Red and ripe tomatoes.jpg

Red and ripe tomatoes

By: PAUL McKAY

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Teacher, Paul Mckay, left London to live a self-sufficient existence in the Monchique hills with his partner Martyn. He keeps an assortment of animals and grows a variety of crops in an eco-friendly way – all on a limited income.

Potatoes sometimes get killed off by blight. Cabbages and lettuces occasionally bolt. Beans and peas will rot in wet soil.

Every vegetable I have ever grown in the Algarve has had a tendency to surprise me in one way or another – except tomatoes. Every year, despite heat waves, heavy rain and cold snaps, we always seem to achieve an excellent crop of tomatoes.

I would like to say this is because of my expert gardening skills but the reality is I have come to realise that the Algarve climate is perfect for growing them.

When choosing varieties, I would recommend you use those which are sold in the agricultural shops.

I have experimented with ordering all varieties of seeds from the UK online.

While they have sometimes been successful, they have rarely lived up to the promises on the packet and they have never equalled the flavour of the varieties sold in the Algarve. Coracão de Boi and Marmande have always proved reliable.

Another good source is tomatoes themselves. In late summer (a little late now, I know), buy some tomatoes from one of the markets, from someone you can tell has grown them themselves.

You can be sure they have not paid out for expensive F1 hybrid seeds (which don’t reproduce true to form), so some of the seeds from these tomatoes will give you exactly what you are eating.

Either dry the seeds yourself on a sunny window ledge or squash the tomato on the ground in late December, keeping an eye out for any germination as soon as the weather warms up.

My neighbour has, for as long as he can remember, kept a few tomatoes back each year.

He simply clears some ground of weeds and squashes down a ripe tomato in late December, on a sunny day.

If going to a little more effort, he covers these seedbeds with a bit of plastic sheeting.

He repeats this in January and February (to hedge his bets) and in March/April every year he always has hundreds of small plants spare after planting up his hundred or so plants.

The less adventurous among you can always buy small plants started off. These are sold bare root in the Monday markets – you get about 50 plants for a couple of euros.

Growing them

We have already covered germination. Try to thin the seedlings so that there is 4-5cm between plants.

They appreciate fertile soil, a sunny site, no weed competition and moist but not wet soil.

Depending upon the weather they will grow steadily like this and eventually reach about 15cm in height.

By now they will look quite sturdy, have three or four branches and a number of leaves. They are ready for transplanting.

Transplanting

This is best done on a warmish, but overcast day. March and April are usually perfect months.

Prepare a new bed that can easily be flooded with water through the long summer months.

Once again fertile, free draining soil is best. Plant them a little deeper than they were previously growing, leaving about 60cm between plants, and firm the soil down around the plants.

Keep them moist for the first week or two, particularly if the weather becomes hot.

A good support system of sturdy canes is best arranged now, as it becomes difficult to do later on.

The plants may look a little fatigued for the first few days, but will surprise you how soon they perk up. Soon they will begin growing very rapidly.

Fruit

As soon as the weather warms up, the plants will produce small yellow flowers.

As long as the night time temperature remains above 15 degrees Celsius, these will pollinate and produce fruit.

English gardeners tend to pick out growing points from under existing branches restricting the plant’s growth but Portuguese gardeners don’t seem to bother.

Fewer flowers will result in fewer tomatoes but they may well be much bigger.

Pick the fruit when it is firm and red. They should continue cropping until the first heavy rains of Autumn.

Plan ahead. Don’t forget to put a few tomatoes aside at the end of the year ready for next year’s seeds.

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