Toby Young

Thousand-pound tomatoes

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I always thought it was something that happened to other men as they got older, but not me. I was different. Owing to my extraordinary machismo and strength of character, I would not experience this ‘life change’ until I was at least 75 — and at that point I would just take a pill to restore my virility. But it’s no good. Turns out we all suffer from this affliction in middle age, no matter how determined we are to keep our peckers up. I have succumbed. I’ve taken up gardening.

OK, ‘gardening’ is the wrong word. It conjures up images of elderly women in floppy hats, stooping over their gladioli. I am not a gardener. I am a tomato specialist.

For the past four years, I have been growing tomato plants and now consider myself one of the world’s leading experts on Solanum lycopersicum. Seriously. I’m ready for Gardener’s Question Time — or at least I would be if all the questions were about tomatoes.

Which makes it all the more baffling that this year’s crop has been an unmitigated disaster. I’ve done everything right. I grew the plants from seeds that I germinated in my conservatory in late March. I chose a large number of varieties, ranging from Gardener’s Delight to Golden Sunrise. I didn’t move them outside until the end of May to avoid the last frost. And I’ve now transplanted them twice, first into medium-sized pots, then into much larger ones.

The first problem I encountered was blight, which kicked in unseasonably early. After extensive picture research on Google, I concluded they were suffering from Fusarium and Verticillium fungi as well as spotted wilt virus. I was reminded of the time my best friend went for a check-up at a VD clinic and told he had a ‘full house’ — the doctor’s phrase for three separate STDs.

I consulted Laetitia Maklouf, a professional gardener, who advised me to remove the affected leaves then spray with an organic fungicide. The recipe she gave me was as follows: ‘Dissolve 1 tsp bicarb of soda in 2 pints of water, then make a spray using one part milk and four parts of the water+bicarb and add a few drops of washing-up liquid.’

I duly whisked this up — with a lot of unwanted help from my four-year-old son — and got spraying. Result: nothing. It was time to move on to the hard stuff. (Organic fungicides are a ‘gateway drug’.)

I paid a visit to the garden centre in Ravenscourt Park and was advised not to use a chemical fungicide on the grounds that eating the fruit afterwards can induce apoplectic shock. But a bit of Googling revealed that there are safe, copper-based fungicides, so I ordered one of these from Amazon and sprayed them again. Partial success this time. They’re still affected by blight, but the rate of progression has slowed down.

Now my problem is the lack of ripe tomatoes. Once again, I’ve done everything right: making sure the plants are supported by a bamboo frame, pinching out the suckers, giving them regular doses of Tomorite. Most of the plants have flowered and are beginning to form trusses, but the fruit has remained stubbornly green. Nerry a hint of red.

The cause, I think, is the wet weather. It’s exposure to sunlight that causes the fruit to ripen, and so far we’ve had the worst summer since one million years bc according to the papers. I’m beginning to despair of my plants producing a single edible tomato — and I have over 75 of the bloody things.

As Caroline is fond of pointing out, it would be far easier to just buy whatever tomatoes we need in Tesco. But that’s the thing about the gardening bug. You start off telling yourself it’s quite a practical hobby because you can save money on all the fruit and vegetables you grow, but after a couple of years all cost considerations fly out the window. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve spent over a thousand pounds in Homebase on my tomato obsession. Indeed, given the amount I’ve wasted on useless paraphernalia, it would be cheaper to fly the entire family to Cyprus, spend a week picking tomatoes, then fly back home with suitcases full of them.

But even now, as rain clatters down on my conservatory, I live in hope. Nothing tastes quite as good as the first homegrown tomato of the season. I may have to resort to outdoor sun lamps. Google tells me that could work.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.