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Growing tomatoes in the greenhouse. Tips from traditional practice at Audley End House

Photo: May; tomatoes in my greenhouse

Photo: May; tomatoes in my greenhouse

This year we are going all out for rearing tomatoes. Growing them on the sunny wall in front of the cottage and in the greenhouse. We are nurturing fifty plants and if all goes well we’d love to be able to bottle some fruit for use during the winter months. Danny is a tomato as well as a potato fan – well they are related after all. He loves to graze on the toms when I’m out at work. If I grow loads he is almost able to steal with impunity.

Unfortunately tomato blight has attacked the crop the past two summers but hopefully we will have better luck this year.

At the beginning of August 2008 I spent a really happy day with Magic Cochin who writes the superb blog Purple Podded Peas.  It was an Interblog day out at Audley End House. I fell in love with the large walled kitchen garden, greenhouses, potting sheds and stores. The under gardener’s bedrooms backed onto the immense boiler that heated the greenhouses. Which seems a good balance, staff and delicate fruit all being warmed by the same furnace.

I was impressed by the system that they used to support the cordons in the tomato greenhouses. String was attached below the bottom two leaves of each plant and then twisted gently round the stem.  The top of this string was attached to lines on the sloping glass roof of the greenhouse. There needs to be a fair amount of play on this string so they had evolved an ingenious plan to allow for growth of each cordon – height and stem. This was a small piece of wood with a v shaped cut at each end. This piece of wood held the slack, secured by a knot in a groove. As each cordon grew the slack could be gradually released.

Photo: August 2008 - the inspiration at Audley End House

Photo: August 2008 - the inspiration at Audley End House

Magic Cochin encouraged me to photograph this greenhouse so that I could replicate the system. In fact she’d used the same method in her greenhouse. It was lucky that I did as today, when rain stopped play at work, I was able to study the system at Audley End from my own kitchen table. I also spotted that the tomato pots were just standing on gravel, without saucers! I had been wondering where I could find the suacers that I needed.

I looked out my slim greenhouse gardening bible The Royal Horticultural Society book Growing Under Glass by Kenneth A Beckett. This book confirmed that tomatoes don’t like to stand in water (one of the drawbacks of grow bags). This book also pointed out that often they needed watering three times a day in hot weather. This is where the reservoir system could come in very handy. And cut watering to just twice a day.

Photo: cardboard support for cordon tomato

Photo: cardboard support for cordon tomato

The supports to hold the slack were easy to make out of an old cardboard wine box. Cutting a v section out of each end and snipping a section on one side to hold the string (easier than struggling with knots). The string is attached just below the bottom two leaves of a cordon – using a reef knot (Left over right and right over left – this will not slip and tighten around the stem of the plant). Allow a decent extra length of string to accommodate the growth of the stem. The string is then gently wrapped around the stem of the plant and secured to a wire about 5-6 feet above the plant. Use a cardboard support to take up the slack on the string. This can be gradually released as the tomato cordons grow and strengthen. Just keep on winding the string gently around the stems until you stop the plants. We do this when they have five good flowering trusses.

Although setting this up was a bit of a palaver I can already see the benefits. It’s easy to spot the leaves that need to be removed to keep the cordon shape. Also all the plants are getting a decent share of sunshine and light.

I also removed the netting that I hang in the summer greenhouse. According to Growing Under Glass, the use of netting is generally to keep the temperature down in the greenhouse. If you don’t grow a lot of shade loving plants, your light loving plants will thrive without netting and not get quite so leggy. Our greenhouse is in a moderately sunny spot with windows that open automatically when the temperature goes up. I always leave the door open too on warm days. So the net has been washed and it now hanging on the line.

We are going to try a similar system with the tomatoes that we grow along the front of the cottage – far easier than the unwieldy canes that we’ve used to date. A couple of sturdy supports with a strong wire slung across to support the strings would be perfect.

It will also be easier to keep a beady eye on the precious trusses as well. Danny beware.


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10 Comments

  1. Joanna

    Some great ideas. Hmmm! Now all we need is a greenhouse, maybe next year?

  2. Cara @ Turvys

    Fab idea for the tomatoes. I only have a small plastic greenhouse – garden is much too small for anything else, but think this would be good to try.

  3. magic cochin

    I don’t think I’ll match those amazing tomatoes we saw at Audley End!

