Tomatoes Needing Space
Dahlias Breaking Out

The long spell of warm weather has left me with rampant tomato plants and Dahlias eager to be let out to grow huge and lush. In common with many others, I have Space Issues. Conventional wisdom would be not to put tomatoes and Dahlias outdoors until the last risk of frost has passed at the end of May. I tend to assume that here, reasonably south in the UK and in a quite sheltered garden, I can shave a week off that. However, faced with plants jostling to escape the confines of the planthouse – now permanently open – I am starting to “move them on out”. Although not without taking some precautions.

When it comes to deciding how to grow my tomatoes this year, I am doing yet more experimenting. The garden supply catalogues are full of nifty ideas to help you spend money on ways to grow better plants. A lot of these seem really good ideas too, but having just forked out for buttefly netting to protect my brassicas, I am feeling a little parsimonious, so as ever, am going to have a go at inventing my own alternatives…

The first step was to shuffle things around in the greenhouse to make space for the first three “Gardener’s Delight” tomatoes to be put in their final growing positions. I will be really interested to see how much of a head start they get on the others, which will have to wait their turn as I still need lots of shelf space in the greenhouse.

One of the issues with tomatoes is watering – you want the moisture levels to be as constant as possible to avoid splitting and worse, blossom end rot. One of the (expensive!) things you can buy nowadays is a set of pots that sit on a platform covered in capillary matting, that is in turn sat in a reservoir of water. You keep the reservoir topped up and the capillary matting provides a steady supply of water to the roots through the base of the pots. I’ve used a large watering tray, sat three half seed trays on it upside down, covered the lot with capillary matting, and sat my large pots with tomatoes in on top. I am hoping that the large quantity of moist compost combined with the reservoir system will help me keep the tomatoes well watered in a similar manner. My main concern is that the pots may be too large, as lots of damp compost around small roots might not be the best of ideas, but hey, this is an experiment:

Experimental Watering

I can’t do anything about the rest of the greenhouse tomatoes until (a) I can shift more things out into the planthouse or coldframe and (b) MIL and FIL buy more growbags. So I turned my attentions to the outdoor tomatoes.

It’s always struck me as a little daft that you can grow up to three tomato plants in a growbag. So little depth of soil, it seems miraculous that they can survive at all, let alone thrive. We have a couple of those grow ring things that you insert into the top of a growbag – you plant the tomatoes in the small pots, giving them a bit more depth of soil, and water (and feed) into the surrounding ring. I don’t know where ours came from, but I will be trying them out in the greenhouse and comparing the results with other approaches. Most of my outdoor tomatoes will be grown in large pots filled with growbag compost, but I’ve seen lots of “frames” for hiolding growbags on the sides, thus increasing soil depth. So, I’ve done my own, and for good measure cut the bottoms out of some of my many, many 2 litre plastic pots to use in the tops, adding yet more depth. The shelving unit I had to move out of the greenhouse to put the “Gardener’s Delight” plants in place is actually part of one of those plastic greenhouses. Tall bamboo canes tied to the crosspieces at the back provide stable plant support, shorter ones at the front keep the bag up on its side. The combination adds enough weight to help me believe this won’t topple over, which given the strong winds we are having at present is an important consideration!

Experimental Growbag Approach

So, that’s two “Ferline” and one “Olivade” in new homes. I will be interested to compare the growth and fruiting with others of the same variety planted in large pots. I’ll put a mix of tumbling tomatoes and margolds on the shelf in front of the growbag, probably using the same technique but without the extra bottomless pots. And of course one of the advantages to using the shelving system is that I can add the plastic cover, giving quick emergency warmth should the temperature suddenly dip. I’m not a supersitious person, but I think part of me is hoping that if I take precautions I will get away with it, whereas if I blithely just went ahead and put everything out unprotected, I would be punished for my foolhardiness. This gardening lark turns me in to a bit of an idiot…

