Black Russians, Green Zebras, Purple Calabash, Tigerella, Yellow Delicious, Verna Orange, Pink Cherry or Grosse Lisse. Tomatoes come in all colours, shapes and sizes, but one thing remains true – you can’t beat the taste of a homegrown tomato. If home gardeners only grow one vegetable, you can bet it will probably be the tomato. Technically the tomato is actually a fruit not a vegetable, with botanists classifying it as a berry. I’m not sure though whether I would call this one below a “berry” as it topped the scales at 461g. I thought it was pretty big, considering it practically filled my hand, but in the tomato growing records it was just small-fry. The heaviest tomato ever recorded comes in at a whopping 3.5kg. I don’t know whether its flavour matched its size though.
The last few weeks have been the peak of our tomato growing season. Our kitchen counter was almost overflowing with tomatoes. Everywhere I looked there were tomatoes: big ones, little ones, red and yellow ones. We planted quite a few tomato plants because Paul really likes my home made tomato sauce, although I think that next time we might plan it out a bit better so that I am not trying to make tomato sauce in the days leading up to Christmas. I have a pretty basic sauce recipe and I am not too fussy about which tomatoes I use – whatever is ripe gets thrown in the pot: red, yellow, even cherry tomatoes. It means that each batch comes out just a little different. But there is only so much tomato sauce one family of four can actually consume, so then I turned to making pasta sauce. I found a great recipe for making pasta sauce in the slow cooker. I don’t know how many containers of pasta sauce I have filled, labelled and stored in the freezer, but since it passed the Bec taste test, it must be alright. My last batch is simmering away as I am writing.
I have even made a cherry tomato sauce which is supposed to be perfect served over fish or chicken, probably even steak too. We had so many cherry tomatoes. Greek salad is one of our staples during the warmer weather, but we weren’t even making a dint in the mountain of cherry tomatoes. When the pile weighed in at 3kg it was time to make sauce. I hate seeing homegrown produce go to waste, so that’s in the freezer too now. Lucky I have a big freezer.
Each time we grow tomatoes or any veggies for that fact, we always aim to do it better than the last time. Have a plan, be organised, be proactive and keep up with management. Well, that’s the idea. Last season we had a lot of trouble with fruit fly so this time we decided we would get in early. We used two kinds of baits, a sticky trap and one with a fruit-fly attracting fluid. We also planted heaps of basil. And we used an organic spray. I don’t really like spraying, but if it’s a choice between spraying or no fruit, well…what do you do. I actually only ended up spraying once because November was so wet there never seemed to be a dry day. The interesting thing is that we’ve had no trouble with fruit fly this time. There’s been an odd tomato here and there I’ve had to throw out, but I don’t mind when it’s just an odd one. I don’t know whether it was the combination of all those measures or perhaps fruit fly just don’t like wet weather. The tomatoes didn’t really like the wet weather either. We had almost nine inches of rain in November and the veggie garden was more like a bog than a garden. I was tempted to erect an image of Shrek in one part of our backyard. Some of the tomatoes eventually keeled over but surprisingly some have survived. There was some interesting looking fruit but who cares when its going to be chopped up for sauce anyway. But I was pretty proud of this one. It looked so perfect I could have sold in the supermarket.
Tomatoes have an interesting history. They originated in South America and were brought back to Europe by the Spanish after their violent conquest. Initially they were just grown as an ornamental plant, because despite being widely used by the indigenous peoples of South America, Europeans viewed them with suspicion. It was probably partly caused by the botanists who identified the tomato as a form of nightshade, which is related to the poisonous belladonna. Apparently the leaves and immature fruit do contain a substance called tomatine which can be toxic when consumed in huge quantities, but it is totally absent in the mature fruit so you are perfectly free to eat ripe tomatoes to your heart’s content.
One of the problems that comes with wide scale agricultural production, is the obsession of breeders to keep “improving” on nature. That is why the tomatoes that you buy in the supermarkets might look like tomatoes but are completely lacking in taste. The thing is, when you start fiddling to improve one thing you can get other unintended consequences. One of the “improvements” was an attempt to get uniform ripening of the fruit. Old varieties of tomatoes often have a green ring around the stem even though they are perfectly ripe. We prefer to grow heirloom varieties and that is exactly how our tomatoes looked, with a green ring around the stem. We are so used to seeing tomatoes that are perfectly red allover that we might think that they are not quite ripe. But not so. When we cut them open they were juicy and tasty and just perfect for cooking or eating.
While my sauce making season has come to an end, tomatoes will still be on the menu as I have a few cherry tomato seedlings to be planted. These ones came via Woolworths in the seed box project they had going for a while last year. I collected the packets because I thought it would be a good project for Dan. It was a while before we got around to actually planting ours but now they are ready to go in and hopefully it won’t be long until we are throwing some cherry tomatoes into our greek salad once again. I even have one plant for Dan to have in his courtyard garden.
Since we prefer to grow heirloom varieties when we can, we purchase most of our seeds from the Diggers Club. It is an Australian Gardening club that encourages gardeners to grow plants suitable for their climate. They are also very big on saving seed and growing heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables. An heirloom is a variety that dates back before the 1960s. They are the kind of varieties that our grandparents grew in their back yards. Diggers estimate that by the beginning of the twentieth century there were probably around 4000 different varieties of tomatoes. Sadly, many of these varieties have been lost due to a decrease in backyard gardens and increased commercial breeding. But heirlooms are making a comeback as people become more concerned about the food that they eat and interested in growing their own. You don’t have to have a big yard to grow tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes grow really well in pots. Any Australian readers interested in trying out some heirloom varieties can purchase seeds from the Diggers Club here or you can find their seedlings in places like Bunnings.
There are so many good reasons for growing even just a little of our own food, so if you haven’t done it before, I encourage you to have a go. It’s good exercise. It’s good for your health. And it’s just one little way of helping the environment.