Monday, December 20, 2010

The Tomato Files: Part I

In which I ramble on at length about my beloved tomato plants.


For my first growing season I chose to keep things simple – chamomile, tomatoes, lettuce and basil. Things in the lower, swampy corner of the garden have struggled in all the rain but most of the plants are growing beautifully. I spent Sunday morning tidying the garden and tying up my rampant tomatoes. While I was hard at work, a dapper, older Italian man, stopped to admire the garden and have a chat. He introduced himself (Tony, of course!) and after a bit he told me that pulling the bottom leaves of the tomatoes would increase the amount of fruit they produced. He offered to give me a hand. 


Now, according to gardening legend and all round nice guy, Peter Cundall, pulling off the bottom leaves doesn’t make much of a difference to fruit production. Tomatoes branch quite readily without this sort of pruning, so I’ve never bothered. However, Tony was so keen to help, I didn’t have the heart to say no. And actually, getting rid of the old, yellowing leaves made the plants look much tidier and, I suspect it will help stop the them getting mildewy in the wet conditions we’ve had lately. I had to admit, I was quite pleased with the end result. So thanks, Tony.

tidy, tied tomatoes

Of course, this isn't my first foray into tomato growing. I’ve grown tomatoes in pots before but despite my efforts, they never quite live up to garden grown crops. Last year I think I got about three fruit off my poor, pot plants out the back. I've always dreamt of growing a bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes, you know how it goes - so many tomatoes you don't know what to do, forcing them onto friends and family and spending days and nights frantically bottling them into tomato sauce like a crazy nonna. 

And so I decided to devote my very first growing season to these, most noble, veggies. A couple of months ago I selected an assorted bunch of heirloom plants from Ceres. Uncharacteristically, I’ve actually kept track of the tomato varieties I’ve planted by keeping the labelled pots on top of their stakes. The plants at the lower, boggy end have grown very slowly but the ones at the higher end have started to show their true colours – for future reference, I’ve recorded some of my observations below. 

tiny tim
Tiny Tim
I only put in one of these guys and it’s lived up to (or should that be down to) its name. Even though it’s planted in the good end of the garden it’s a tiny thing, a dear little elf of a plant with deeply wizened leaves. It takes up a fraction of the space of the other plants, it’d be perfect for growing in pots. Despite its small size it has plenty of fruit, tiny green little globes that grow in trusses. Seriously, cute as a button!!

yellow pear
Yellow Pear
 Every now and then, when I was a kid, cherry tomato plants would mysteriously pop up in my parent’s garden and attempt to take over. If Mum or Dad didn’t get around to pulling them out immediately, they would generally be allowed to grow until they fruited. And boy would they fruit! Prolific doesn’t even begin to cover it. I remember my brothers, sister and I collecting ice cream buckets over flowing with balls of tomato-y goodness. Most clearly of all I remember the way Dad used to chop them up and use them to make cheese and tomato toasted sandwiches under the grill. There was something distinctive about their wild-ish flavour; sandwiches made with other tomatoes have never tasted quite the same. 

yellow pear madness!!
The domesticated tomatoes we grow and eat today originate from South American plants belonging to the family Solanaceae, a large family whose diverse members (as everyone knows) includes potatoes, eggplants, capsicums... and deadly nightshade.  Modern tomatoes (Lypersicon lycopersicum) are descended from a wild form (Lycopersicon escolentum) that bore thousands of pea-sized fruit.  I can’t help but think that modern cherry tomatoes, including those that mysteriously appeared in my parents’ garden are, of all tomato varieties, the most closely related to these wild, woolly, South American ancestors. Interestingly Digger’s now sells a variety called “Wild Sweetie” that apparently bears “hundreds of exquisite flavoured fruits from midsummer to late autumn” – its scientific name Lycopersicon escolentum.

ANYWAY, like the cherry tomatoes of my childhood, this yellow cherry variety appears to be part triffid. I put two plants in and in no time flat they’ve sprawled all over the plot in a crazy, tangled green mess. It took me ages to tie them up and they still look a bit of fright with branches going every which way. And, true to their wild, cherry nature, they’re already covered in fruit...  first ones should be ripe in a week or so. Toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches, here we come!

Green grape
I’ve never grown these guys before but I do have a fondness for green tomatoes so I thought I’d give it a try. I’ve only put one in and it’s growing towards the damp end of the plot. This slowed it up at the start but apparently you can’t keep a good tomato down. It’s started to hit its straps in the last week or so and is showing signs of cherry tomato wildness. No pics, as yet, sorry.

tidy tomatoes - tiny tim, in the bottom left corner.
Principe Borghese
An Italian heirloom variety, apparently these are great for drying as they produce small, red red fruit with a low moisture content. Ironically, I have planted mine smack, bang, splosh in the dampest, swampiest corner where it is seriously struggling, poor dear. It’s about a fifth the size of plants at the other end of the plot.  Nonetheless, it’s trooping on and despite its small size and wet feet it has a several promising looking fruit on it. It's in a tricky spot for photos, I'll try get one tomorrow.

That's probably enough to be going on with. Stay tuned for the next installment of the tomato files - featuring black russians and king of all tomatoes, the green zebra!


  1. FAR OUT! so much growth! I seems like the garden was only opened so recently.

  2. i have been driving daina bonkers with my months and months of tomato talk, glad to see im not the only one!

  3. Great shots Lauren. I love the smell of tomato plants