    But what a timely post – I’m planning to plant up our tomatoes today! So many decisions to make – where will we stand the pots outside this year? (the courtyard isn’t sunny enough unless it’s a scorching summer, BUT it protects against blight and the hens) How many plants per large pot? How many plants to keep and how many to sell on the stall at the gate?

    Good luck with yours :-) hope there are lots for Danny to graze on.

    Celia

  4. Linda

    I grow mine in pots, but with canes so far. Might try the string next year.
    When I had my greenhouse built I stipulated approx 3/4 hard paving with a gravel strip running end-to-end, on the ‘back’ (north) side, and this is where the toms are, without saucers. It means that there is no problem with overwatering (a tendancy of mine) as anything the soil doen’t want just drains away.
    This has worked really well for me, as my feet are always dry, and the gravel allows soak-away.

    Audley End sounds wonderful. Too far away from West Wales though!

  5. kate (uk)

    50 plants! No danger of running out of tomatoes then Fiona! And there was I thinking I had gone a bit mad with my 10 plants ( usually 6) in the greenhouse and 4 outside, oh, and the six more in the conservatory…
    Yes, saucers not good- I tried saucers with half my plants a couple of years ago and the plants just on gravel did so much better that I removed the saucers after a couple of weeks.I also tried two plants in some of my big pots last year ( can’t bear to throw out seedlings that I can’t either use or give away) and I think I got the equivalent of one plant’s worth of fruit from the two, so no gain- has anyone else tried two in a pot? I’m keeping the highly bred yellow tomatoes in the greenhouse this year, after two years of them succumbing readily to blight outside: just putting a few super sturdy gardeners’ delight outside.Fingers crossed….

  6. Sylvie

    Wow, you’re tomato plants are huge already. My friend has been growing some and I’ll be getting a couple to grow in a grow bag outside the house, but hers are nowhere near that size yet.
    I’ll keep my fingers crossed that you won’t get tomato blight this year.

  7. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Joanna

    Our greenhouse was really cheap and arrived in a long slim box (apart from the glass!). Building it was a bit of a learning curve (did you ever try Meccano? I didn’t but D clearly did!).

    It has been a joy although I wish that we could have afforded a slightly bigger one. Ours is 8’x6′.

    Well worth the investment as it’s great for germinating seeds and growing delicate crops. It can also extend your growing season by several months.

    Hello Cara @ Turvys

    I reckon that it would be worth giving this system a go.

    Thanks for dropping by.

    Hello Magic Cochin

    I don’t think that I could match those Audley End toms either but I like to dream.

    I reckon that the no saucer tip for toms is more useful than the string idea. I wouldn’t have twigged this if I hadn’t taken the photos as my attention was totally diverted by the strings.

    Hope that wherever you place your toms, they will thrive.

    Hi Linda

    Thanks for sharing your methods!

    Up until now I’ve found the canes are a bit of a nightmare. Especially in the front of the cottage where they seem to be battered by the slightest breeze.

    Our toms are on gravel in the greenhouse too.

    I don’t know why but something stops me from having a greenhouse border.

    Hi Kate (uk)

    We need a warm summer for our sanity let alone our toms!

    I’ve not tried two toms in a big pot so can’t share I’m afraid.

    I’m going to spear the bottom of my grow bags (drainage) this year and hope for a better crop (with water bottle reservoirs).

    Just looked up the long term weather forecast and it’s looking hopeful :0)

    Hi Sylvie

    These plants were grown very early this year and the greenhouse makes them develop very fast. We also have toms that were planted quite late too.

    I’ve discovered that the plants that were germinated later often catch up when they are planted in their final growing place. Strength is more important than size.

    BTW thinking about your flat and the lack of an outside tap – it’s well worth setting containers around the garden to collect water when it rains. Plants much prefer this than mains water and it would save at least one or two trips downstairs with watering cans when we have a showery day.

  8. Compostwoman

    Hmmm I grow my toms in buildres buckets in the polytunnel, 3 per long gravel tray. I have mine standing in water ( a few cm) all the time, and I get very good results for all the sifferent varieties I grow?

    I find the water helps with the humidity needed in hot weather and it avoids splitting from under/overwatering….

  9. Compostwoman

    For some reason my blog link dodn’t load correctly?

    it is http://www.compostbins.blogspot.com

  10. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Compostwoman

    Builders buckets are great for growing veg!

    I’ve stood my pots on trays before but thought that I’d give this system a go this year. As I’m out all day they aonly are watered in the morning and evening so I’m gooing to use water bottle reservoirs too.

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