How To Grow Tomatoes With Little Effort

It may seem odd writing about growing tomatoes at the time you should be harvesting them but it is often the case that when you see a plant growing somewhere that is the time you wish you knew how to grow them.  As regular readers of my garden articles will know, although I love gardening I also like to achieve great results with the minimum of effort and tomatoes are not an exception!  Effortless gardening doesn’t mean bad horticultural practice for you can hardly expect great results from shoddy workmanship wherever your interest lies.  All the photographs below demonstrate that it is possible to have superb tomatoes without devoting every spare moment to growing them.

Tomato 'Moneymaker' watermark

Perfect tomatoes can be grown quite easily using my method

As is often the case, I discovered this easy way to grow tomatoes out of necessity: a client wanted them but they only visited their country house irregularly and I could only devote one day a week to maintaining their grounds.  That left about fifteen minutes a week for the tomatoes.   This method, by the way, only works for plants grown in containers.  Although they were grown in a greenhouse there is no reason why the same method could not be used for growing in pots outdoors although they are more at the mercy of the usually variable British summer weather (not variable this year, 2018!).

Tomato 'Golden Sweet' watermark

Tomato ‘Golden Sweet’

All garden plants, whether grown in containers or in the garden border require good growing conditions and this starts with getting the soil or potting compost right.  Tomatoes are greedy feeders and books and articles always advise feeding the plants on a regular basis as soon as the first flowers show signs of turning into fruit.  That is far too time consuming for my fifteen-minute rule!  Instead, use a quality compost.  I used Carr’s potting compost which is made from composted farmyard manure; although not the cheapest it is well worth paying the extra cost for the results that are obtained.  There are, of course, other manufacturers that do something similar which, I daresay, will achieve similar results.  To this compost I mix in several handfuls of horticultural grit and double the recommended amount of water-retaining granules – these swell upon contact with water, and release it gradually thereby reducing the necessity for regular watering.

Tomato 'Cherrola' F1 watermark

Tomato ‘Cherrola’

Tomatoes are easy to grow from seed, sowing in gentle heat in February and there is a huge choice of variety.  For ease and speed, I purchased young plants from a garden centre once I had no concern of late frosts killing them.  The pots were filled to within a couple of inches of the brim with the compost mix which I had pre-moistened.  As a guide, the compost should feel damp but you shouldn’t be able to squeeze water out of it.  Plant three tomatoes in a 20/25 litre plant pot placing a sturdy cane by each plant.  Stand the pot on a watering saucer or tray and water well.  Gardening rules state that tomatoes don’t like standing in water but I found that by using the saucers I could leave them with a good supply to last them the week.  By the time of my next visit, the compost and tray were dry but the plants unaffected by either the standing water or the drought.

Tomato 'Tigerella' watermark

‘Tigerella’, an heirloom variety of tomato with striped fruits

Tomatoes grow in two different ways depending upon the variety – bush or cordon.  With bush tomatoes you just leave them to grow as they will; with cordons it is recommended that you remove side shoots and tie the plant upright onto the cane.  Although the latter method sounds time consuming and fiddly it is a simple and quick task once it’s been mastered.  The secret is to remove any shoots that grow out of the union of the leaf stalk with the main stem – if done early enough they snap off with the fingers.  If you leave them they will need to be cut out with a knife or scissors.  Although it is possible to leave them in situ I find that the plants become very congested and difficult to manage which, in the longer term, means they are more time consuming to deal with.

Tomato 'Sungold' watermark

Tomato ‘Sungold’ – note how the plant has been ‘stopped’ when it had grown as tall as I wanted it to be.

And that’s it!  Just tie the plants to the cane as they grow and give them a really thorough watering once a week from the top of the compost until the saucer begins to overflow.  There’s no time-consuming feeding for the compost will provide all the necessary nutrients. And because the plants are growing strongly and healthily you are far less likely to be bothered by pests or diseases.  All the tomatoes in the photographs received no chemicals or other additives; all we had to do was to eat them.  If you’ve never tasted a home-grown tomato eaten the moment it is plucked from the vine then you’re in for a real treat!

