For home-grown tomato tragics like Linda early spring doesn’t signal a time to ramp up the gym membership and line up a fake tan. Rather she is busy germinating heirloom tomatoes seeds.
Whether you are joining her in growing from seed, or skipping that step with seedlings from the nursery, here are her top tips for growing a great feed of tomatoes this summer.
Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) originated in South America and are in the same family, Solanaceae, as potato, chilli and eggplant. Originally, in the wilds of Peru, tomatoes formed clusters of small green fruit. The Aztecs called it ‘xitomatl’ and writings from that period mention it was eaten with peppers, corn and salt in what was likely to be the first salsa recipe!
Photo - Linda Ross
Over the last thousand years of human cultivation the tomato’s popularity with gardeners has resulted in intensive breeding that has given rise to thousands of delicious varieties. Wherever it was introduced, locally bred types emerged. During the 20th century more than 4,000 different varieties were recorded, though sadly many have since been lost.
I want to inspire you to grow tomatoes, but I’d be fibbing if I told you it was going to be easy. And it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the skill of the gardener: weather and climatic variations can cause either huge successes or dismal failures. But it’s definitely worth the effort! Here’s what I’ve learned about how to succeed.
Planting position must be sunny, wind-protected and frost-free. Soil must be well-drained and fertile with aged manure and organic matter dug in a few weeks before planting. A handful or two of lime added to the planting bed will help prevent blossom end rot. Tomatoes are herbaceous, frost-tenders plants so wait until threat of frost has well and truly past before planting. Stagger plantings over September, October, November and January to extend the harvesting season. If winter temperatures are cold, consider sowing seeds inside, on the windowsill, then plant them out when they reach about 15cm high.
Best-ever tomato soil
Manure and compost with a dash of lime does make a good tomato-growing medium, but for really amazing results, try this blend. Combine one part finely shredded comfrey leaves, one part eggshell crushed to a powder, and one part powdered milk to 10 parts compost. Stir the mixture well and add it to soil around tomatoes.
Photo - photolibrary.com
Tomatoes are vines that typically reach between one and three metres in height and width. They need to be supported with a trellis. Use 1.6m bamboo stakes in an extended tepee design. Tie horizontal bamboo to the vertical tepee at 20cm intervals with string and train the tomato stems in and out as they grow. Keep the soil moist. Water with seaweed solution fortnightly. Add pelletised manures through the growing stage. Remove any leaves that come in contact with the soil and mulch around each plant to a depth of 15cm.
Pests and Diseases
The warmer your climate the more difficult it is to prevent insect attack. Gardeners in cooler climates will not have the problems of fruit fly and fungus attack, but they pay for the easy life with a much shorter tomato season. Try these tips for minimising pests and disease:
Hang yellow sticky traps to lure thrips and aphids away from the fruit, as these insects can spread disease.
Mulch the tomato bed to stop splash and the spread of diseases.
Control fruit flies with eco-friendly lures available from your local nursery.
Consider covering maturing fruit with paper bags to protect from tomato grubs.
Tomato fruit can suffer sunburn so offer shade protection on heatwave days.
Remove lower leaves as soon as leaf spot or other diseases appear, so as to reduce the spread.
Smokers may spread tomato mosaic virus when they handle tomatoes.
Serious tomato growers will plant a crop of mustard greens (Brassica juncea) in the tomato bed during the winter season as a fumigant to prevent fungal problems in the soil.
Our favourite include: Grosse Lisse, Roma, Oxheart, Tommy Toe, Rouge de Marmande, Plum Truss, Apollo, Black Russian and Sweet 100. I like Oxheart for pasta sauces and chutneys; Romas for drying; Tommy Toe for flavour and Plum Truss was the winner last year for sheer supply and pest resistance. Select varieties to suit your climate; check seed catalogues for details.
Linda is aiming for a continuous supply of food with a monthly sowing/planting of family staples: carrots, leeks, parsnips, salad greens, spring onions, mini cannonball cabbages and beetroots, all of which can be planted year-round in Sydney!