It is pleasurable to think of ripening tomatoes, the undeniably summery scent of bruised tomato leaves, and all the joys of eating a sun-warmed fruit fresh off the vine. And it is wise to be thinking of them now because the early bird catches the worm (or the ripe tomato). It is true that tomatoes can be started off as late as early April, but if you have space and a little heat in the form of a propagator, those started off this month will ripen sooner and taste sweeter for it.
Tomatoes can be tricky: they are easily tormented by disease such as blight, munched by caterpillars and slugs, and if the summer is wet they can taste drap and watery. The way around this is to grow them under cover in a greenhouse, cold frame or polytunnel. Many varieties are actually bred for greenhouse production and won’t do well outside.
Ruthje, from Vital Seeds, is an organic greenhouse tomato bred for toughness. It doesn’t require high nutrient inputs, has a good skin that won’t split, an outstanding flavour, and stores well on and off the vine (no tomatoes dropping off to be eaten by the slugs before sunrise). It will also after-ripen, meaning that all the green toms you pick at the end of the season will continue to ripen in your kitchen.
Alternatively, Santiam Sunrise is a yellow cherry with the finest flavor I’ve ever tasted. If you are able to get these to the kitchen before eating the lot off the vine then you have true willpower. They are addictively good, but do need growing under protection. I’d almost recommend buying a greenhouse just to grow them.
If you are growing outside, go for varieties specifically bred for outdoor cultivation that ripen early. There are hundreds to choose from. Primabella has exceptional late blight resistance, which is a must outside a greenhouse. It has been bred to ripen early – you can expect red tomatoes by July – and has a good balance of acidity and sweetness. It’s a classic red cherry tom that won’t fail you, and open-pollinated too, so you can easily save your own seeds.
Another outdoor variety worth trying is Moskvich, a cold-hardy, very early vine type from Russia that produces big red slicing toms with an excellent flavour. It is vigorous though, so you’ll have to keep on top of pinching out side shoots.
But if all the talk of gardens and greenhouses is making you weep as you gaze out of your flat window, then I give you House, a tiny, tiny tom for all you flat dwellers with sunny sills. It loves life in a pot, in fact does better here than in the ground, and it’s early to produce too. Sow in the next couple of weeks and you could be eating ripe tomatoes by the end of June. But order promptly as seed will sell out fast.