Used As Intended

Its a start, and come the arrival of more growbags I will plant up more of my outdoor toms, but keep a large piece of fleece to hand, just in case. However, it will be weeks yet before I am brave enough to put my sweetcorn out, which leaves me with the dilemma of what to do with these:

Cosse Violette

I sowed sets of three seeds of the purple climbing French bean “Cosse Violette” to plant with the sweetcorn, à la “Three Sisters” planting. The corn is growing well but the beans will be way ahead of them. So I was heartened to see a couple of fellow allotment holders planting up French and Runner beans at the weekend, and to read this morning that Sara@Hillwards, who lives at a similar latitude to me, has just planted hers out too. So, I am going to start hardening them off, grow them up canes instead of sweetcorn, and sow more seed for the Three Sisters experiment. Though having been reading up more about how to do this, particularly on Purple Podded Peas, I may need to rethink even more…

57 thoughts on “The tomatoes make a bid for freedom

  1. Hi Janet,

    I’ve planted out my peas and Toms now, the Toms have been outside for the last month or more and were just like yours – really needed to be planted. So they’re in our raised Veggie bed along with some sweet peas to liven it up a bit.
    I’ve still some more Toms, so if it all goes wrong, they are still protected and will be planted in some large pots near the house where they shouldn’t suffer any frost problems should the temperatures tumble.

    1. Goodness! Now I feel very whimpish! Thanks for that Liz – will start hardening things off in earnest. I have “b” list toms that are a potting on behind held back as emergency replacements too.

  2. That’s a co-incidence as I’ve just posted about growing our tomatoes using ring culture but our plants aren’t anything like a large as yours.

    1. Excellent – I shall go and have a read! I sowed my tomatoes on 3rd March, but they have loved the extra light from growing on in the greenhouse and have gone slightly mad…

      1. You had a head start on us then as ours didn’t go in til 28 March and 30 March – makes me feel better

  3. By the way do you think the sort of corn we grow will support the climbing beans as traditional corn grows taller and stronger? We were going to have a go at this a while ago and relented. We them all in the same bed but greww the beans up canes.

    1. Funny you should say that… I am getting cold feet, so will probably do two sisters (sweetcorn with squash round the feet) with blocks of dwarf French beans to still get the nitrogeon fix but make harvesting easier. I’ll grow the climbing French beans elsewhere. When I can work out where… It seems far too early in the season to be running out of space!

  4. Shedman is in charge of veg this year – but our tomatoes have been out for a while. I planted the dahlias today – as they were trying to flower – they have been standing outside in pots for the past month. I may be tempting fate when I say this, but here at the coast (warm and usually WET) my last frost date in this garden tends to be April. I am thinking of putting the cannas out too …. although that may be a step to far! ;)

    1. OK, yet another reason to try to move to the NW coast – as if I needed one… I just need to remember where I was going to plan what Dahlias. And get more compost. If it all goes horribly wrong, I know where you blog…

  5. Great ideas, Peashoot! And as you are a week ahead of Scotland in weather terms I shall be following in your wake;>) Mind you I’ve got 130 bean seedlings hiding in my plastic greenhouse and they have to be liberated before I can plant up the toms cucumber pepper in their growbags. I’ve been toying with the ring culture idea this yeay, but haven’t sourced a suitable tin opener for cutting the bottom of the pots off yet. Don’t wan’t to loses a finger!

    1. Release the beans! Release the beans! I find a Stanley knife and a lot of care does for the pot bottoms. Still have all my fingers, honest…

  6. It’s good to experiment and see which method works best for you, I’ll be watching with interest. My tomatoes are grown in the greenhouse in containers but I’ve been looking at grow rings recently. I haven’t planted any beans or sweetcorn yet.

