Talking tomatoes

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Of all the delicious food we can grow in our summer gardens, tomatoes are among the most rewarding. Get the basics right and we can all grow a crop to be proud of. But it’s always useful to talk to someone who’s been doing it for years. Sue Linn talks to a couple of experienced tomato enthusiasts.

Dan Featherstone, Auckland

Whenever we visit our friend Dan Featherstone in summer, we can depend on a feast of sweet sun ripened tomatoes from his prolific vege garden. There is always a great selection of varieties to sample, the old favourites plus new one’s he’s trialling.

Mark Brown, Dunedin

Mark Brown’s family depends on him for their yearly supply of tomatoes. He also supplies the family’s Blueskin Nurseries Cafe with tomatoes and other veges throughout summer. Like many Dunedin gardeners, Mark grows his tomatoes in a greenhouse. He plants in large grow bags (PB40, which is 25L) filled with compost made on his nursery. He prefers the bags to rigid pots as they hold their water better.

What drives your passion for growing tomatoes?

DAN: Freshness, sweetness and volume! I love tomatoes in and on everything in the summer. We make all our own sauces so need the volume but having fresh sweet tomatoes for salads and sandwiches is a real summer treat.

MARK: I love eating them. I have them with every meal in summer. I love a fresh tomato sandwich and my wife Clare makes the best tomato soup. It’s worth living with her just for her soup!

What pest and disease problems are most prevalent in your area?

DAN: The usual blights, caterpillars and whitefly. I give early season copper sprays, generally twice, and then I used Neem oil last year which kept all my plants bug free. I think I only sprayed twice with Neem. I also use crop rotation planting my tomatoes in a different bed each year, or I’ll fill a bed with fresh planting mix.

MARK: Whitefly and mildew late in the season. I generally keep on top of these with regular garlic spray and liquid fish fertiliser. The fish fertiliser is a foliar feed and I think also the oil in it helps control the bugs. Garlic contains sulphur which probably helps against the mildew. If whitefly gets away on us I will spray with Mavrik. I don’t use systemic sprays and only spray at night when the bees aren’t around.

Have you come up against TPP (Tomato Potato Psyllid)?

DAN: No not yet.

MARK: Not on the tomatoes as yet but they turned up on my late potatoes so I’m only growing early potatoes now.

What do you feed your tomatoes?

DAN: Lots. I think this is the key to help keep the bugs away and plants thriving as they are vigorous growers. Preparation is key. It takes me a good month by the time I have limed the ground, then applied a general fertiliser plus potash. Once the plants are flowering I like to use ‘7in1’ sheep and chicken pellets. I also liquid feed every 2 weeks with anything I have lying around but liquid blood and bone is always my ‘go to’.

MARK: I put a long term slow release fertiliser in the compost  mix and then once the fruit appears I start feeding them with a spoonful of tomato food every week. Its important to feed little and often when growing tomatoes in containers as they are gross feeders and constant watering washes the nutrients away. Foliar feeding with fish fertiliser complements the root feeding.

How often do you water? 

DAN: Up to twice a day in summer when the plants are loaded with fruit. During spring I’ll water the young plants if we have a dry spell but it’s better to water deeply and infrequently at this stage because you want to encourage their roots to grow deep down into the soil.

MARK: Watering is critical for tomatoes. I give them a big drink straight after planting then I won’t water again until they either flower or start to wilt. This way you get a good strong root system, plenty of roots to take up the nutrients when the plant is producing all that fruit.

What other things do you recommend?

DAN: I grow grafted tomatoes for bulk kitchen supply and I restrict the number of laterals each plant to three or four per plant. This helps vigour, gives me bulk and makes them easier to manage. Other specific varieties that I use are not grafted but I grow them for their taste. They always have their laterals removed, as I find this gives the best fruit quality.

MARK: I often grow ordinary tomatoes as you would a grafted tomatoes, making two or three leaders from each plant. This way you get lots more tomatoes per plant, but just as you do with a grafted plant, you must keep up with watering and feeding to get the best out of them.

What is your preferred way to support tall growing tomatoes?

DAN: All my grafted plants are grown on trellis or netting support structures. I grow my non-grafted varieties on solid single stakes that I know will handle the full weight of the plants.

MARK: I tie them to a wire running 1.5m above the row of pots and then run the growth sideways along the wires. I remove the laterals, but not so much on the cherry tomatoes.

What are some of your favourite varieties? 

DAN: 'Super Beefsteak’ for my larger variety, ‘Tasty Toms’ for my medium sweet type and this year I will plant ‘Kumato Grape’ for my small salad tomato, which has a darker flesh and is very sweet.

MARK: 'Big Beef’ - one slice covers a piece of bread. Also ‘Sun Gold’ the yellow cherry tomato is sweet and delicious.  I grow lots of others and I can’t remember them all. The girls in the garden centre give me their cast off seedlings to try.

Clare Brown’s Tomato Soup

7kg homegrown tomatoes
14 sprigs parsley
1 teaspoon pepper
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
7 large onions diced
7 whole cloves
225g butter
8 tablespoons flour or rice flour

Boil everything except butter and flour in a large pot for approximately 45 minutes.
Rub through sieve or moulin and return to pot. Add butter and thicken with flour (blended with a little water or stock in a shaker). Simmer for 5 minutes longer. Freeze or preserve in jars. Note: When freezing don't thicken, but complete this process after thawing.



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Dan Featherstone

Mark Brown