grow something different, something rare or something exquisite that you can’t buy at the farmers market. It’s worth it if you have the time and presence to pander to their needs. It’s worth it, if you are an experienced gardener or a tomato aficionado or just a little bit obsessive in your gardening methods. It’s worth it if you are home all summer and can hand water, or grow in the soil and eat the fruit all summer long and amaze your friends and family with your black, stripy or orange tomato fruits. It’s worth it if you can truly grow organic and know that every fruit you grow is free from toxins and kind to wildlife and your health. It’s worth it if you are growing with the kids and have invested in a TomTato or two to show them potatoes growing underground and sweet tasty tomatoes on top. It’s worth it if you can grow them in a greenhouse and be safe in the knowledge that they are safer from the ravages of blight, or if you can invest in blight resistant varieties that may survive this fungal abhorrence. But it’s not really worth it otherwise.

Have a go by all means, but please don’t spend a fortune or a lifetime on the effort.

Don’t get me wrong, I do grow tomatoes and I love eating them too, but I also get to this time of year, when I need to clear them out of the greenhouse and tidy up around them, when I start to wonder why I bothered. To be honest, the effort and space that they take up doesn’t equate to good use of resources for me. That’s my take on it anyway. I may grow them again next year, but maybe I’ll do something different, watch this space.

Tomato therapy

‘Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes’ is the oft-quoted piece of wisdom, but the tomatoes can in fact create stress.

If you need therapy, join a communal gardening group and grow together and share the load, grow lavender and chamomile and herbs that can heal and leave tomato growing to the experts. If you need therapy don’t grow tomatoes.