Did you know that, for Australian home gardeners, tomatoes are the most popular choice of vegetable to grow? Perhaps it’s because older gardeners remember the taste of tomatoes in their childhood. There’s something very satisfying seeing those clusters of fruit ripening on a vine you’ve grown yourself.
Tomatoes are really a fruit but most us use them as a savoury food, which we generally call a vegetable. But why does it not have much taste, certainly not the taste we older gardeners remember? The simple truth is that tomatoes that we buy in the supermarket or from the fruit and veg shop are usually hybrid tomatoes, specifically bred for longevity and storage. I remember years ago, Don Burke hitting a tomato against a wall with a tennis bat – and it didn’t break! That doesn’t seem right, does it? (I didn’t make it up, you can probably find a link to the video on the internet somewhere).
We, the consumers. are partly responsible – we wanted a tomato that would be in the shop in perfect condition, just the right size, shape and colour, whenever we shop, regardless of season! Tomatoes were bred to match those expectations. Taste was the least important characteristic so it was let go. It’s likely that consumers didn’t realise that they were sacrificing flavour and nutrition in favour of appearance and a long shelf life! It was a long process but now the majority of tomatoes sold in Australia are just the right size, shape and colour that consumers want. We, as a group, reject the ‘less than perfect”: too small, too big, too soft, not red enough.
But, don’t despair: there are dozens of open-pollinated (also know as heritage or heirloom) varieties available in Australia. you just have to know where to look! Organic seed companies, such as Johnson’s**, are sold in the big warehouse hardware stores and in garden centres. There are organic mail order seed companies online. Each sell many of the same tomatoes, especially the popular varieties, but each also sells varieties that no-one else carries. (in marketing, that’s called a Unique Selling Proposition or, sometimes, Point).
Heritage, heirloom or open-pollinated tomatoes come in all colours, shapes and sizes. You can grow tomatoes that mature to purple, red, orange, pink, yellow or green. The darker the tomato, the more nutritional value it has for you. They can be one colour, ombre or striped. They can be large, medium or small. There are round, ovular, heart- or pear-shaped varieties. They can be sweet or tart, used whole and fresh in a salad, sliced for a sandwich, be cooked, dried or turned into a sauce.
With so much choice, how do you decide which variety of tomatoes to grow? Start with your purpose for growing the tomato in the first place. Do you want to make sauce? Do you want small tomatoes to put in salads? Do you want large tomatoes you can slice and put in a sandwich? Do you want to dry them to use through winter? This will determine the variety you should choose.
Tomatoes come in two main varieties, determinate and indeterminate. I remember the terms this way, you can determine approximately how big the former will grow, the latter cannot be determined! However, in practice, the terms ‘bush’ and ‘vine’ tomatoes are used. Bush (determinate) tomatoes tend to grow 1.0-1.5 metres, produce most of their fruit at once, then die. Because they are relatively small, they can be grown in a large pot.
Vine tomatoes can cover a very large area. It is better to grow them on a trellis or on a fence. A few years ago, we had a self=seeded cherry tomato that started growing on the south side of a mature lemon tree, in the shade, in March. I was sure it would die when the cold hit in winter. That vine, which we left on the ground, ended up being 4 metres in one direction from the growing point, and 5 metres in the other direction.
From that experience we have learnt to grow our tomatoes on a single leader onto a trellis which Mark designed himself. Growing vine tomatoes with just one main stem, means that we can grow a larger variety of tomatoes in a smaller space because our tomatoes are only about 30 cm apart. This does, however, result in smaller yields and has the potential for cross-pollination.
Tomatoes, Solanum lycopersicum, comes from Central and parts of South America. It likes warm weather but is susceptible to a variety of fungal and bacterial diseases in high humidity. The most common of these in our current wet climate is Septoria Leaf Spot. I have written a short post about this disease. If the leaves of your tomato plants are showing a speckled look, you may have this problem and might want to check out the post.
There is so much to say about tomatoes, there will be a second post next week with more detail in growing them and the possible diseases and pests that might attack them
** We do not receive a commission for the sale of Johnson seeds.
By the way, not all Johnson Seeds are heirloom or heritage varieties so, if you want the open-pollinated seeds, check the packet carefully. If it says F1 (hybrid) on the packet, you will not be able to grow the seed again next year and get the same plant!
DISCLAIMER: The information presented in this blog post is written for general knowledge and/or entertainment purposes only. Please do further research if you are unfamiliar with this plant. While all care is taken to be accurate, Hillside Homegrown & Handmade accepts no responsibility for actions taken by the reader because of information shared in this article.