Guernsey Press

Feeling the heat

As the capital hit record-breaking temperatures, our ‘Guernsey Gardener in London’, Paul Savident, tended to his tomato plants and recalled the drought of 1976...

Bowl of Green Tomatoes. (Picture by Richard Leighton-Hammond, 31055463)

AS I sit writing, our mercury thermometer indicates it’s 44C outside, though with the pressure dropping and windows open there’s now a welcoming breeze flowing through my office at the top of our house.

It looks as though it’s a record-breaking day for London, hot on the heels of the Guernsey Press reporting that yesterday [Monday] was a record-breaking day in Guernsey too, with the temperature topping out at 34.2C.

As the heat had been forecast to build and build, very early this morning, as the air passing Guernsey brought temperatures slipping to something a lot more seasonal and less sweltering, I was down at our allotment plot in west London doing what I’ve been doing a lot of this month… watering. It was already around 26C, and with me and my allotment neighbours watering our hopes and dreams, the humidity on the plot by 7am was already causing me to glisten.

With all of our plants now in the ground, including second sowings of Golden Gate and Madeira Maroon French beans that I sowed in pots under a month ago, the main task of late has been keeping everything alive and growing. I was saying only last week in a segment of my weekly YouTube upload of A Week at the Plot that everything at the allotment is so, so dry… bone dry. The grass paths are nothing more than straw and as footfall treads grains of soil away from their anchorage, the ground is turning to dust. We need rain.

Yes, we had a drought only five years ago where we live, though even then it took more time to reach this bareness. And at this time last year rain was certainly not a stranger, with our plot paths green and lush and needing a regular strim. I had to look back at last year’s videos to check I was right and prove my mind wasn’t playing tricks, and sure enough I was – though with the rain and lushness of last July came the ever-dreaded tomato blight which wiped out all 76 of our plants in a matter of 48 hours. This year, currently, blight seems way off, even unlikely, and for that I guess we need to be thankful.

Of course, the heatwave we have now takes me back to 1976 – the year of a heat that gripped the islands and all counties of the UK. Little rainfall over winter and spring meant low levels of water in reservoirs, including St Saviour’s, which had been a favourite destination for a walk when we lived at Rue du Lorier. I remember 1976 being hot, and sunny, and spending every spare hour doing something or other outside. I also remember getting heatstroke at the end of a cycle ride home from Castel School as I took ‘the long way round’. I was still just nine, shortly on my way to being 10, though not quite.

1976 also brought rationing of water across the island and I seem to remember a hosepipe ban as dad did watering of plants and his roses with a metal watering can. Like others I am sure, sharing and re-sharing bathwater also became de rigueur, and with me being the youngest I was always the last in. Oh, and now I remember a hose plugged onto the end of the external bathroom pipe so that the dirty bathwater could be used to douse the garden, and how mum’s fabulous huge hydrangeas that brought the darker corner of the house to life particularly seemed to love their Matey and Camay ablutions.

Of course, there were restrictions on the horticultural industry too, including within the tomato growing sector. Somehow, Uncle Len and Aunty Phil would eke out the right amount of water to each plant from their rationed water supply. New lines of drip irrigation helped, and with the sun blazing the humidity used to skyrocket inside the glasshouses they managed at Gorseland Vinery off Les Ruettes. As we’d walk down the cathedral of ripening vines, Uncle Len would heft me onto his shoulders, allowing me to pick ripe Guernsey tomatoes that were normally well above my reach. The smell. The taste. There was nothing quite like a Guernsey tomato direct from the plant while melting in the near-tropical environment of those glorious glasshouses.

It wasn’t until I restarted growing some of our own tomatoes at my small 3m by 3m space at the William Hobbayne Community Gardens that I was able to reclaim that joy and pleasure – picking a warm, ripe tomato direct from the plant, holding it to my nose, eyes shut, smelling its fervent ripe scent before my teeth punctured the yielding plumpness of firm skin and savouring the sweet acidic juice of the flesh below.

Some people skin tomatoes – not us. Why ditch that joy and many nutrients along with it? With such a small growing space I was only able to grow a maximum of six tomato plants, though once I moved to the larger allotments at Billets Hart in west London, those numbers would multiply – exponentially.

After the disappointment of last year’s virulent attack of blight, I was hoping for much this year from our tomato plants. So far, with seeds being tardy in their germination and cool and cold nights keeping growth at bay when planted out in their outside beds, I’ve been feeling a tad apprehensive about how the tomato season will progress. I’ve also broken the cardinal rule of labelling, in some cases labelling poorly and in others, not at all.

Which is a cordon, and which is not? You certainly can’t tell from the growth habit until it’s largely too late. Should this one have its side-shoots taken off, or should they be left on so that it can be allowed to bush, which might be its true habit? In truth, the proof will be in the pudding, or rather in the growing.

Currently the Guernsey tomato plants we have are doing OK, though I do wonder if they are the true ‘Guernsey Tom’. A subscriber had the seeds sent to us from New Zealand, from the Koanga Institute, which has been instrumental in collecting and saving over 700 heritage seed lines over the past 40 years. I guess, in this instance, time will tell, though if anyone has the true Guernsey Tom seed to hand, I would love to have some and compare.

We’re again growing quite a few varieties this year; most we’ve grown before and a few are new to us. Black Krim, a Crimean heritage seed of the Ukrainian peninsula, are showing themselves to be as tough as old boots and waiting to flourish freely in this world. So many side shoots developed on these before I’d started my tomato cares in earnest that I’m allowing three to do their own thing – and they’re loving it. In the rest of the mix we’ve Amish Paste, which is an absolute favourite of ours; Amish Sherbert, new to us this year and a totally different shape to the Paste whilst being a totally different colour too; Pink Bulgarian, a hefty egg-shaped fruit with good flesh, little juice and a fabulous pinky pearlescence; Red Oxheart, big and red and heart shaped as the name suggests; Soldacki, a Polish potato-leafed variety that is totally new to us this year; and finally, Brad’s Atomic Grape, an elongated multi-coloured grape-shaped variety that again is new to us. We’ve fruit developing on most of the plants and flowers on all. And now that I’ve listed the varieties here that are in the ground I’m beginning to think they’re all cordon, all indeterminate varieties – so tying them up to canes should work well. And after this morning’s tomato cares I’m now also pretty sure I know which are Brad’s Atomic Grape – they are a very different shape to the rest.

Richard’s just called through the house that it’s starting to rain, and indeed I can now hear a quiet pitter-pat from the Velux window bringing in that breeze above my head. Looking at the forecast we may get showers later, and in the distance I’m sure I can hear the mellow rumble of thunder. Obviously, I look forward to rain at this time of year, though it needs to be just the right type of rain. I really do hope that the forecast is right and rain will come sooner than it did for Guernsey in 1976 when the heavens didn’t open until right at the end of August. At least if we get some rain this evening, or overnight, I won’t have to be at the plot quite so early in the morning to water. I might even get a lie-in, and possibly dream of bountiful tomato harvests to come.

  • Paul Savident and his partner Richard Leighton-Hammond live in Hanwell in west London. As YouTubers they produce two weekly shows, Sunday Chat and A Week at the Plot.