Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tomato time again

The end of October, with its associated Labour weekend holiday, has everyone’s mind turning to the vegetable garden. Even those who have touched neither a spade nor a shovel know this is the time of the year for planting out those summer vegetables that are the staple of our diet over the warmer months.
Sometimes, though, the weather has a mind of its own, and wants us to wait just a little longer before we get too busy in amongst the courgettes and pumpkins. When I was hunting around the old records at our nursery, I found the first owners, who operated the nursery from the 1890s to the 1970s, did not sow any marrows (there were no courgettes or zucchinis in those days!) until early November.
Tomatoes are the main concern for the home gardener at Labour weekend, although there are plenty who will wait (as I will) for a week or two, for the ground to warm up a little more, before planting out. If you are braver than I am, and you think the frosts are all over and you are keen to get planting, there are a few little things to remember when planting tomatoes.
Firstly, site selection. Tomatoes need as much sun as they can get, so it is important to select a well drained site in full sun most of the day. If you have been growing tomatoes in the same site for a year or two, it probably pays to get a new site as tomatoes are very prone to soil sickness. Ideally, you shouldn’t grow on the same soil for more than two years. If you have to use the same site, then change the soil.
Soil texture is important too. A built-up bed, well enriched with compost and sheep pellets is ideal, as tomatoes like a good feed. A little added lime will not go astray either.
The soil needs to be well-drained too, so add some sharp sand if the soil holds too much moisture.
Now the soil is ready, it is time to select your variety.
There are many traditional varieties available in garden centres, with ‘Moneymaker’ probably the best known of these. It is an old variety, with well flavoured, round fruit of medium size. ‘Grosse Lisse’ is also popular, with larger fruit. ‘Beefsteak’ is a very fleshy type, with sandwich sized fruit.
I think you can do better though, by trying one of the newer hybrid types although they might be a little dearer.
Each nursery will grow its own favoured hybrids, so you will have to have a look around to see what is on offer at your favourite seller, but as a rule, hybrids will fruit quicker, they will fruit more, and they will also be more disease resistant.
Others of you will be keen to try some of the heirloom varieties that are also becoming more popular in New Zealand. There is a very wide range of these, with black, purple, greed, white, striped – all colours and types available. A few years ago, I trialled some of these in my own garden, and I have to say I was most unimpressed. All the types I tried proved to be very poor at fruiting, and they were also very disease prone. If you like growing unusual fruit and vegetables, by all means give them a try, but they should not be thought of as a replacement for the more standard varieties.
Some other pecialist varieties are still popular. Many love the Italian tomatoes, usually pear-shaped and often claimed to have reduced levels of acidity. ‘Roma’ is perhaps the best-known, but each locality seems to have its own favourite. We used to grow lots of a type called ‘Italiano’, with bigger fruit than ‘Roma’.

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