If I was only allowed to use one word to describe summer, I would be spoilt for choice. I could choose: holiday, beach, swimming, Christmas, cicadas, hot, pohutukawa, sunscreen, jandals, BBQs, parties, sunsets, camping or even fishing.
But I am a gardener so while all these words evoke all that it wonderful about a season of basking in the heat of the sun, festivities and frivolities, and relaxing and unwinding; for me there is without any doubt one single word that encapsulates summer and that is: TOMATO.
There is something about the strange smell the plant gives off – the scent of anticipation. Soon there will be tomatoes ripening within the branches – that have been kissed by the warmth of the sun.
Then the moment arrives at the height of summer with the picking of that first tomato. It is such a magic moment. Weeks have been spent watching it turn from a yellow flower to a small green button, expanding day by day and then developing a rosy red glow. That first tomato shouldn’t be gobbled down greedily, it should be savoured. The flavour and the textures should dwell on the palate… this isn’t any old tomato – it is the first of the season – the first of summer. And you grew it and it is special.
This pleasure is something that can be enjoyed by anyone, whether you have an acre or a grassless courtyard. While they can be grown simply by digging a hole in the ground and popping it in, these days this isn’t an option open to everyone. But all is not lost – they make excellent container plants and they have even been known to grow by hanging upside down in a special planter designed for the task. Whatever your space there is a tomato for you.
That first tomato is only the beginning of the harvest, it is soon joined by a second and an third and then a red avalanche of more tomatoes that you feel you can keep up with. These ones can be gobbled up greedily one after another, letting the juice run down your arm as you reach for the recipe books looking for ways to use them up - relishes, sauces, salsas and even jams? This allows you to enjoy tomatoey goodness in the middle of winter. Or you could share the load and take some to work or to your neighbours and show off just a little: “Why yes – I grew them. Aren’t they great?”
There is heaps of time, so head on down to your nearest garden centre and pick up a tomato plant or two and maybe even a basil plant, because I can assure you that tomato, basil, mozzarella and splash of extra virgin olive oil is a deliciously simple salad made all the better for having the freshest tomatoes and basil that have been just picked and chopped and are still warm from the sun. Yum - I can’t wait!
Tomacio is not just another cherry tomato, although its high Brix (sugar) level means it’s delicious eaten fresh. As well as being sweeter, it has firmer flesh, so it’s excellent for drying. Simply place full trusses in the oven on a low heat to make sweet ‘raisin’ tomatoes. Ideal as a lunchbox treat, they can be soaked in oil to plump up into a juicy pre-dinner snack or frozen for later use. Prolific fruiting means loads of surplus fruit to preserve as sweet tomato ‘raisins’.
If you don’t have enough space in the garden to grow tomatoes, try them in containers instead. For best results plant in large containers and water and feed often.