Wherever you live it’s time to think tomatoes: plan for a summer crop in cool areas, and grow now in warm areas.
Words: Arno King
Winter is time to start preparing for perfect tomatoes. Photo - Eugene Vorontsov/shutterstock.com
There are so many diverse varieties of tomato to choose from, I think it’s worth considering how like to eat them - salads, sandwiches, passatas, soups, roasting... - and select appropriate varieties. Australia has many distinct climates and many cultivars grow vigorously in some and not so well in others. Cultivar flavour will also vary across the country depending on sunshine hours and intensity, cloud cover, general temperatures and the mineral content of the soil. Talk to local gardeners to ascertain the tomatoes that best suit your local conditions. Growing from seed gives you the best choice, so start browsing those seed catalogues and making some selections.
I advise new gardeners to start by growing some of the diverse cherry tomato cultivars. These tomatoes are much hardier and less affected by pests and diseases. Don’t regard them simply as salad items. Their intense flavour and sweetness will enhance many dishes and they produce the best sauces and soups.
Photo - fotoknips/shutterstock.com
I sow cherry and currant type tomatoes year round, and other tomatoes once the weather cools. I sow tomato seed directly in drills in the garden, and then transplant to posts or trellis, planting the seedlings slightly more deeply in the ground.
In cooler areas you will want to start two or three months before you intend to plant seedlings out, which will be after the last chance of frosts. Grow plants in a well-lit room or greenhouse; alternatively buy available seedlings and plant them out as soon as frosts have finished.
To enhance plant vigour and fruit production, invest time and energy in soil preparation. Tomatoes are greedy plants and respond to deeply dug soils enriched with compost and with a pH of 6 to 6.8. Use garden lime to raise the pH if your soil is acid or gypsum if your pH is greater than 7. The calcium in these fertilisers is essential to minimise the likelihood of foliar diseases and blossom end rot on fruit. Apply a balanced organic or biological fertiliser containing ground rock minerals (rock dusts) to ensure trace element needs are met. Mineralised soils enhance fruit flavour.
Tomato plants can be subject to a wide range of pests and diseases. Often these problems can be minimised by providing appropriate plant nutrition and water, and ensuring cultivar selection and planting season are optimal. Like many gardeners living in the subtropics and tropics, I avoid fruit fly season by not growing traditional tomatoes over the warmer, wetter months of summer. Instead I grow cherry and currant tomato hybrids over the summer months as they have increased disease resistance and the thicker fruit skin makes them less attractive to fruit fly. If you do grow tomatoes over summer, and fruit fly is an issue, cover young fruit with fruit exclusion bags.
Grow the best
Pay close attention to which of your plants are strongest, most resistant to attack and have the best flavour. Save seeds from these. Saving your own seed from your best plants will help you to develop plants with increased plant vigour and fruit quality in your particular conditions.