On Saturday March 6, inside a greenhouse in Oxted, Surrey, Lisa-Marie Elkhadraoui stands with a cup of tea in hand, ready to co-host a virtual tutorial to a community of over 1,500 members.
She's excited. At 10am, there are already hundreds of members joining her on Instagram live. The greenhouse is prepped for the event; shelves are lined with young tomato plants, soil-filled trays and pots. "Good morning everyone," she says brightly. "Welcome to The Tomato Club. We are so excited to be going live."
Today is the first day of the club's national grow-a-long: a virtual event lasting from spring until the end of the growing season in late November. Over the next few months, members will be able to access live Q&As, expert tips and videos every week on sowing, growing and harvesting up to 30 varieties of tomatoes.
For Elkhadraoui and Joe Harrison, co-founders of the club, this is a long time coming. Since January 11, the duo have been planning the online event in the hopes of bringing together a community of lockdown growers. Many members are joining the live today from as far away as Tokyo and Canada.
The idea of a virtual club began after Elkhadraoui, the creative director of interior design company Moska, reignited a passion for growing fruit and vegetables during lockdown. At the beginning of the first national lockdown, her business was temporarily halted and staff of ten were sent on furlough.
"Everything came to a grinding halt," she says. "Suddenly, we were all at home and I was looking at our garden – then, a bare lawn – and considering ways to start growing." The combination of beautiful spring weather and home-working turned out to be a winning combination for the keen gardener, who set to work building raised beds.
What started as a few tomato plants and runner beans is now 20x20 metre vegetable plot packed with up to 30 varieties of squash, courgettes – the most prolific of last year's crop – two types of sweetcorn and chard. Right now, the designer is growing wildflowers from seed and young tomato plants.
She even bought seven chickens (Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, Shirley Bassey, Anni and Agne, Martha, and Doris Day) to perch in the paddock above the vegetable garden. "The first plant I started growing was tomatoes," she adds. "Back then I didn't even have a greenhouse. I was looking for inspiration and that's how I connected with Joe."
Inspired by a tomato growing guide that Harrison wrote in Grow Your Own Magazine, Elkhadraoui followed the keen fruit and vegetable grower on social media in spring last year. The pair swapped pictures of their progress and asked for advice from other members of the online gardening community.
Eventually Harrison was invited onto Elkhadraoui's weekly podcast on Instagram, The Potting Shed.
"There was a huge response to The Tomato Club on the podcast," she says. "Joe and I thought we might have 100 members joining us, if we were lucky. It was all we could talk about that day."
Lucky was an understatement: in a few short months, thousands of members signed up to the private Instagram group, while the e-book 'How to Grow Tomatoes: from seed to harvest' has been downloaded over 3,500 times.
"It's gone completely viral," she says. "We've had messages from members that say we've kept them going during lockdown. That's what makes it all worthwhile for Joe and I."
For Harrison, a keen grower since childhood, the club has given him a much-needed boost. His children, Sunny (4), Ivy (7), Fin (11) spent all summer in the allotment. "It's been so brilliant to get my kids in the garden during lockdown," he says. Through the club, I've met so many people that have great stories and experience in growing. The response to has been amazing."
Harrison reveals that members have even reached out to personally thank himself and Elkhadraoui for their tips. "We have everyone from absolute beginners to total pros at growing tomatoes getting involved in the grow-a-long."
Every week, The Tomato Club hosts a tomato clinic in which members can ask an expert for advice. Harrison also hosts online talks on companion planting (Marigolds, I'm told, are an excellent choice), pest control and how to get a stronger yield. There are also live Q&A sessions and, in the next few months, guest takeovers.
"We're hoping to start asking head gardeners to take over our account and give tips to our members," says Elkhadraoui. "We're really excited for what the future holds for The Tomato Club."
Lisa-Marie and Joe reveal how to get started
Think about how you like to eat your tomatoes - do you like to enjoy them raw or cooked? Maybe both? Does a cherry tomato tickle your fancy or maybe a big beefsteak variety? This almost certainly should influence your final seed choice.
Think about where you will be sowing your seeds; heated propagator, windowsill, unheated greenhouse? This will determine when is a suitable time to sow them.
Rather than shop-bought plastic pots to sow your seeds in, why not get creative and use some up-cycled containers otherwise destined for the recycling bin.
Consider your final growing position and how much space you have. Will you be growing in pots, greenhouse, grow bags, raised beds?
Get yourself a few tall bamboo canes, some peat-free compost and a good quality tomato feed such as Empathy’s Tomato Starter.
The Tomato Club's tomato growing tips
It’s a good idea to ascertain what type of tomato plant you’re growing; whether it’s a cordon variety (also known as indeterminate) or a bush variety (also known as determinate). Establishing this will ensure you know the preferred growing conditions and the correct way to care for your plant.
Ensure your plants get plenty of direct sunlight; tomatoes will thrive if they have around 8 hours of full sun each day. If you don’t have a sunny spot, don’t worry, you can still grow tomatoes but keep in mind that the less sunlight your fruit receives, the longer it will take to ripen.
It’s really important you have a regimented watering routine. Tomatoes like to be kept moist and will not respond well if allowed to dry out between watering. Water your plants first thing in the morning before it gets too hot or early in the evening.
Providing your plants with adequate support such as bamboo canes is a must, especially when growing cordon varieties (single stem). Branches carrying lots of fruit can be extremely heavy and will cause your plants to topple over and snap if they’re not adequately supported and secured with ties.
The soil you plant your tomatoes in will only have enough nutrients to sustain your plant for a limited period. Left unfed, your plants can be more prone to pests and diseases, will produce fewer fruits and won’t be as tasty. With this in mind, introduce a regular feeding routine every 7-10 days with a good quality tomato feed such as Empathy’s Tomato Feed.