    1. Hi Jo, I am particularly looking forward to finding out whether I think the shop-bought grow rings seem to deliver sufficiently improved results to justify the cost. I’ll keep you posted! I need to sow more sweetcorn, but have just read that it is not good to grow more than one type at a time, as they might stop one another fertilising? Ah well, there’s always next year…

  7. The warm April was certainly a challenge in more ways than one Janet – plants growing too quickly and not enough time for housework. Fun and games here this afternoon – I had turfed some plant out of the greenhouse into the outer world for the first time when along came thunderstorm complete with hail. Interested to see what you are doing with your tomatoes. I am growing Ferline too.

    1. Hi Anna, there’s never enough time for housework! Hope your plants survived the baptism-by-hail, sounds a little harsh for their first outing in the great outdoors. That’s the problem with May, isn’t it. I have high hopes for Ferline, never grown it before, but sounds delicious.

  8. Hello Janet, yes at this time of year everyone seems to be wondering if it is time yet to plant things out…and there seems to be no frosts on the horizon, but one never knows…best keep the fleece handy!…..your toms look really healthy!

    1. Hi Mike, I have been checking out the windbreaks constructed by people up at the allotments to protect early sowings of beans. Most ingenious, I think I shall copy them, as they are both on plots that are run by people who seem to be very successful.

  9. Hi Janet, lots of good ideas. My greenhouse tomotoes will be in bottomless pots of compost on a bed of gravel and I’ll copy your idea for the outdoor ones as I have 3 of those mini-greenhouses. I’ve just planted the first of my runners and french beans out tonight but I did plant my Dahlia tubers out 3 weeks ago. I think as long as you keep an eye on the forecast and are prepared to fleece them at short notice it’s OK in the South in May. As long as you’re not on an open site or frost hollow etc. I’m behind with my sweetcorn, planted them out much earlier last year and just protected them with plastic bottle cloches – was eating sweetcorn in early August so was worth the risk. On the toms I always add dried crushed eggshells to the planting hole – helps calcium deficiency (I think!) Good luck with them.

    1. Hi Damo, I guess you will be getting dahlia flowers rather earlier than I will! I’m going to plant out the ones destined for the garden this week, but keep hold of the allotment ones for now – bit far to run with the fleece… Plastic bottle cloches! Now why didn’t I think of that, perfect for protecting early sweetcorn. Might try them with my dwarf runner beans too. Your “as long as you are not on an open site” comment made me smile – the allotment site is VERY open! Hence all the ingenious fleece windbreaks appearing as people start planting out beans… Like the crushed eggshell tip too, will file that away for future reference, and make sure we eat more eggs ;-)

  10. I totally agree about the notion that you can grow three tomatoes in a grow bag. I used grow pots a few years back and the result was better as you can ensure that the plants get a good water – far more than I think I would have given them before.

    Planting mine in big pots this year and also some out at the allotment – no idea what will happen but have low expectations so cant go wrong

    1. Good luck with the plot tomatoes Helen, from what I understand you may well succeed well as it is a new allotment site and it takes time for blight to settle in? I agree that getting plenty of water to tomatoes seems to be key, and at least I can use the spent compost to grow salad crops in. Or so I keep telling myself as I eye up the vast number of grow bags I now need in order to fill my large pots…

  11. Everything looks so good! I can see now why I didn’t have much luck with vegetables…I’m not nearly consistent enough in my care of them. The vegetable garden has long since been turned into a perennial and herb garden!

    1. Ah, but you do have a stunning garden as a result Cat! I think my ideal would be to have enough room to grow plenty of ornamentals but also have a kitchen garden packed with fruit, veg and herbs. All “pyjama-friendly”, as I call it – pop out, do a little, come back in for breakfast, get dressed, pop out and do a little more. I have to be much more organised with the allotment, and end up doing more in a single visit than is ideal health-wise.

  12. You always surprise and fascinate me with your ingenuity…I am taking my chances with planting tomatoes out under row cover or with water walls this weekend (last year it snowed but they were safe under cover). Will have to look into some of your methods here as possible new ideas for me to try…

    1. Water walls?! You intrigue me Donna, what is a water wall?! I love the idea of tomatoes outside but protected and therefore surviving snow.

