Dig Your Own Dinner With Rachel de Thame

Posted on: 31 March 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Help to save the British tomato by Digging Your Dinner with some specialist tips from TV gardening expert Rachel de Thame.


If the thought of adding exotic sounding ingredients to your home cooked dishes appeals to you, then you’ll want to know that ‘Whippersnapper’, ‘Tiger Tom’ and ‘Ryder’s Midday Sun’ are just some of the endangered tomato varieties being championed in the Seeds of Change “Digging Your Dinner” campaign.

The initiative, supported by celebrity gardener, Rachel De Thame, is encouraging Brits to get growing to experience the great tasting benefits of home grown organic food and to help save ten endangered tomato varieties for future generations.

The campaign kick starts on 31st March 2009 and sees organic food brand and champion of biodiversity, Seeds of Change linking up with leading organic growing charity, Garden Organic, to raise awareness of the benefits of diversity, both in terms of variety and of taste.

As a passionate gardener, Rachel De Thame, is a strong enthusiast of growing your own and reaping the delicious rewards.

“Tomatoes are easy to grow, are a reliable source of vitamins and minerals and most importantly taste great so I would encourage everyone to give it a go and help keep British tomatoes on our dinner plates,” she says.

Rachel de Thame’s Gardening Tips

1) Starting Small

Gardening can often seem a bit daunting. People assume that you need lots of equipment and a large space to get going, but it’s actually very easy to start small with a few tools and see how you get on.

Containers are a great way to take your first steps into growing your own food, and tomatoes are one of the best things to try. Some pots, decent seed compost and tomato canes and you’re all set to get growing. Nothing beats the taste and aroma of a tomato you’ve grown yourself, fresh off the vine!

2) Easy To Grow Varieties

Tomatoes are a great food to grow in your own garden and are straightforward and rewarding to cultivate from seed. The Dig Your Dinner campaign is championing 10 endangered varieties that are at risk of becoming extinct. They have all been identified as reliable varieties for providing fantastic taste and good healthy crop yields. Just visit www.digyourdinner.co.uk to find out more.

If you can’t get your hands on these, then heirloom varieties such as Red Beefsteak and Red Cherry are also easy to grow and will provide you with delicious tomatoes throughout the season.

3) Growing Tomatoes From Seed

Spring is the time to sow your seeds. They’re not hardy, so it’s best to start your tomatoes off inside – a greenhouse, or windowsill will do perfectly. Sow your seeds into a seed tray which has been filled with good quality seed compost, firmed gently and watered. 

I like to use trays composed of small individual modules, though there’s no reason you shouldn’t try recycling containers like yogurt pots, just wash them thoroughly and punch a few holes in the base for drainage.  Try to drop just one or two seeds on the surface of the compost in each module – this avoids wastage but allows for the possibility that one may not be viable, then cover with a thin layer of compost or vermiculite and label.

Your seedlings will soon germinate and sprout through the soil (if more than one has germinated, remove the weaker one).  Once they start to put on growth, they’ll need to be re-potted into larger containers to allow space for the rapidly developing root system.  Keep moist and when the risk of late frosts has passed and the first flowers have appeared – usually sometime in May – help the young plants to acclimatise gradually to outdoor conditions by popping them outside during the day and bringing them in again in the evenings, after a few days they should be fine to be transferred to their final growing position, either directly in the ground or a large outdoor container in a warm sunny spot.

Secure the main stem to a sturdy cane and continue to tie them in as they grow, pinching out the main growing tip after four or five trusses (bunches) of flowers have appeared.  Keep your tomatoes well watered and give them a boost with diluted tomato feed every week.

4) Experiment With Varieties

Research shows that only 9% of gardeners experiment with growing different varieties, which is a real shame. While it’s of course reassuring to stick to tried and tested varieties, there are many others to choose from. By growing them, you will not only be preserving diversity, but you may also discover some new personal favourites.

Chat to your neighbours and find out what they’ve found successful – it’s likely you’ve got the same type of soil. Swap seeds and be brave, there’s a world of delicious fruit and vegetables waiting to be explored.

5) Involving Children

Children love growing things, and growing delicious things they can eat is the best fun of all.  If you’re also new to gardening, it can be a wonderful way of spending time and learning together.  They’ll find out where their food comes from in the best possible way and probably be more inclined to eat the healthy food they grow! 

Guided and encouraged by you, your children will quickly pick up the basics of sowing, planting and how to care for their plants. Armed with a small kit of their own tools, help your children to sow some seeds, watch them marvel as the seedlings come up and enjoy the harvest as a family.

6) Growing Organically

Organic growing makes sense for you, your family and the environment. The organic approach to gardening recognises that all living things depend on one another and are inter-related – including us.  It’s all about getting the balance right, encouraging beneficial insects, birds and other wildlife, and respecting the natural rhythm and cyclical nature of life.

By using organic methods in your garden or allotment  – including the lawn and flower beds as well as areas devoted to fruit and veg – you can 'grow your own' safe in the knowledge that the produce is free from pesticides. Keeping the soil healthy is at the core of successful gardening and the best thing you can do is continually feed and improve your soil quality and structure by adding copious amounts of homemade compost.  

7) Healthy Soil

If you don't already make your own compost from garden and kitchen waste, get started right away. You can make your own compost bin from four posts in the ground, with horizontal slats of new or recycled timber nailed to the posts to form the sides. Don’t worry about making it perfect – irregular gaps between the boards are ideal for allowing air to circulate.  Alternatively, you may be able to buy a plastic bin at a special rate from your local council.

