The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Growing your own tomatoes and coping with blight

tomato seedlingsEach year we marvel when the first tomato seedlings appear. It’s hard to believe that they should grow into sturdy plants almost as tall as me and provide us with pounds and pounds of fruit.

Out of 80 potential finalists, only forty will make it to the next round. Usually we end up with around thirty plants. These make up the cast of our grand tomato opera. A few divas and supporting roles and at least twenty less showy plants that make up the chorus. The main cast bask against the sunny side of the cottage and the rest are in the sunniest parts of the kitchen garden. The ones in the front garden do the best, with the combination of the warmth of the old cottage walls and sun all afternoon. Last year, all the understudies that were waiting in the greenhouse came into their own as some of our plants succumbed to blight.

We managed to keep tomato blight at bay without using any chemicals. This was a painstaking task and we probably harvested just 30% of our expected yield. We eventually lost six complete plants until I twigged that if I removed leaves and secondary stems that were affected (including flowering ones) I could keep the blight at bay. There were several prolonged rainy stretches with conditions that farmers refer to as ‘Smith’ periods. This is when the minimum temp is 10º C or higher and at least 11 hours each day when relative humidity is more than 90%. Forecasts are available here (the same blight hits tomatoes and potatoes). This organic site has loads of facts on blight.

During these ‘Smith’ periods, I peered miserably out of the cottage windows at the continuous rain, hoping that our plants would not keel over and succumb to the dreaded blight.

Blight appears to happen overnight to the uninitiated. In fact there are subtle signs for quite some time before. Blackish brownish spots appear on the leaves and branches before moving to the main stems. Infected leaves and side shoots need to be removed at the first sign of infestation. Once the main stems are affected you are in trouble. It’s worth boning up on the signs early in the season to avoid the devastation of losing your entire crop

Last summer many people contributed comments to our tomato blight post. It became a mini forum for a while and the comments section is packed with interesting tips and tricks from using chemicals to a solution of Bordeaux Mixture that is acceptable in an organic environment. Quite a few people returned to report their progress with a range of cures. Many people found the post when they had lost their crop and were searching for the reasons why.

Looking at our vulnerable seedlings, I hope that this summer will be long and hot with just enough rain to give each plant what it needs in terms of sunshine and showers. We do water and feed our operatic cast as well.

If we had had a long cold winter I would be feeling more relaxed. Hard continuous frost kills the blight spores. A mild winter means that the spores are alive and will become active as soon as the right conditions happen. Blight spores are airborne and can travel for miles.

So I’m looking into prevention rather than a cure this year. I am tempted to treat our tomato beds and eventually our plants with a weak solution of Bordeaux Mixture. I am also going to raise some in large pots in the greenhouse (my neighbour had great success with his last year). I always spray the inside of the greenhouse with Citrox (environmentally friendly) in the spring to kill any bugs.

This year we are growing:

  • Ailsa Craig (they put up a stalwart fight against the blight and produced a good crop last year.
  • Sungold, a sweet, small, orange delight – packed with flavour. We missed them last year.
  • Sweet Olive (Rolls Royce price at £2.99 for 10 seeds). We haven’t tasted these before but they looked tempting I didn’t check the amount of seeds that were in the pack until I had ripped open the fairy light, airtight pack inside. They had better be good as they are replacing Gardener’s Delight.
  • Finally we have tried a beefsteak tomato, Legend. We grew this last year and it survived the blight.

We are way behind in the garden this year but things always seem to catch up! If this happens a heated propagator really comes in handy. Ours is a cheap, basic one but our tomato seeds germinated in 3 days. Now aubergine seeds have filled the next slot. By Sunday, sweet peas will be next in a long line of seeds that could do with a helping hand.

  Leave a reply


  1. David Davies

    I’m looking for some Sungold tomato plants

    Can you help?


  2. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Rosemary

    Thanks so much for this information. Really pleased that I bought them now.

  3. Rosemary

    I have grown Sweet Olive tomatoes for the last 2 years and have found them to be superb. Not only are they yery prolific fruiters but the taste is good, they are very firm and keep well unlike gardeners delight which I have found to soften quickly once picked. They were the only tomatoes that survived, after being sprayed with copper fungicide as the others all succumbed to blight

  4. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Eleanor the Great

    It is so satisfying growing tomatoes if the summer is warm and sunny. Fingers crossed for this year.

    A greenhouse is a real boon. I find that our heated propagator is very handy for speeding up germination. My mum used to use the airing cupboard for her seeds with good results.

    My pepper seeds have germinated but are still tiny.

    Good luck with your toms and peppers. Let™s hope that we have bumper crops.

  5. Eleanor the Great

    I love growing tomatoes, although I am a rank amateur compared to most. I love the ‘Sungolds,’ and have starts of them already in their second pot. We also have ‘Riesentrabe,’ which I grew last year and loved, and a type we got free seeds with an order called ‘Hard Rock.’ We will see how those are.

    I’m still trying to get my peppers to do anything. We just don’t have enough of a summer. I start them inside, but I don’t have a greenhouse, so it’s hard to keep them in once they’ve reached a good size. We’ve got a few very short season types this year, but they were sooo slow to germinate…I have less hope than I would if they had popped up faster.

    Best of luck with this year’s batch!

  6. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Sally

    This is when I start to envy you – warm Italian summers to ripen your tomatoes!

    Hi Sylvie

    Yes they do need a good stretch of sun, ideally in the afternoon. It could have been the variety too, some are more flavoursome than others.

    Hi Kate(uk)

    Fingers crossed that we escape the dreaded blight this year!

    Hi Moonroot,

    Interesting that Legend is pretty blight proof, thank goodness I have ten of these seedlings! Best of luck with your harvest – you can never have too many toms.

  7. moonroot

    I’m going well over the top on tomatoes this year – I have raised seedlings of ‘Sungold’, ‘Tigerella’, ‘Green Zebra’, ‘Black Cherry’, ‘Sub-Arctic Plenty’ (in case it’s another cold, wet summer) and ‘Legend’ and ‘Ferline’ which are supposed to be pretty blight-proof. Most will go in the polytunnel. So hopefully at least one variety will be successful and if they all are – well, luckily I love tomatoes!

  8. Kate(uk)

    Good luck this year Fiona- I just planted my seeds yesterday, we have had such heavy frosts this week that it was really not the time to sow seed, but I decided to just go for it and risk them on the windowsill.Here’s hoping for better tomato/aubergine/pumpkin weather this summer!Along with old favourites, I’m trying a couple of varieties that claim to have better blight resistance, we’ll see.Trying again this year for the salad of yellow,orange,red and black cherry tomatoes I imagined I would have last year before the blight struck!

  9. Good luck with your tomatoes this year. I only ever tried growing them once, but our yard is just not sunny enough and when they finally started to ripen, I was so disappointed as they tasted more watery than cheap supermarket potatoes.

  10. There is nothing better than a home grown tomato -another variety altogether than those watery red things bought at the supermarket.

    Just loved the metaphore with the opera cast – fantastic stuff. And, thanks for the tips on blight.

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