What a difference a year makes. I’m not much better a gardener today than I was last year at this time, but if you measured my success by “vegetal output” you might think I was. For instance, in 2012 my tomatoes, so lovingly mulched with grass clippings and fed on homemade comfrey tea (vile-smelling but richly nutritious), lay withered on the vines, besieged and vanquished by fungal blight. We managed to harvest about five in total, which turned out to be wan and watery.
Consequently this year I transplanted my overgrown tomato seedlings into a patch of earth with few expectations. I didn’t mulch them, nor did I feed them with any kind of specially prepared sludge. Beyond tying them to a few stakes, I left them alone to fend for themselves. Who wants to get too attached to something that’s going to fail? Besides, I swore last year (see prior posts) that I would stop bothering to grow tomatoes outdoors because it always ends in disappointment here in England. I was going to content myself with peas and potatoes and kale. So what was I even doing chucking a few into the ground now?
Well. We came back from our summer holiday to find the tomato plants had grown into a jungle. With no one to nip out the side shoots and re-stake them, they had become massive sprawling plants, dripping with clusters of ripening fruits and festooned with yellow blossoms. Even more amazingly, several plants had seeded themselves in other beds and were just as vibrant. I cut off the growing tips and tried to strip a few leaves from the lower branches, but basically I’ve left the plants as is (as you’d see them in the New World, their native environment).
Now, blight might still be around the corner. Surely not all those green clusters will get to ripen in September sunshine before frost and falling light levels put an end to them. But hey, this year we can say we harvested tomatoes: piles of yellow (Ildi) and red (Gardener’s Delight) cherry tomatoes, and several luscious Marmandes. And they’re delicious.
How susceptible we gardeners are to the vagaries of weather. Despite our efforts to protect and cosset plants, it really comes down to light levels and temperature and hydration. I experimented with miniature polytunnels this year for the first time – and will do so as we head into autumn and winter – but I know that this kind of environmental manipulation only gets you so far. What you really need is good weather – and good luck!