Up to half of your household waste (shredded newspaper and cardboard, junkmail, raw kitchen peelings) can be composted at home, which diverts it from going to landfill. The compost you make goes back onto your garden, saving on fertilisers and soil conditioners. The better soil you have, the better your produce will be. Looking at it simply, plenty of nutrients in the soil, means lots of good stuff the plants will be able to draw from as they grow.

It’s also important to develop a system of crop rotation.  This simply means not growing vegetables from the same family – legumes, brassicas and cucurbits – in the same spot in successive years.  Aim for a minimum of three years before sowing closely related crops back in the space they first occupied.

8) What’s The Best Organic Pest Control For Tomatoes?

Learn about the creatures in your garden, don't assume that every insect is a pest and remember that the aim of organic gardening isn't to be pest free, but to maintain a balance – pests are food for many creatures too.

When it comes to growing tomatoes, they can often be afflicted by whitefly. The best way to combat this organically is to be vigilant and look out for the eggs on the underside of the leaves, spraying them off with a blast of the hose or wiping thoroughly by hand. 

Greenfly (aphids) are also common and can be swept away with thumb and forefinger.  Ladybirds feast on aphids, so encouraging them into your garden will also help to control them.  Flowers such as calendula, fennel, Californian poppy and poached egg plant tempt other predatory, pest-controlling insects including hoverflies and lacewings.

9) Five Of My Favourite Vegetables/Fruit To Grow:

  • Parsnip ‘Countess F1’

They may not be glamorous, but the humble parsnip keeps for ages in the ground and is an invaluable stalwart of winter cooking.  Whether crisply roasted or pureed for a thick warming broth, it’s always a boon to be able to pop into the garden on a cold day and harvest something fresh and delicious on your doorstep.

  • Beetroot ‘Bolthardy’

I love the sweet taste of beetroot – they’re enormously useful for turning a simple soup or salad into something extra special. This variety is extremely reliable and easy to grow, and can be harvested when young – as a baby beet – or left to reach magnificent maturity.

  • Kale ‘Nero de Toscana’

Once the main growing season is over, it can be a challenge to find fresh leafy green vegetables.  The beauty of kale is that the leaves can be taken from the main stem as and when they’re needed, leaving a ready supply through the autumn.

  • Malus ‘James Grieve’

This delicious apple takes pride of place in my herb garden, where I grow two – trained as espaliers against the wall – to ensure good pollination.  It can also be grown as a cordon, stepover or regular tree…. the results are always the same – crisp, juicy and flavourful fruit that are great for cooking, juicing or eating straight off the tree.

  • Strawberry ‘Marshmello’

A family favourite, this variety produces exceptionally sweet, well-shaped fruit.  I cover the bed with netting to keep the birds from getting the best of the crop…. then the only problem is stopping my children from devouring every strawberry before I can get them back to the kitchen!

The Endangered Tomatoes

Ten great tasting endangered British tomatoes from Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library.

1) ‘My Girl’ Tomato

Medium to large, plum-shaped, red fruits with few seeds.  Thin skinned tomato that is very sweet in taste.  Originally donated to Garden Organic from George Roberts Seedsman of Daventry in the 1950’s.

2) ‘Kenilworth’ Tomato

Classic round, red sumptuous tomato with a sweet and herby flavour.  Donor George Garratt sourced this from the last commercial grower who stocked shops in Kenilworth up until the 1960’s.

3) ‘Ryder’s Midday Sun’ Tomato

Plump, yellow tomato.  Donated by J M Cullen from Friston, Sussex who had grown them since the 1960s.  Originally from the seed company Ryder’s of St Albans, just before the firm was sold in the 1970s and all its varieties were discontinued.

4) ‘Whippersnapper’ Tomato

This variety, commercially available until about 15 years ago, produces an abundance of attractive, small, oval, pinkish-red fruit. A very early variety, it is ideal for tubs and hanging baskets.

5) ‘Beefsteak’ Tomato

This variety produces a heavy crop of medium-sized, orange-red fruit with some ribbing and a mild, sweet flavour.

6) ‘Broad Ripple Yellow Currant’ Tomato 

This variety can produce masses of sweet-tasting, tiny yellow fruit right up until mid November.  Seed Guardian Loppy Garrard says "kids love them as they are 'sweetie' sized". The Bell and Bird Table pub in Wellington voted this tomato joint first at their annual tomato tasting day.

7) ‘Pink Cherry’ Tomato

Originally donated to the Heritage Seed Library by Dave Podmore, this variety is both prolific and hardy doing well both outdoors and under glass. The small, plum-shaped fruits begin pink, becoming red once ripe, have a pleasant, mild flavour and look wonderful in a mixed salad. 

8) ‘Hugh’s’ Tomato

This attractive, lemon yellow beefsteak tomato with light yellow, meaty flesh needs stout staking as it can produce extremely large fruits (often 500gms but can weigh as much as 1kg). Seed Guardian Mike Wicken says "eating excellent, sweet and tomatoey! Flavour is delicate but distinctly a true tomato taste."

9) Tomato ‘Tiger Tom’

Martin Crees, Sussex, donated this variety to the Heritage Seed Library in 1980 after sending for seeds from John Woolf, Devon in 1979.  The medium-sized fruit are both attractive and delicious. This variety can be grown indoors, but produces more fruit outside.

10) ‘Auntie Madge’s’ Tomato

This variety has been in the donor's family for generations and was handed down to her by her husband's Aunt Madge. It has grown well in the tunnels at Garden Organic and is a prolific producer of small plum tomatoes. One of the seed guardians enthuses: "If you must grow just one tomato, this is the one to grow! Perfect for salads, soups, paste or casseroles.”

What's your favourite tomato? Do you grow tomatoes at home?

If so, let us know by leaving a comment in the box below or share your thoughts with other readers in the 50connect forums.

Share with friends


You need to be signed in to rate.