Gardening with Dave Allan: watch out for tomato plants sold for the English market

Sweet and juicy tomatoes fresh from the greenhouse are hard to beat. So browsing the catalogs and planning the planting brightens up any dull February afternoon.

Do you want seeds or plants? Although there is usually a wider range of vegetable seeds than plants, this does not apply to mail order tomatoes, as they are so popular.

Although garden centers carry fewer plant varieties, you’ll see exactly what you’re buying and be able to choose the healthiest specimens.

Decide what type of tomato you want: a small cherry, a bushy variety usually reaching around 45cm, a larger cord or a cord producing beefsteak fruit.

With plants, you may prefer one that has been grafted onto sturdier rootstock.

It is claimed that the rootstock protects against certain soil-borne diseases, matures faster and has a larger harvest. But they are much more expensive.

The smaller the plant, the faster it fruits, so I can’t resist a few Tumbling Toms in the greenhouse, strategically placed for a bite of June as I pass.

Bush tomatoes take 2-3 weeks longer, but at 200m I find they are perfect for a polytunnel: they grow generously for weeks even though the growing season is a bit shorter than in a greenhouse. This also makes bush varieties a good option for outdoors.

All bush tomatoes are “determinate”, they have a limited life cycle, while cordons are “indeterminate” and just keep going until frosts kill them.

In a heated greenhouse, you can even eat a Christmas tomato salad, as I sometimes do.

Unfortunately, without the strong ripening sun, they become quite tasteless to eat!

Because cordon plants and fruit are larger, they mature 2-3 weeks later than bush ones and need the cozier comfort of a hot, sunny, south-facing greenhouse or neuk outdoors. Beefsteak tomatoes are of course much larger and few places in Scotland have a long enough season to ripen them.

Tomatoes are fairly slow growing, so if using seeds, sow within the next week or two.

Although the plants are quite hardy, they need consistent heat, ideally 15, but anywhere between 10 and 20 would suffice, so for best results you will need a propagator in a greenhouse.

After filling 7.5cm pots with good seed compost, I sow and cover 8-10 seeds per pot.

Once the seedlings have their first pair of true leaves, soak the compost and gently separate the plants, then plant each deeply in its own 7.5cm pot of peat-free all-purpose compost.

I use my own mix, 50% home compost: 50% mold.

Finally, transplant into an 11 cm pot containing multi-purpose compost or 100% homemade compost.

Bury the plant again so that the lower leaves are on the surface. This allows the tiny hairs on the stem to grow into roots

As soon as there is no longer any risk of frost, at the end of May – beginning of June, plant in the final position, a greenhouse or a mini greenhouse in a sheltered place with southern exposure.

Even if you’d like to have fun growing a plant from seed to fruit, you just might not have the space or time for it, so you need to buy some plants.

Growers and distributors target the much larger English market and therefore often sell plants to garden centers earlier than is appropriate for that country. Our retailers can only sell the plants when they receive them, which may be sooner than you would like.

Check when a mail order company distributes the plants and if you are offered a shipping date, go for late May-early June. If you get plants sooner than that, put them in a greenhouse or on a windowsill if needed.

Plant of the week

Crocus ancyrensis bears rich golden yellow flowers that open with every glow of the late winter sun. Each bulb produces several flowers and the leaves are thin and dark green in color.

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Terri S. Tomasini