A garden without tomatoes wouldn’t seem like a proper garden at all, so when I first started out on my gardening journey, they were given prime position in my newly created veggie patch. I had never grown anything from seed before, so seeing my seedlings emerge was such an exciting moment. I still get such a sense of delight as those first leaves unfurl in spring. Even as tiny plants, they bring the evocative scent that seems to herald the sunny days of summer to come.
The wonderful thing about tomatoes is there is so many to choose from - tiny ones, exotic ones, heirlooms, hybrids, huge ones, yellow ones and even black ones with health giving antioxidant qualities. At the beginning of each season I am wracked with indecision. Which ones to grow? I have my favourites, but I want to grow them all. Realistically this is not possible so I narrow it down to ones for salad, ones for cooking and big ones that can fill a sandwich with one slice and some of my favourites.
Rationalising my list led to its own set of problems and a valuable lesson in a basic gardening skill; the importance of labelling. I had two different cherry tomatoes and while both were lovely, I preferred one over the other. For not just one or two seasons but three in a row, I actually believed I would remember which seedling tray was which. I am now a label freak and everything gets a label. I also find sowing and planting in alphabetical order is really helpful.
But even this diligence wasn’t enough to save me from the calamity of the seasonal disaster of a windswept greenhouse. The sight of a jumble of seedlings on the floor, separated from their labels is enough to bring actual tears. The crushed and bruised seedlings can be nursed back to health, but not knowing their identity leaves me feeling bereft.
These days my greenhouse is on solid foundations and I can sleep well on a stormy night, knowing my tomatoes are safe. But there comes a time when they need to leave the safety and the security of the greenhouse and enter the big wide world, where they are at the mercy of the elements and my well-meaning but often misguided intentions.
Knowing full well it isn’t safe for the tomatoes to be planted out before Labour Weekend, and the frost of 2009 that came a week after planting them out, I proceed with caution. But I can’t help myself and while tomatoes can be sown anytime between late winter and early summer, I always find myself scratching my itchy green fingers and sowing them at the first opportunity with no regard for the issues this may bring down the track.
This year’s tomato seedlings have been lovingly transplanted into their larger pots, not once but twice. As I harden them off outside the greenhouse, they are quite unwieldy and difficult to manage. Bringing them out in the morning and putting them back at night can take quite some time. In their pots they become quite hungry and thirsty as their roots become almost desperate for the free range of the open ground. A slight puff of wind not only knocks them over, but drives the moisture from around the root ball and I find I spend a lot of time rehydrating them in a bucket of water with a liquid feed pick-me-up. I’m surprised I ever manage to get a healthy crop into the garden.
At planting time I mix loads of compost into the soil. I also add some slow release fertiliser to make sure my plants get a really strong start. This year I’m also adding blood and bone and some lime for a calcium rich supplement that should protect against blossom end rot.
Once my plants are in the ground it becomes a waiting game. The first flower. The first tiny green tomato, and then I watch that speck grow large and round as I wait for the first blush of red. I do my utmost to pamper them so they can’t help but provide an abundant harvest. Once the flowers form, I feed them about once a week with a liquid tomato food.
Every year I set out to have perfect single stem plants so the airflow around them is free and easy. It never happens. I always miss a lateral early on and it becomes too big to remove without causing damage; or I assume once removed they will stay removed. But some varieties grow back.
I end up with a medusa of a plant that laden with fruit becomes top heavy. This is a problem for safe staking. A bamboo pole on its own really isn’t strong enough when the wind sails through. I have even bent over the plastic coated metal stakes. I’ve now progressed to warratah stakes with wire strung between.
To draw the roots deep into the soil I use a soaker hose around the base of each plant and water deeply every 4-5 days. This seems enough, as my lovely soil seems to cling onto any moisture that comes its way. I am careful to keep the water away from the leaves. This, along with removing old and tired leaves for good airflow, in my way of keeping the dreaded blight at bay. Early Blight is one heartbreak I have yet to experience although I am wary of its possibility. Late Blight is just as devastating as it can bring a once abundant crop to a sudden halt. Overnight the plant becomes no good and needs be removed from the garden, as far away as possible. In my desperation to stop its spread I found myself picking up every soft rotting tomato that’s fallen to the ground and begun melding into the soil. I couldn’t relax until I had removed every last trace of the stricken plant. The bright side of Late Blight (if there is one), is that it normally comes at a point where you are actaully sick of the sight of tomatoes.
For now I’m looking forward to those glorious days of early summer when a ripe tomato is thing to be celebrated. And with all of this hard learnt experience, this season’s tomato harvest stands a good chance of being my best ever …. So long as the weather holds out.
Tomatoes staked with multiple bamboo