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A photograph from 1979!  Tomato ‘Big Boy’, a beefsteak variety living up to it’s name!

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On Tulips

The story of the craze for tulips in the 17th century, Tulipomania, is well documented and oft repeated.  Suffice to say, that favoured, single tulip bulbs were selling for thousands of pounds/dollars before the tulip ‘bubble’ crashed.  Today, we are fortunate in having many hundreds of varieties in an unimaginable range of colours and forms to choose from and at remarkably low prices.Hidcote - tulips in the Old Garden copyright

Over the years, my work has taken me to gardens of all sizes and styles, from formal parterres attached to country estate houses to ‘pocket handkerchiefs’, to planting thousands in grassland to planting a score or less in pots.  It has given me the opportunity to experiment with colour as well as variety.  Below are some of my favourites.

Hidcote (11) copyright

The formal parterres of this Victorian Italianate garden (by Charles Barry, designer of the Houses of Parliament) required very restrained planting both in colour and quantity.  Here, I used the variety ‘Spring Green’, which stands well even in harsh weather conditions. After flowering, the bulbs were lifted and dried off to be replanted again later in the year.  It is always desirable to do this as it helps to prevent disease and deterioration of the bulbs.  In practice, it is often easier just to leave them and add a few additional bulbs each autumn to bulk up the numbers, especially when time is short.Kiddington Hall 2001 copyright

Also in a large estate garden but at the opposite end of the style and colour spectrum, three thousand red (‘Bing Crosby’) and white (‘Diana’) tulips were planted on a meadow bank.  Tulips when planted in grassland deteriorate very rapidly – to maintain this display new bulbs were added each year.  However, they do look very beautiful when grown this way – try the almost black tulip ‘Queen of Night’ with blue Camassia bulbs for a magical combination.Tulips bing crosby & diana in grass copyright

Even when planting smaller beds, cramming in as many bulbs as is possible between other plants makes for a beautiful display.  This stunning border was only one metre wide and four in length but there was still room to have plenty of early colour from ‘Purple Prince’ and the lighter ‘Candy Prince’.Tulips Purple Prince & Candy Prince copyright

For formal displays a bed of tulips takes a lot of beating.  They can be single coloured as in this image of pink tulips under-planted with yellow wallflowers (seen at Glasnevin Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Ireland) or mixed colours and planted so densely that no other plants were necessary or desirable (seen at Lismore Castle, Ireland).Tulips - pink copyrightTulips Lismore Castle copyright

For those of us with limited space and budgets, tulips grown in pots are ideal for we can still cram the bulbs in to give a magnificent display.  The images below show how the first layer of bulbs are placed before a second layer is planted above them.  Avoid planting directly over the first bulbs by leaving their tips showing – this will give the bulbs space to develop with much better results.  Top up the plants with potting compost and nature will do the rest; it couldn’t be simpler!  I like to use the more ‘exotic’ looking varieties in pots as the blooms, by being lifted closer to the eye, give more opportunity to admire their spectacular detail.Planting tulips copyrightPlanting tulips in pots copyright

Perhaps the easiest of all tulips to grow are the wild species* and their varieties.  Their delicacy of size belies their toughness.  If they like you, they will increase in number year after year.

 

Tulipa 'Peppermint Stick' copyright

Tulipa ‘Peppermint Stick’

 

 

Tulipa acuminata copyright

Tulipa acuminata

All tulips benefit from being planted as late in the year as possible, November is ideal but even if later they will still flower.  The pot grown ‘Green Eyes’ were planted mid-January this year and have just finished flowering.  They will be planted in the garden in due course to flower again next spring.

Tulip 'Green Eyes' copyright

Tulip ‘Green Eyes’

 

In England, tulips are flowering at their best right now: take the opportunity to visit open gardens to see which ones you like best.  Make notes of their names so that you can order the bulbs when the catalogues drop through the letter box mid-July.

*always ensure that any bulb is purchased from a reputable source and have not been gathered from the wild.