winter tomatoI hate to talk about winter (or even Autumn) while we're still basking in sunshine, but we gardeners do have to plan ahead, especially when it comes to the yummier things in life. Because I'm not someone who can go for too long without a fresh salad, I'm already thinking about the chillier months of May-August when I absolutely refuse to pay out-of-season prices for tomatoes – or to buy those tasteless half-ripe things imported from Aussie! All of which means some serious lateral thinking.

In order to assure myself of a tomato-fix come mid-winter, I'm no longer racing to the glasshouse to pinch out every little side shoot that grows from the fork between the stem and leaf branches of my tomato plants. Technically, these little shoots are called "laterals" and we pinch them out so that the tomato plant puts its energy into its main stem and fruit. Laterals can really get away on you if you're not careful (a bit like regrowth after a hair-dye!) but the brilliant thing about them is that they're super-fast at developing roots when popped into a container of water.

At this time of year, ever-thrifty me let's a few good laterals develop on the tomato plants to the point where they're about 15-20cm long and have a nice strong stem. Then I snip them off, bung them into water and, as soon as they have a good sprouting of roots, I pot them up in quality potting mix. That's stage one of the project – free tomato plants. (You lucky folk in warmer climes can use the same method to restock your glasshouse for winter.)

Next job is to grow the laterals on. If the weather is still mild enough, I leave them in their pots in the glasshouse to put on growth (tying them to a bamboo stake pushed into the pot). As soon as there's a nip in the air (by which time the plants will have already developed some flowers and likely have set a truss or two of fruit), into the house they come, and onto the sunniest window ledge available.

Given a regular dose of plant food (home-made or commercial) my tomato plants will happily grow into winter, set more fruit, and deliver me a fine (and free) tomato every couple of days just as the supermarket prices are rocketing. And the added bonus is that I get gorgeous red jewels decorating my window ledge when the world outside is at its brownest and bleakest. What a treat!

End-of-season tomato tips.

  • For fast-maturing indoor winter tomatoes, try growing the little cherry ones – they look stunning on the window ledge, too.
  • My mother grows her indoor winter tomato plants, unstaked, in pots placed on "what-nots" – those tall narrow, Edwardian-style tables that were renowned for holding aspidistras! The tomato vine trails downwards and looks totally decorative with it's red baubles glinting in the sunshine.
  • As your outdoor or glasshouse tomato plants near their use-by date, leave a few fruit to rot on the vines. They'll drop their seeds onto the ground below and, come spring, you won't have to sow seed or buy plants – they'll be down there, somewhere, just waiting for you to pot them up.

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