Join the ranks of the fearless fighting rot and rain to nurture a nightshade – the tomato. By Helen Razer.

Enjoy the fruits of tomato-growing labour

Cherry tomatoes grow well in spots that get fewer than six hours of sunlight a day.
Cherry tomatoes grow well in spots that get fewer than six hours of sunlight a day.

Whoever said that tomatoes tenderly grown from seed Taste So Much Better Than the Shop Kind has never had their hands in dirt. This is a terrible falsehood that not only ignores the efforts of the nation’s better boutique farmers but has no use for memory. It was in the drought-breaking summer of 2011 that even neighbour Iris was forced to the greengrocer for salad. Like all of the tomatoes in the suburb, hers were claimed by rain and rot and for the first time in many years she did not offer, with annual faux-humility, a fruit the size of a two-door Kia.

“Oh. Is that big and juicy?” she would ask, every other summer. “I didn’t notice. I guess I’m used to them.”

The return to Mediterranean summer conditions in Melbourne has restored to Iris her prizewinning brandywine. Although, it must be said, Kosta, who is powdered like the mikado with tomato dust from October, is probably the street’s most prolific producer, even in wet conditions. Then again, Kosta has a hothouse, no aversion to the use of fungicide last approved for sale in 1972, and a stash of seeds he smuggled in from the Peloponnese. 

“Oh, are they red and juicy and at least one month earlier than yours?” he asked as he handed me a postbox red node of what I guess is the Asemina. “I didn’t notice. I suppose I’m used to them.”

While it’s true that anyone who tries their hand at tomato cultivation will produce a fruit that exceeds the quality of those sad supermarket lobes of agricultural despair, it is not true, even for the best gardeners, that you’ll always rival the texture and taste of the Doncaster sold at smug little gastronomic stores. 

But no warning about early blight, possum attack or feeding requirements is going to stop the Australian gardener from playing God in their Edenic gardens before the fall of fungus. We’ve been at this troubling obsession a while. Professor Andrea Gaynor, author of the history Harvest of the Suburbs, emailed me some fragments of text that record the first growth of “love apples” at a Parramatta home in 1793 and the first sale of seeds for domestic use in Rundle Street, Adelaide, in 1882. 

E. B. Heyne’s Nursery offered just “Red and Yellow” and “large and small” varieties back then. We can only suppose it was not until the wave of postwar migration that carried Kosta from southern Greece to his current home next to mine that a range of new cultivars began appearing in our backyards, balconies and barbecue platters.

In the mid-century, Mediterranean-born Australians whetted the national appetite for home-grown tomatoes suited to a range of growing conditions and culinary needs. But it was in the ’90s that advocates for sustainable gardening began throwing a term such as “heirloom” around and we all caught it, along with snooty chefs.

The Diggers Club in Victoria was an early and active champion for the sale and propagation of heretofore unseen varieties. Caroline Trevorrow, a Diggers manager, tells me that the tomato was a great way to “tell the heirloom story”.

Tomatoes, she says, are one of the most commonly grown domestic edibles and the Australian fondness for them made it easier for the seed-saving company to grow our understanding of the difference between hybrid and open-pollinated plants. Hybrid tomatoes, such as those we buy in major supermarkets, are crossbred to produce qualities such as toughness, high yield, strong colour and all the flavour of manila folder. An heirloom, which is open-pollinated, will never taste like stationery and is genetically stable enough for you to save its seeds. But, whoa there: let us not yet talk about seeds. You are yet to be adequately terrified by fungus.

In Sydney or in Brisbane and in seasons with unusually high rainfall, tomatoes may provoke horticultural heartbreak. Late Blight. Early Blight. I Just Feel Like Screwing with You Blight. Tomatoes can be afflicted with as many species of mildew as there are bored children at Bunnings. In any environment, you really must keep moisture away from tomato leaves where possible and this means, both in pots and in plots, deep watering of the roots and not of the plant itself. So, keep yourself nice with the hose and carefully apply water to just the ground. Ground, by the way, you have mulched when the plant is beginning to mature. This helps keep moisture in the root system and will prevent your fruit from rotting in the soil. I would warn you here to prune your lower lateral branches and offer a general overview of the removal by pinching of suckers but, as you’re already halfway to the gardening centre, I’ll let you discover tomato surgery in a month or two.

