Thursday, 23 February 2012

Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum)

Tomatoes are the basis of many raw food recipes and home grown fruits have an amazing flavour. Now is the time to think about growing them and to get organised. If drying them, as well as eating them fresh, try and grow as many as possible. We usually grow over 40 plants each year but there still never seems to be enough to keep us going all year round.

Heirloom beefsteak tomatoes (dried)

What to grow
Tomatoes are mostly grown as a cordon (straight up a cane) but can also be grown as a bush or in a hanging basket. Tumbling Tom is the one for the hanging basket. For indoor or winter growing try Red Robin which is a tiny plant and can set fruit in low light conditions. San Marzano has a relatively low water content and is used for sauces so is one to use for drying (but they can all be dried). There are white ones (White Beauty), pink ones (Pink Wonder), black ones (Black Krim), yellow ones (Golden Sunrise and Yellow Perfection), small ones (Gardeners Delight), long ones (Incas), pear shaped ones (Yellow Pear) and stripey ones (Tigerella). The Organic Gardening Catalogue has a wide range to choose from including some we've mentioned here.

Sow the seeds in March in pots in a polytunnel, greenhouse or a cold frame. If possible use homemade (seed free) compost for this. However, a selection of animal-free composts can be obtained from The Organic Gardening Catalogue. Station sow two seeds per pot and water in. Keep the pots under cover and don't let them dry out. Remove the weakest seedling when the plants come up. They should take about 8-10 weeks to grow large enough to plant out. If plants get too big for the pot, they can be potted on to larger containers. If planting outside, wait until the frosts have finished first. Plant out with a spadeful or two of home made compost. Firm the soil down and water using rainwater if available.

If growing cordons, stake the plants with a cane and string as they grow because they cannot support themselves. Depending on the variety the side shoots on the main side branches may need to be pinched out. Some varieties e.g. bush or hanging basket, can just be allowed to grow how they want. Tomatoes can be mulched to keep the moisture in around the shallow roots. They also like a regular liquid feed e.g. comfrey.

Dried tomatoes stored in a sweet jar
Tomatoes can be stored fresh for a certain amount of time. If doing this try to keep them on the vine and hang them in a dry cool place. All tomatoes will ripen eventually although we've found that the beefsteak varieties ripen really well indoors (on or off the vine). Tomatoes can be stored long term by drying using a dehydrator. Slice the tomatoes (including the skins) no thicker than 6mm. Place in a dehydrator and dry for 7-10 hours until brittle. No Teflex type non-stick sheets are required for this. Store in an airtight container until required.

Saving seed
Most modern varieties of tomato seeds are self pollinating and will not cross. If in doubt grow them in seclusion in a polytunnel or greenhouse and exclude any insects that might be carrying pollen from other tomato plants. We highly recommend using Real Seeds method of seed saving. They also have a great selection of seeds.

Raw edible parts
The raw edible parts include the fruit (tomatoes) and oil which is extracted from the seed. The oil contains anti-oxidants and essential fatty acids including a high proportion (54%) of linoleic acid. Seeds are a major waste product from tomato processing industry. However, home growers probably won't have the quantity of seed or equipment required for oil extraction. No other parts of this plant are edible.

Using dried tomatoes
Drying home grown tomatoes extends the tomato season all year round. Dried tomatoes can be eaten as they are or re-hydrated by soaking in water. We often grind them down to a fine powder in a coffee grinder and use them as a flavouring for raw crackers, soups and pasta sauces. Dried tomatoes are really useful as they have a concentrated flavour and add a real depth to any dish.

Perennial alternatives
Tomatoes are perennials but grown as annuals in the British Isles. A similar but much hardier plant is the tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa). They are easy to grow and suffer from few pests and diseases. The best thing about these is that they do not succumb to blight but they can be susceptable to slug damage. As an added bonus each tangy fruit is encased in a lovely green or orange paper case.

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