“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.” Lewis Grizzard
Tomatoes originated in South America and date back to the Aztecs. Europeans only started eating them about 500 years ago and even then they were steeped in mysticism and scandal. Being related to the nightshade family, they were originally considered poisonous plants. They were even thought to have aphrodisiac qualities and banned from consumption by conservative monks.
Today, tomatoes have been voted the most disappointing fresh produce purchased at the supermarket. Only home grown heirloom tomatoes can give you the taste and freshness that you’re expecting.There are literally 10,000’s of different varieties of tomatoes, however, only several are available at most shops today. The rise of supermarkets in the 1950’s meant that purchasing power increased and stake-holders demanded uniformity with their fresh produce.
The return in popularity of heirloom varieties means that we are once again seeing the unusual shapes and colours of these forgotten irregular beauties. Heirlooms are rarely blemish free or symmetrical. There are the deeply wrinkled large varieties, oval, grape and even 1cm diameter cherry tomatoes.
Besides the usual reds, there are also striped and blotchy varieties. Darker colours range from deep purple to chocolate while yellow varieties can come in flame orange to Yellow Pear. Darker coloured tomatoes are said to contain higher levels of the cancer fighting element lycopene.
Green tomatoes can be hard to test for ripening by the colour, so the “squeeze” test is your only reliable guide. If they’re still firm then they’re not ready, but once they soften slightly then they can be harvested. Tomatoes that don’t ripen before the end of the season can be fried to make them more palatable. Some heirlooms are great for eating in salads while others are best left for cooking.
Heirloom tomatoes are sometimes not as resilient as the modern hybrid varieties so good soil management is necessary to avoid problems and grow strong healthy plants.
Green manures grown prior to planting provide extra nutrients for plants. Working manure and compost into the soil supports strong growth and gets the plants off to a good start. Plants need plenty of space between them to ensure adequate air movement. This helps to guard against fungal problems in humid conditions.
Always mulch well with straw or sugar cane to reduce weeds and conserve moisture. Watering should be done at ground level, preferably with drip irrigation, to avoid moisture on the leaves spreading fungal diseases.
Ongoing applications of high potassium fertiliser is important to maintain fruit set and avoid disease. Blood and bone and potash can be scratched into the soil once the first flowers have formed. Liquid feed with worm juice and seaweed solution every month to achieve really large disease resistant fruit.
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