leonard ironside: kentish tomatoes

with the arrival of summer sunshine, we are eating more salads and i’m thrilled that the british tomato is finally season is upon us. although tomatoes are available throughout the year, it is only in recent weeks that local arieties have ripened and i’ve been reminded that there is no comparison between the flavourless tomatoes available during winter and the sweet, tangy and delicious british varieties.

although i am growing tomato plants, they have only just started flowering and there is no sign of any tomatoes so i still have to buy them.the tomatoes provided by food4london are grown by brian and lorraine watts, who run the leonard ironside nursery at farthing common, lyminge, which i visited last month. 

brian has been growing tomatoes since 1974, and it was fascinating to find out what is involved. his nursery comprises four, one-acre glasshouses, containing around 35,000 tomato plants. brian currently grows 10 different varieties, ranging from traditional vine and plum to cherry and beef tomatoes. the tomato seedlings are planted in november in what looks like giant grow bags filled with coir, which is shredded coconut husk – a much more environmentally sound choice than traditional peat.

brian explained to me how the environment in the glasshouses is carefully monitored to create optimum growing conditions. the temperature is varied depending on how bright a day it is - on sunny days the plants grow fast and need extra warmth, whereas on an overcast day less heat is required as they are growing more slowly. just as important is keeping the glasshouses well ventilated so that disease, which flourishes in warm damp environments, is kept at bay and condensation doesn’t form which might cause blemishes on the tomatoes. carbon dioxide, a by-product of the heating system, is pumped into the glasshouses to encourage better growth.

one of the most interesting things about visiting the nursery was learning about the bugs and bees which brian deploys to help him grow the tomatoes. each glasshouse contains a number of bee hives housing bumble bees that pollinate the tomatoes. this is a far cry from the techniques used in yesteryear which saw farmers use a vibrating metal rod to “tickle” each flower so that the pollen was dislodged! the bees are introduced when the first flowers appear - usually just after christmas - and continue their work until the end of the growing season in the autumn.

brian also uses predator insects. the plants are regularly inspected by white-coated scientists and any sign of pests is noted. predator insects are then introduced which target and eliminate these pests. it’s a wonderful example of working with mother nature and as a result of this approach brian’s tomatoes are grown without the use of pesticides, fungicides or insecticides. 

each glasshouse contains 500 rows of tomatoes and from march, when the plants start producing fruit - it takes eight weeks from pollination to a tomato being ready to pick - each row is picked every other day, six days a week.the tomatoes are put straight into the boxes in which they are sold so that they are handled as little as possible. unusually, they are not put into cold storage but go straight to the people who are buying them so that the time between picking and selling is kept short. the result is flavoursome kentish tomatoes which are well worth tracking down.

brian’s top tomato tips

  • store your tomatoes at room temperature so they can continue to ripen.this is particularly important if you buy vine tomatoes as there will always be one or two which ripen at a slower rate than the others.
  • eat your tomatoes at room temperatures and when they are as brightly coloured as possible – the brighter the colour, the better the flavour.
  • use tinned tomatoes in winter.

a version of this article appeared in the kent on sunday newspaper on 5 july.