It’s hard to say what vegetable I like growing the most. It’s a bit like choosing your favourite child. I think tomatoes would be one of my favourite vegetables in the summer garden. They are fairly easy to grow, relatively disease resistant and taste great. Nothing beats the classic tomato sandwich: juicy red tomato, perhaps with a leaf or two of lettuce and a slither of mayonnaise between soft, fresh slices of bread. Simply divine!
Traditionally, tomatoes can be planted outside in New Zealand by Labour Weekend, which is a long weekend with a public holiday falling on the Monday after the weekend. Labour Weekend usually falls towards the end of October.
Sowing tomatoes from seed
It’s too early to think about planting tomatoes outdoors. However, I wanted to write a guide to growing tomatoes now because it’s not too late to start sowing tomatoes from seed. In fact, the timing is perfect. It takes about eight weeks from the time of the germination of a tomato seed to produce a plant that is large enough to transplant outside. It’s really easy to grow tomatoes from seed and it allows you to grow unusual varieties which aren’t found in garden centres.
Tomatoes can be started from seed indoors in July and August. In the past, I have started tomato seedlings as late as September, but they will produce a crop later in the season, towards the end of February. For a continuous supply of tomatoes from January through to April, successive sowings are recommended. Tomato seeds need warmth in order to germinate. I germinate seeds in punnets filled with seed raising mix and place them inside plastic incubators which you can purchase from garden centres. I then place the incubators on a heat pad indoors and spray plants with water twice daily. If you don’t have a heat pad you can also use your hot water cupboard which will also provide seedlings with a warm environment.
How to care for tomato seedlings
For new gardeners, those who don’t wish to start their tomato seedlings from seed or if you’ve simply left it too late, plants are available for sale in nurseries from August onwards. Take care to keep plants undercover until early October as tomatoes are frost sensitive. The weather can be temperamental in spring and the nights are often still quite cool. From then on, start “hardening them off”. This is the process of exposing plants to the outdoors incrementally, for example, for two hours in the middle of the day for the first week, increasing to four hours per day for the next week. Continue to bring the plants indoors at night. By the third week of October, it should be safe to leave plants outdoors overnight.
Generally speaking, varieties of tomatoes fall into a couple of different categories: (i) “determinate” or “indeterminate” tomatoes; and (ii) “hybrid” or “heirloom” tomatoes. You may have heard of the terms “determinate” and “indeterminate” in the context of tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes are also called “bush” tomatoes. They usually grow to a compact height. Determinate tomatoes stop growing when fruit sets on the terminal or top bud. The crop ripens around at or near the same time (this normally occurs over a two week period). The plant then dies. Indeterminate tomatoes are also called “vining” tomatoes. They will grow and produce fruit until the plant dies from frost. Indeterminate tomato varieties will bloom and set new fruit which will ripen at the same time during the growing season. You may have also read or heard of the terms “heirloom” and “hybrid” tomatoes. Heirloom seeds have been saved and handed down from generation to generation. They will come true to type, meaning that the off-spring will be identical to the parent plant. You can therefore save seeds from your own plants. Hybrid seeds are produced by crossing two different varieties. Hybrid seeds will not necessarily come true to type, meaning that it may not be worth saving seeds from your plants. A common misconception is that hybrid varieties have been genetically modified. Rest assured that this is not the case. Another misconception is that hybrid varieties are inferior to heirloom varieties because the latter are said to have more flavour. The truth of the matter is that modern hybrid varieties are often more disease resistant than heirloom varieties and therefore often perform better in the garden.
Popular varieties that perform well in New Zealand include Beefsteak, Moneymaker, Mortgage Lifter, Grosse Lisse, Potentate, Sweet 100 (a variety of cherry tomato) and Red Russian. These varieties can be found in garden centres throughout the country every spring.
Last summer I grew Principe Borghese and Red Cherry from Franchi for the first time, which performed marvellously well and were extremely tasty. Franchi is a range of magnificent heirloom seeds imported from Italy and supplied in New Zealand by Italian Seeds Pronto, owned by my friend Gillian Hurley Gordon. For more information and to order seeds or find stockists, visit http://www.italianseedspronto.co.nz/.
Bored with traditional tomato varieties? Why not try growing something a bit different this summer. This season, I’m sowing Kiwi and Green Sausage, which appealed as they are both rather interesting and differ from the appearance of conventional tomatoes. Kiwi is a beautiful green tomato, with lime-kiwi colored fruits that have a great, sharp acid-sweet flavour. Like the name suggests, Green Sausage is a variety of tomato with sausage-shaped fruits with yellow stripes and have a kiwi-like green flesh.
How to care for tomato plants
Tomatoes need at least 6 hours of sunshine per day, so be sure to plant seedlings in the sunniest spot in your garden. Before planting tomato seedlings, take the time to prepare the bed properly so plants receive adequate nutrition. Dig the area over that you wish to plant your seedlings in. Mix plenty of compost and some sheep pellets into the ground. Add some tomato fertiliser to each plant’s hole at the time of planting, to give plants a strong start to life. As fruits can be heavy and weigh plants down, some support is recommended. It is a good idea to stake and tie tomato seedlings at the time of planting to avoid injury to the roots of your plants later on.
Be sure to water plants generously every day, preferably early in the morning or in the evening. In November and December, plants are in their most active growing phase. Liquid feed tomatoes weekly to encourage the growth of healthy leaves and the formation of flowers, which will develop into fruit.
As your tomato plants grow, remove the laterals. These are the small side shoots which appear at a 90 degree angle from the stalk. Laterals produce only leaves; no flowers or fruit. Laterals are removed so the plant can put its energy into the formation of fruit rather than leaf growth.
Harvesting your tomatoes
It can take what seems like forever for green tomatoes to ripen but be patient! They need a lot of sunshine in order to turn red. Always remove fruit with a pair of scissors or secateurs rather than pulling them off the plant. Enjoy!