      1. A water wall is a plastic recepticle that goes around the plant. You fill it with water and it insulates the plant…for where I live, I would use the water wall and the row cover for extra protection from cold and snow…here is a link to the US where you can buy them …

        and a link to a blog post where I learned about them…

    1. Hi Janet, reading up a little more about the Three Sisters arrangement it seems I need to adjust my plans to suit the different growing conditions, and the fact that the Native Americans grew their corn and beans to dry. Apparently in our climate the beans can overwhelm the corn and make harvesting both fresh without trampling the squash rather tricky. I am currently thinking of adopting a two and a half sisters approach, where I use dwarf beans for the nitrogen fixing and leave the corn to grow free of encumbrances. Watch this space…

  13. I find it fascinating that the last chance of frost is the same for you as it is for us here in the northern U.S. But you have a long, relaxing, beautiful spring, and we have a winter/spring that suddenly, almost overnight turns into spring/summer. Blogging is a wonderful window into other glorious parts of the world. Enjoy those healthy veggie plants!

    1. I love that aspect of blogging too, and the way that so many temperate climates seem to suddenly catch up with each other by late Spring so that suddenly we are all seeing the same things.

  14. Hello Janet, thanks for your visit to my blog. Likewise I’m delighted to discover yours. I will follow your tomato venture with interest. I don’t grow tomatoes (no greenhouse, and too far north for outside varieties), but my Dad grew tomatoes and I have a great affection for that tomato-y greenhouse smell.
    I’m also swithering about planting out French beans. We have just had a sharp frost, so I’ll hold back for a week or so yet, but it’s getting crowded on the living room window sill.

    1. Hi Linda, you’re welcome, it was great to find you. That tomato smell is so evocative, isn’t it. I’m watching the forecasts like a hawk at the moment, they seem to be predicting a drop in night time temperatures come the weekend, so I think I will ere on the side of caution when it comes to my allotment crops. Good luck managing the windowsill crush! It gets tricky at this time of year…

  15. Hi Janet, well you have certainly been hard at it! I use capillary marring on my staging in the greenhouse with thick plastic sheeting underneath that. It traps the water and adds humidity. It works for me.
    One thing to remember about the toms and their roots/feeding/growing is that many of the huge commercial tomato growers never plant them up in the conventional sense. Instead they use a system called hydroponics where, instead of the roots being in soil, they use mineral rich water. It really works. So with the grow bags l suppose its irrelevant how much soil they have so long as they are well fed and watered. A bit like me really, so l’m off for my lunch!

    1. Makes sense Trevor, I knew that feeding was crucial. I use capillary matting on watering trays for all my seedlings and young plants, I’m convinced it helps them develop deep delving roots rather than messing around near the top of the pot… Enjoy your lunch!

      1. I might have sounded like l was teaching you to suck eggs but l suppose l am always writing thinking that someone reading this doesn’t always know what l am talking about so l try to be simplistic in my approach. Does that make sense?
        Lunch was excellent by the way. No beer as l just spent the best part of the afternoon in charge of a sit-on mower….could have been nasty!

        1. Not in the slightest! (as in no egg sucking involved). I always appreciate learning from other people, in fact I rather rely on it! I think you missed an opportunity for some “creative” mowing by skipping the beer though…

    1. :-) Have a beer with that lunch, does wonders for the finger fumbles on the keyboard!

  16. Janet!! I have discovered how to get into your blog at work (during lunchtime of course) and bypass the IT police :-))

    Goodness what a lot of tomatoes. They are the one thing I have cut down on this year, and am only growing Gardener’s Delight. I have bought Sungold seeds but not done anything with them yet. I have 6 plants but they are still very diddy. I thought I would use the “cut the grow bag in half and turn it on its end” idea this year. That way they have a lot of depth to throw their roots. It will be interesting at the end of the summer for us all to compare our toms.

