Posted 19th May 2015
In honour of British Tomato Week (18th to 24th May) we spoke with ethnobotanist and television presenter James Wong to find out more about his love of the juicy fruit and his top tips on growing the most delicious tomatoes this summer
In celebration of British Tomato Week we want to know your top tips for growing tomatoes?
1) Pick the right variety! In the great nature/nurture debate when it comes to flavour in tomatoes, the former will always win hands down. I trialled hundreds of varieties in a massive flavour experiment last year to hunt down only the very tastiest and listed the top 1% in my new book (Grow For Flavour).
2) Grow them in the ground, not in pots. It will mean better flavour, less watering and almost zero fertilising will be needed. If you absolutely have to grow them in pots, pick the largest size possible and use a soil-based (not peat-based) potting mix.
3) Always plant them outdoors, if flavour is your primary goal above all else. Despite appearing virtually invisible to the human eye, greenhouse glass can shade out as much as 40% of the sun's rays, which can knock the sugar content of your fruit for six. Simply planting them outdoors can virtually double their sweetness and aroma. OK you will get a much shorter season of fruit and much higher risk of blight, but the pursuit of world class flavour had to have some down sides.
4) Spray them with aspirin, which almost unbelievably can boost their sugar content 150% and their Vitamin C 50%. It works as aspirin is a chemical copy of the natural plant defence compound, salicylic acid. Plants sprayed with a solution of ½ a soluble aspirin tablet in a litre of water, are 'tricked' into thinking a pest attack is under way and will react by diverting resources into making the very tastiest fruit in the hopes of dispersing their seeds to save the next generation.
Lots of our readers have told us they often lose tomatoes to blight, can they do anything to help prevent it or rescue the plant?
Yes, the very simplest thing you can do is grow a blight-resistant variety. There is a new one out called 'Crimson Crush' which despite being bred originally for flavour, by coincidence displayed an almost superhuman like resistance to the disease in the trial fields. When researchers ran tests to get to the bottom of this, they discovered that this conventionally bred (non GM) variety uniquely contained all known blight resistance genes on top of world class flavour, making it the first ever truly blight resistant variety. A miracle of plant breeding, discovered by coincidence.
Where do we normally go wrong when growing tomatoes, are there any common mistakes you hear gardeners make?
There are loads. Firstly stop watering them everyday, as TV experts suggest. All this does is create flavourless, watery fruit on wimpy, moisture-craving plants. The second this daily watering is suspended, these lush leaved plants collapse into wilt, locking you into a cycle of lavish watering. By weaning off irrigation to an absolute minimum after planting, you will notice a massive flavour difference and forgo hours of battling with the hose. OK, your yields will be less generous on smaller, stockier plants, but your flavour will be second to none. All for less work!
The same advice applies for fertiliser. I recently read an article that advised feeding plants every day! Apart from guaranteeing that you spend more money on tomato food than you save in not buying tomatoes, this will severely dent flavour. The excess nitrogen here has been demonstrated according to several trials to water down sugar, aroma and even the antioxidant levels in these fruit. Simply plant them in well prepared garden soil, enriched with plenty of compost or leaf mould and let them get on with it.
Finally, someone needs to clear up that myth that de-leafing your tomato plants encourages them to ripen in late summer. With 70% of their sugars generated in their leaves, pruning all these off is an express route to bland flavour and weirdly hacked up looking plants. Please never do this, it is not based on sound science.
What tomato varieties are most full of flavour that our readers might not know about?
My top three would have to be 'Russian Rose' for its super intense 'classic' tomato flavour, like a slow cooked fresh pasta sauce injected into the fruit, complete with garlic and herbs. Jaw-dropping simply sliced, salted and drizzled with unfiltered olive oil on a hot summer day (smug, self contented expression optional).
'Green Zebra' is my go-to choice for salsas. Don't let the emerald stripes fool you either, this guy is packing in the flavour department. With a boatload of umami flavour chemicals, plus a phenomenal sweet/tart balance, if I had to pick one this would be it. Its bright, zesty tang and mint-like overtones are the things I dream about on cold, winter nights.
They say that 'knowledge' is knowing a tomato is a fruit, whereas 'wisdom' is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. Well whoever came up with that expression has never tasted 'Orange Paruche'. With sky-high sugar content, fragrant notes of tropical fruit like lychees and passion fruit and only a fleeting hint of umami, this guy could easily work in a dessert. The perfect tomato for tomato haters.
What are you favourite tomato dishes to rustle up in summer?
This all depends on variety. With the super sweet salad types, I think minimal intervention is the best way forward. A sprinkling of salt and olive oil is all most need. I like to combine loads of different varieties though so each mouthful tastes deliciously different, not to mention looks amazing, with glinting shades of green, red, burgundy and gold.
With sauce tomatoes, my favourite thing to do is pop them in my one-pot pasta. This über simple recipe was something I picked up on a filming trip to Italy, which chucks chopped tomatoes, onions and garlic in a saucepan with stock and spaghetti, cooking the pasta in it's own sauce. It sounds totally improbable, but totally works, with the pasta absorbing all the liquid to create a silky, creamy sauce, without a ton of fat. Cooks from beginning to end in 15 mins and you have only one pan to wash up. Grate over parmesan, dot over basil leaves, wipe your brow and pretend to your partner about the hours it took to make. Recipe is in the book (Grow For Flavour).
James Wong is the new brand ambassador for Fiskars’ garden hand tools campaign, which is designed to revolutionise gardening and inspire a new generation to get outdoors. James has recently published Grow for Flavour with the Royal Horticultural Society, published by Octopus Books, and created a new range of seeds with Sutton Seeds.
RHS Grow For Flavour by James Wong, published by Mitchell Beazley on 2nd March 2015, £20, www.octopusbooks.co.uk.
Images courtesy of Jason Ingram