As I write, summer still seems to be waiting hopefully in the distance. A truly difficult wet and cold spring has given us an eagerness for the balmy days more than ever. I think it is worth noting that the seasons are changing, shifting almost. The line between them is becoming more and more blurred each year.

Without going into the politics of climate change, I feel as gardeners and farmers we just have to adapt and evolve to the changing seasons because, who knows, next year it could theoretically turn to “normal”, whatever that means…

Sometimes tricky weather conditions can throw up scenarios that can be learned from, for instance, this year we had to delay our seedlings in our greenhouses two weeks beyond previous years because the soil was so wet. This gave us an insight into propagation that we had never seen before; rates of growth, space management, nutrient availability in seed compost and lots more to boot. I suppose I mean that as growers we need to be ever flexible and that you shouldn’t always believe in the sowing and harvesting times you read on seed packets.

Variety in the veg patch

We are lucky enough to be completely surrounded by our own land, 100 acres in total. When we converted the land to organic in 2006 it took just five months, as our neighbours were either organic certified or practiced organic farming methods it went smoothly.

Being surrounded by organic farmland has huge benefits for the veg growing as well, creating a diverse habitat for a plethora of predatory and pollinating insects that we will lure into the garden by growing companion plants. It is now in the summer months that the borage, phacelia and cyrinthe are vibrating with insect activity. Growing any flowers in and amongst your veg patch will help with attracting bees, and I don’t think that ornamental and edible need to be split up. We have a big bee border down one side of the garden filled with good bee plants but throughout the rest of the annual beds we grow sweet peas, sunflowers, calendula and lavender, all of which add colour, height and beauty to the veg patch. Gone are the days of boring long rows and flowerless gardens.

A plethora of tomatoes

When I think of summer I think of tomatoes. The variety available is astounding and we at River Cottage take every advantage of this. Last year we grew 16 different varieties, everything from Amish Paste, a huge meaty fruit with a weighty flavour perfect for grating into a sauce or slicing thickly with mozzarella, to Green Zebra, a bright green when ripe, medium-sized tom with distinctive dark green zebra stripes which look beautiful in a tomato salad. Whatever you choose, when grown with care, tomatoes are endlessly satisfying and unrivalled in taste.


Saving tomato seed is the best way to ensure interesting varieties like these last for years to come, and I would encourage saving to anyone who grows their own. As long as the original seed was open pollinated and not F1 you shouldn’t have any problems. Saving seed is all about selection, so when choosing a ripe fruit for saving have a look at the plant first. Did it grow strong and true, was it a heavy cropper and was it healthy and disease free?

Once you have selected your best plant, remove a ripe fruit (late in the season), slice in half along the equator and squeeze all the pulp and seed into a glass jar and leave to ferment for 3-4 days. After fermenting the seed, rinse and decant the pulp and lay out onto a non-stick surface to dry. Once fully dry to the touch, pack the seeds up into wax paper packets and label. These seeds should be viable for germination for the next two years.

Their life cycle starts in February when they are sown into seed trays (April for outdoor types) about 2cm apart. Tomatoes need 20–25 degrees for good germination and 15 degrees after that before planting out. Once they show a couple of true leaves we then transplant into 5cm pots growing on until mid-April (June for outdoor types) until they are ready to plant out. Transplanting seedlings stimulates more growth and helps push the plants on to bigger and better things. We always grow our tomatoes in the polytunnel because they are far more productive than tomatoes grown outside. If you are going to grow them outside be sure to site them in a sunny, sheltered position.

We grow the tomatoes on strings suspended from the crop bars of the polytunnel. If you are growing tomatoes outside, building a frame over the top of your tomatoes can offer the same service. Once your tomatoes have reached the point where they need support, tie a loose loop around the stem of the plant, then run your string up to the support and tie off tight. The knot needs to be loose so it allows the stem of the tomato to expand. Going forward, as the tomato heads skyward, wind the vine around the string, this allows you to access all sides and makes it much easier for picking.

Keep side-shoots on the tomatoes pinched out to focus the plant’s energy on truss and fruit growth, this also stops your plant becoming a tangled mess. Side-shoots grow at 45 degrees from the point where the leaf truss meets the main stem. This will decongest the plant, increasing airflow and help to keep your plants free from fungal disease. As blight becomes more of a risk later in the summer, we start defoliation of the leaves from the ground up, removing leaves around the ripening fruit. By the end of the season all the leaves have been removed helping ripen the last fruit trusses, reducing the excess of unripe tomatoes. As much as the chefs love making green tomato chutney, it is also nice to have sweet delicious fruit in the autumn.

Overwatering your tomatoes can be detrimental to the health of your plants and therefore fruit production. Nutrient deficiency, split tomatoes and curled leaves can be the result of saturation. It is important however to keep the tomato growing areas damp to maintain good humidity and decrease the risk of red spider mite and whitefly. Most greenhouse pests prefer dry conditions. Planting basil around the base of the plants is a nice idea to act as a living mulch reducing evaporation and therefore watering and will be there ready to pick with your tomatoes to create that perfect taste combination.

Fruits of our labour

We finished the construction of our new fruit garden back in the spring and now in early summer we are reaping the fruits (quite literally) of our labour.


Fan trained white currant

We planted currants - red, white and pink - as two-year-old plants, and gooseberries - green, yellow and red - as 3-year-old plants, as gooseberries are slower to mature. Currants and gooseberries are brilliantly easy, requiring little maintenance.


Gooseberry 'Hinnomaki Red'

Plant them into fertile, free draining soil in the spring and give them a good mulch with woodchip or compost if that’s what you have. The mulch will keep the weeds at bay, feeding them at the same time. Once established, yearly pruning will be needed to keep young growth replacing the old. I usually prune gooseberries to have an open goblet shape by pruning out the centre branches making them easier to harvest. With currants, I maintain about 20 stems pruning out congested growth and any dead or diseased wood.


Redcurrant 'Red Lake'

River Cottage HQ is really worth a visit in the summer. The fields are bustling with cattle and sheep grazing on lush grass with the pigs and chickens bathing in the sun. The smell of wood fired pizza drifts through the yard and the conveniently placed peas are calling to be pinched. If only it was summer all year.


Will Livingtone wrote this article for Smallholder magazine. For more articles like this subscribe here, call 01778 392011, email or buy from a newsagent.