But, please, be particularly cautious not to over-water if container-growing. A small-space gardener can even skip every other day of deep watering after the plant has established in spring and before the unforgiving sun heat of summer. If you are in a subtropical zone or you are trying tomatoes for the first time, a good naturally fungus-resistant option would be to select a roma for cooking or the widely available heirloom tommy toe or any of the cherry varieties for eating. A cherry is also a good choice if its intended position receives fewer than six hours of sunlight a day. If you must plant a giant such as an oxheart or beefsteak in a humid city, be vigilant for signs of rot such as dark or light spots, or wilt even in well-watered plants. If you detect fungus, spray with a mixture of three teaspoons of baking soda and a few drops each of olive oil and liquid soap in four litres of water.

Tomato-growing is an intimate journey of self-loathing and I won’t spoil the surprise of incursion by thrips and aphid, which can be diminished by the use of nets, for purists, or the covert use of pyrethrum by guilty gardeners like me. I will encourage you, however, to try the decorative approach to death by growing flowers to attract predatory lacewings and ladybirds. Such blooms include Queen Anne’s lace, the lovely cosmos, and tansy. As for those who live in the company of more muscular fauna such as possums or birds, a physical barrier is your only option.  

None of this will stop you. Nor will news of the avid feeding requirements for a plant that demands a sunny spot, a nice bed and regular meals. Iris uses fish emulsion every two weeks right through the life cycle of her plants but I play it safe and when the plant is sturdy and beginning to flower, and in need of more potassium and less nitrogen, I apply some sulfate of potash a few times as well. Of course, prior to all of this, I have fretted about the condition of my soil and purchased impulse manure. Once you have established plants over a season, you, too, will stink faintly of sheep waste, but in the meantime, you could just buy something at the shops that has a promising picture of a tomato on the label and fallaciously promises This One Product Is All That You Will Need. 

Ha. Just you wait.  

The first tomato obsessive under 30 I met was my friend and former colleague Lawrie Zion. Now an academic at La Trobe, Lawrie was famous for coming into work at ABC radio station Triple J and talking about his grosse lisse while the rest of us were banging on about virtual reality gloves. He would be forced to walk over to Radio National to chat with employees of an age where the phrase “bacterial wilt” was in more common use.

Now a veteran of more than 20 seasons of cultivation, Lawrie has become one of my tomato mentors. He gives great advice on a hobby he’s unlikely to surrender, but he also concedes that not every year is a winner. Each season is a challenge and “part of the joy of tomato-growing for me is that you can enjoy a range that is simply not available in most shops, especially with the many tasty varieties that don’t happen to store or travel all that well”.

Where Iris’s boast is size and Kosta’s is yield, Lawrie’s is variety. His favourites are the late-fruiting Wapsipinicon peach, which he says are sweet and perfect for gazpacho, as well as the firm and salad-friendly jaune flammee, which is of an orange so vivid Nicki Minaj would wear it in a wig. 

In Sydney and above, now is just about time to plant seedlings. In more temperate climates, you must wait. But not, as the old wisdom goes, until Melbourne Cup day. Do, as Lawrie says, wait until the sporting calendar has at least given us football finals. In just about every climate, however, it is absolutely fine to begin germinating now in a protected position.  

This is dead easy and open-pollinated heirloom varieties can be found online for as little as a dollar a pack. Pop some seed-raising mix in the tube from inside a loo-roll and spray with water several times daily. When the plants have shot a few healthy looking leaves, harden them gradually to their new conditions a few hours every day in sunlight. This way, you can stagger planting and extend your season.

When the maximum temperature has reached an average 20 degrees, dig a nice big hole and plant your wilful charges about 60 centimetres apart. You may not produce scarlet orbs of gastronomic refinement so as to outdo the smugger stalls at a farmers’ market. But, you will continue a patient habit two centuries honoured and produce at least a kilo of tradition that tastes better than cardboard and is guaranteed to turn you from a novice into a satisfied and spectacular bore.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 23, 2014 as "Fruit of labour".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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