How it all started for me

In the 1940's to the 1980's the island of Guernsey had a reputation for producing some of the best and earliest indoor tomatoes. If you flew over the island during these times, you would have seen a sea of glass beneath you. Unfortunately, rising fuel prices and imports from Spain etc caused the demise of the industry in the 1980's.

During the good years, tomato growing accounts for 75% of the industry and there was probably not one family that did not have someone involved. School boys went picking tomatoes in their spare time, and housewives were the main work force of the packing sheds. There were also many other spin offs, including a factory just for making wooden boxes, and a well staffed experimental station, where growers from all over the UK and Europe used to visit to see the vast tomato trial taking place there.
So for myself upon leaving school, and quite a few years before that, my career was mapped out, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
The work was back braking at times, as in the early days, we used to dig trenches in the soil to sterilise it by steaming. We worked 12 hour shifts, keeping the boilers running 24/7. Later on, most of the growers used peat bags, and eventually some went into Hydroponics, growing the plants just in flowing water. We used to produce over 30 lbs per plants, and they grew to over 20ft in length.
We used to sow in the autumn and start picking from February until September. The greenhouses were heated by hand feed coal boilers in the early days, and later on went onto oil, which as you can imagine was a lot less work. They eventually had automatic ventilation and watering systems, but again in the early days this was all done by hand.

Most men trimmed and picked about 3500 plants each, but all sorts of incentive schemes were used. In one job, I had to look after 5000 plants, trimming them all once a week, and picking four times a week. I was given a very good flat pay every week and told that I could work my own hours, as I was quite a fast worker, I managed to finish work early and have another part-time job, yes you guessed it picking tomatoes!

Guernsey growers  had a great back up from their States advisory service, so they were always trialling new methods and varieties. This lead to many progressive growers growing in just flowing water, a system called Hydroponics. Nutrients were added aromatically as the water was constantly monitored, any major error could kill the whole crop as acid was also added to keep the PH level right.    

High wire Growing

In 1977 I went to the UK with the manager of Belgrave vinery Phil Scofield to look at a new system called high wire growing. Phil and I were really excited about this new system, the heads of the plants were always getting the best light, picking was a far easier and faster and you would defiantly get a better yield. 

Luckily we had a 100ft greenhouse with a high roof at Belgrave so we decided to grow a high wire crop in there the following year. We raised the wires, arranged the heating pipes so we could run a platform on like a little train line. The platform was fitted with a car battery and a car started motor and I had a little foot switch to move it along by turning the power on and off.

Here is a photo of me on the trolley before we fitted the motor, I just used the wires to pull myself along.
The plants were attached to a long string wound around a bobbin and hooked onto the high wire. To lower the plants you just unwound the bobbing a little and moved the hook along the wire. The plant stalks were eventually laid along on to of the peat bags as the season progresses.

Many people eventually took up this system worldwide in massive greenhouses.

At one time, I was in charge of about 30 staff and over 120,000 plants, and I was offered a job in the UK. I also grew tomatoes in  Holland, and eventually Portugal, which probably was the best period in my life, well apart from now being with the lovely Mrs TK.

I landed in Portugal in July 1981 unable to speak a work of the lingo, and had a staff of 20 women and 4 men to look after. It was like going back to basics. We grew in wooden greenhouses covered in plastic, and made our own irrigation drip watering system, peat bags, and imported warm air heaters to heat the greenhouses during the winter frosts. Our aim was to produce early indoor tomatoes even before Guernsey, and proudly our first container load left for London one crisp, early January morning, and we received fantastic prices for our quality fruit.
In the second season, we lost most of the young plants when a hurricane decimated the greenhouse, so it was back to starting all over again so we missed the early market. I was devastated and spent a few hours in the dangerous winds trying to save my crops. The phone lines were down and when I eventually got through to my Portuguese boss, he said not to worry as he had the crop insured, something I had never heard of before.


So, as you can see, I have had a little experience in the distant past. So now that I am living the good life here in La Belle France, I decided to build a greenhouse based on the ones we used in Portugal, which you can see in another part of the blog.

For those who are interested, I will pass on as many tips and techniques as I can remember. My limited simple advice will be based on cold house crops, and to be fair, what I did learn was based on commercial growing, but I will adapt it to the conditions that I have here in France. I do hope that a few simple rules will help anyone reading this to produce better crops, but I am in no way an expert, and most of this advice you could find on the internet or in any book. So maybe this blog is more for me to look back on as opposed to teaching anyone anything, but I do hope you all enjoy my ramblings.