The cool and wet start to the weather has created perfect conditions for tomato blight to thrive, which has played havoc with the outdoor crops being grown by several of my friends. Here at Gravetye Manor, because our produce is so important to the restaurant, we can’t afford to have crop failures. We need to ensure we get high-quality fruit over a long season, and the only way to be certain of achieving it is to grow some crops under protection.

We use a polythene tunnel for this, and although it’s a rather ugly structure, it’s tucked away in a discreet but sunny corner, and creates an invaluable environment, providing enough heat and shelter to raise excellent tomatoes in England’s unpredictable summers.

We sow our tomato seeds at the start of March and grow the plants in pots in a heated greenhouse until early May, when we plant them out into wellmatured beds in the tunnel. We tried 12 different varieties this year across a range of shapes, colours and flavours, picking a mix of old favourites and some new ones to try out. Sungold was the first variety to start cropping this year, in mid July. It’s probably my favourite cherry tomato, one I’ve been growing for years for its heavy, reliable crops of beautiful orange fruit with unique intensity and sweetness. Super Marmande from Moles (www.molesseeds.co.uk) is a classic beefsteak, with interestingly shaped fruit and excellent flavour, but Miele, also from Moles, was one of the best discoveries I made this year. It has very attractive, small, yellow fruit with the sweetness of a cherry tomato, but with the shape and fleshiness of a plum. Its distinctive character has put it high on the list for next year’s sowings.

* Country Life Summer Subscriptions Sale – Save £55 a year!

As well as our seed-grown plants, we tried out some grafted tomatoes from Suttons (www. suttons.co.uk). Tomato grafting has been going on in commercial crops grown overseas for many years, but the availability of such plants for home gardeners to grow is a fairly recent development. The method is to graft a good fruiting variety (which might not grow so well on its own roots) onto vigorous, disease-resistant rootstock. The result should be a tough, fastgrowing plant, which fruits early. Surprisingly, although our grafted plants grew well, they were outperformed by the majority of our seed-raised tomatoes. So, due to their extra cost and because I enjoy raising plants from seed so much, I don’t think I’ll bother with grafted tomatoes again. The tomatoes we grew outside this year were rather pathetic, battered by bad weather and riddled with blight, so I finally ripped them all out in July. By contrast, the best outdoor crop I’ve seen this year has been grown by my friend Aaron at Great Dixter. It’s so important to visit other gardens at this time of year to get inspiration and ideas to take home, but itwas hard to hide my envy when I saw his perfect, regimented lines of lush, vigorous plants, full of fruit ready to ripen. His trick is to stick to three tried-and-tested varieties: Ailsa Craig, Alicante and Gardener’s Delight, all of which have a tolerance of cool weather.

The other important thing is to factor in carefully timed applications of copper sulphate (sold as Bordeaux Mixture), an organically approved fungicide that prevents blight taking hold.

The fungus-like organism that causes tomato blight also causes blight on potatoes, and so control for both is similar. Blight becomes a problem from June onwards, in mild, humid conditions, and because its attacks are so weather-specific, it’s possible to predict very accurately when this is about to occur, during what is known as a Smith period. In the past, this meant a series of complex meteorological calculations, but, nowadays, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can log onto the internet and sign up to www.blightwatch.co.uk, which will send you an email or text alerts when blight risks are identified in your area. Not only does this prompt you to prime the sprayer, but the accuracy of timing also makes the application much more effective.

* Follow Country Life Magazine on Twitter

  • dennis alstin

    What has pruning roses got to do with tomatoes