Here at Don Towers, it has been a tremendous year for tomatoes. In fact, I think it is the best year I have known. There have been masses of fruits, all have ripened well, the taste has been superb and there has not been – as I write, at any rate, and I am expecting to go on harvesting for another month at least – any hint of disease or predation.
A good tomato is a glorious thing whether eaten raw and warm straight from the plant, sliced and dressed with oil, salt and pepper and good mozzarella, or made into a sauce. But you cannot buy such a thing.
Supermarket tomatoes are invariably thick-skinned and more or less tasteless when compared to the intensity of a good homegrown one, so it is always worth the trouble to grow your own.
UK-based gardening expert Monty Don shares his advice after having a tremendous year for tomatoes. Pictured: Monty in his greenhouse with some of his plentiful tomato crop
I can take hardly any credit for such a successful harvest this year. I have done nothing different than in the previous 30. I have sown (February) and planted (mid-May) at the same time, grown familiar varieties, watered the same as usual and not fed any of them at all, although they are planted into beds of good soil with a lot of added garden compost.
But you can only learn by analysing both success and failure. It is always worth collecting the evidence and trying to see what has significance and what can be repeated or avoided.
Q Most of the leaves on my conference pear tree have fire blight. What chemical can I use to save my tree?
Victor Palladino, W Sussex
A Warm, wet spring weather encourages fire blight, a bacterial disease, and it is often spread by pollinating insects. No chemical will counter this. Cut back the affected material and burn it, but if it’s persistent then ditch the tree and start again.
Q I give my ten-year-old fig tree a tomato feed once a month but it hardly ever bears fruit. What’s wrong?
Stewart Robinson, Northampton
A Figs need sunshine, good drainage and a regular water supply to thrive. But over-feeding will reduce the chances of fruit, especially if the feed has too much nitrogen. Your tomato feed is not the problem – the soil or compost might be. Do not prune until it is carrying fruit – and only if it becomes too big for the space.
Q My columnar yew tree has grown too tall and wide. Can I cut it back?
Jean Metcalfe, Co Durham
A The trick is to clip it early and keep it clipped annually so that it grows dense and compact. However, if remedial action is needed it will take extreme cutting. Cut back to old wood which will then resprout new, dense growth.
Write to Monty Don at Weekend, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT or email [email protected] Please include your full name and address. We regret Monty can’t reply to letters personally.
The first thing is that I have grown tomatoes in our new greenhouse. This is a recycled section of what was a huge commercial greenhouse that blew down in a storm.
Although it is only a small part of the original structure, it is much bigger than anything I have used before. I suspect that this is a factor on two counts. The large area of glass has maximised the heat and light while keeping it fairly constant, and the high roof has meant good ventilation.
Obviously not everyone has the space for a large greenhouse (although this recycled version cost me just a third of the much smaller wooden one) but you can make sure your tomatoes have ventilation and as much light as possible.
I have also kept a steady supply of water, watering two or three times a week in normal weather and every other day in the July heatwave.
Too much water results in split fruits that then go mouldy, and irregular watering results in blossom end rot – with one end of the fruits turning black and collapsing inwards. Steady and regular is the secret.
Good airflow is the best defence against fungal problems – especially blight, which can devastate a crop. Tomato blight (which is the same fungal disease as potato blight) manifests itself as pale brown blotches on the leaves that will quickly radiate out in a spreading circle of softly collapsing and browning leaves.
The fungus can then get to the fruits, making them inedible. The best means of avoiding blight is to grow your tomatoes under cover and water very sparingly, as the blight needs conditions of high humidity to develop.
However, if you have to grow them outside, choose blight-resistant varieties such as ‘Crimson Crush’ or ‘Shirley’, and give the plants maximum ventilation by spacing them as widely as you can.
When you see the first signs of blight, remove all affected leaves and fruit and strip away all remaining foliage to expose the green fruit to maximum light and air. By August a tomato plant will continue to grow perfectly well with no leaves at all, so this is not, in itself, a disaster – although it does look pretty dramatic.
MONTY’S PLANT OF THE WEEK: KNIPHOFIA ROOPERI
Monty said K. rooperi (pictured) thrives best in fertile, rather damp soil and the plants should be divided every three years to stop them becoming unwieldy
While many red-hot pokers start flowering in mid-summer, K. rooperi is a late-flowering variety that will flower well into October. It has orange and lemon thatched flowers borne on strong stems over a metre tall.
It likes fertile, rather damp soil. Tie up the leaves when it’s finished flowering so it doesn’t smother neighbouring plants, and leave over winter before cutting back in spring.
Lift and divide the plants every three years or so to refresh them and stop them becoming unwieldy. Do this in spring when you start to see signs of new growth.
THIS WEEK’S JOB: DEADHEAD DAHLIAS
It’s important at this time of year to deadhead spent dahlias regularly (daily if possible) to keep the flowers coming for the next month or so. Do not just cut off the seed head but cut the stem right back to the next leaf to stimulate a new, flowering side shoot.