In The Garden

Green tomatoes
Green tomatoes

YOU have a better chance of heavier crops of tomatoes, aubergines and peppers if you buy grafted plants — plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week

THIS year, amid all the hubbub of family life, I’m ashamed to say that I forgot about several plug plants which had been posted to me by Suttons, including the F1 tomato ‘Conchita’ and the F1 aubergine ‘Scorpio’ varieties.

They remained in their plastic delivery tubs far longer than they should have done and when I finally planted them into pots on my sheltered, sunny patio in June, they understandably looked somewhat forlorn.

However, in no time at all they perked up and, with a little TLC, all the plants have now given me plentiful crops, which is more than I can say for another tomato plant I bought from a nursery, planted out immediately and lovingly tended but which has succumbed to late blight.

Amazed at the harvest I received from the plants I first neglected, I discovered that they were all grafted plants. The growers select vigorous disease-resistant rootstocks and graft tasty varieties on top, removing the top of the tasty variety by hand, using a small blade to slice diagonally across the stem.

The strong rootstock of the second variety is then removed by the same process and the two plants are grafted together using a special clip, which drops off naturally as the plant grows.

I have found that the grafted plants I tested have been resilient enough to resist my initial neglect and avoid the late blight which has obliterated the fruits on my non-grafted plant.

Likewise, my grafted aubergine, which hasn’t been fed as much as it might, has already produced half a dozen large fruits and more are coming.

Grafted tomato plants have been used by commercial growers for many years and available to home gardeners for the last five, but many amateurs are unaware of the increased yields and vigour they offer.

Although they can cost an average of £10 for three plants, the rootstock encourages greater vigour and your plants will crop earlier and continue later into autumn and produce heavier crops, plus they will have greater resistance to pests and diseases.

Suttons is increasing its range of new grafted plants for 2012, featuring the tomatoes F1 ‘Cupido’, a small, sweet plum type replacing ‘Dasher’ in the range, along with Tomato ‘Twins’, which has two varieties from two grafts and one rootstock, producing two different types of cherry tomato - ‘Orangino’ and ‘Florryno’ - on two stems, and Tomato F1 ‘Shirley’, which produces medium-sized fruits.

Other grafted plants you can try include sweet peppers, melons, cucumbers and butternut squash.

Of course, there will always be those who argue that the relatively high price of grafted plants will be prohibitive and that it’s just as easy to grow tomatoes from seed and end up with many more plants for their money.

Just be aware that, if you are a beginner or have had endless failures with tomatoes in recent years because of blight, the rootstock of grafted plants is highly resistant to soil-borne pests and diseases which can build up in greenhouse border soil and elsewhere.

With this in mind, there surely will be an increase in the purchase of grafted tomatoes and other vegetable plants in the coming years..

Mail order grafted vegetable plants will be dispatched in either late March or April — depending whether they are for the greenhouse or the outdoor patio — and will also be available in garden centres next year.

Best of the bunch — Physalis alkekengi (Chinese lantern)

The rows of 2in- (5cm) long, bright-orange lanterns hanging down the stems in autumn are unmistakable on this under-rated, under-used perennial. The papery husks around the fruits become bright orange as they mature and, when the leaves turn yellow and start to fall, they are simply beautiful.

Perhaps the reason not an awful lot of people grow physalis is that it is a rampant spreader which can become a nuisance if not kept in check.

Its small white flowers in summer are pretty insignificant, but they are more than compensated for by its lanterns in autumn. These will remain on the plant for a long time, slowly changing to a rustic terracotta shade. You can add the dried lanterns to winter decorations too.

Physalis is easily grown in virtually any soil, in sun or dappled shade, and just needs tidying in late winter or early spring by cutting the old stems down to ground level.

Good enough to eat - Ripening tomatoes

The weather may be mild now but the autumn frosts will soon be upon us so you may need to continue to ripen them indoors if necessary.

Trusses of green tomatoes can be cut and hung in an airy place such as a garage, shed, spare bedroom or even the kitchen to ripen. Alternatively, put them in a paper bag and stick them in an airy drawer to ripen.

Individual green tomatoes can be put in a bowl next to a banana, which emits ethylene gas, which encourages the tomato to ripen.

There is one group of tomatoes known as long-keeper varieties, such as the Spanish ‘De Colgar’, which will ripen slowly after harvesting if kept in a cool, frost-free place. You’ll have to be patient, though, because they can take three months to reach maturity.

Three ways to... Detect nutrient deficiencies

1. Insufficient nitrogen can cause foliage to turn pale green and for the plants to become spindly. Apply a high-nitrogen fertiliser to improve conditions.

2. Plants can develop yellow leaf edges spreading between the veins if they are short of iron. This is most common on alkaline soils and you need to apply a product containing chelated iron (liquid or granular form) to ease the problem.

3. Lack of calcium - often experienced when plants are too dry to absorb it - causes distorted leaves, spots and cracks on fruit as well as blossom-end rot. Keep your plants moist to enable them to absorb calcium.

What to do this week

Plant lilies for summer flowering.

If you are planting a new border in spring, do the initial digging now, leaving the ground rough. You can hoe and rake off the weed seeds next year.

Lift and store maincrop carrots and potatoes for the winter.

Put winter protection around vulnerable border perennials and shrubs in cold regions. It can be left a bit longer in mild areas.

If you are thinking of designing a new garden or redesigning part of it, do your measuring and marking on fine days to get a good start before next year.

Lift, clean and store dahlia tubers for the winter.

Continue to pick the flowers of pinks, which encourages them to produce bushy sideshoots in readiness for flowering next year.

Dig up layers of climbers which have rooted, cut them free from the parent plant and pot them up or plant them in their final growing positions.

Continue to order any trees, bushes or canes that you want for winter planting.

Gather any remaining soft-leaved culinary herbs, such as parsley and chervil.

Reduce shoots on hybrid tea and floribunda roses to lessen the risk of damage from wind-rock.