    1. Hi Ronnie, congrats on evading the IT police! This is my Year of Experimenting, so I am growing 7 different kinds of tomatoes to work out which ones we like best, and trying different ways of growing them too. I’d forgotten the “cut the bag in half” method, perhaps I will try that too, if I can work out how to keep the half bags stable.

  17. Janet, that first picture had me in stitches. Those tomatoes look like they’re in a jail cell desperately trying to get out! I’ve been trying to harden off my plants as they are getting much too big for indoors but this spring isn’t cooperating at all. Yesterday was so cold, windy and wet I didn’t dare take my seedlings outdoors for fear I’d kill them all.

    1. Hi Marguerite, I feel mean every time I peer in on them in their crowded quarters… Sorry the weather isn’t playing ball. Its getting cooler here too, not sure if it will get frosty, but I may keep the plants in jail a little longer, while they still have some headroom. I’m off to the Malvern Spring Show on Thursday, where apparently it is going to rain on us – knew I was too vigorous with that rain dance!

  18. So much to learn from this post. I got one of those little plastic greenhouses from our favourite diy store too. I thought it might get overheated but it holds moisture well. I’m impressed by your idea to construct a frame inside.

    1. Its funny, the idea kind of evolved from my panic about running out of room! Seems to be holding up with all the wind though, so I’m chuffed. Just wish I had room to set up the other one.

  19. A gardener’s life is full of risks, compromises, experiments and ingenuity! In my case , the toms are all outside now. I have nowhere indoors to keep them – my mini-greenhouses are hosting the chillis. I always remove the central supporting rods of my greenhouses, to make extra space and to allow easier access. I think one of the challenges we face is how not to get sucked into just investing large amounts of money in hardware and technology. If we had as much dosh as we wanted, growing a few tomatoes would be a doddle.

    1. Oh, interesting, hadn’t thought of removing the central bars, was hoping they would add extra support provided I was careful.

    2. PS Couldn’t agree more about needing to avoid the trap of thinking you have to buy lots of stuff to be able to grow things well. My Grandad didn’t have all these fancy gismos, and grew great fruit and veg. In some ways it is somewhat liberating to have so little money available to spend on gardening paraphernalia, it is forcing me to be far more creative than I ever used to be.

  20. All the UK blogs show plants so far ahead of us that I thought your frost date would have long passed. I think I even saw a photo of tomatoes with big green fruit. Our frost date is May 15, and I just planted all my plants outside. They are little and get no special treatment. I am excited though.

    1. Hi Carolyn, I think our long hot spell in April may have thrown things out – I have tomatoes flowering already, though no fruit yet. The problem is, depending on where you are in the UK, sudden frosts in late May are all too common. Though I admit to wondering whether this has changed semi-permanently. I’m off to the Malvern Spring Show tomorrow, but once I am back I think everything is going to get planted out. Assuming I can find tomato grow bags – my favourite brand of peat free has just won another award so is sold out :-(

  21. Your toms are amazing! Mine have just been sorted out (all in the greenhouse; outside doesn’t work for me), and I got my beans in on Monday. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but like you there wasn’t any room for people.

    I’ll be interested to see how your ring culture does — I nearly tried it this year but in the end settled for same old, same old.

    1. Hi Kate, all mine would be going out this weekend were it not for the Great Growbag Crisis – my favourite brand, an organic peat free one, seems to have run out all over the place. Probably a combination of time of year and having just won another award. Do I keep my toms crowded in the planthouse waiting for the perfect growing medium, or risk using a potentially inferior growbag?! These are the things that keep me up at night – that and where to plant my beans…

  22. You have been so busy Janet, you make me feel guilty. My vegetable garden is planted but I haven’t found the time to write about it. I will do sometime soon. Christina

    1. Christina, if your vegetable garden is planted, whence the guilt? You clearly have your priorities sorted!

  23. Hi Janet, As I am a novice veggie gardener, I am learning by way of your example. Your tomatoes are looking very impressive.

    1. Hi Jennifer, if my stumbling around the world of vege growing as a fellow newbie helps you, I am delighted!

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