Would you like to be eating heirloom tomatoes like these, rather than the supermarket “Gourmets” in your summer salads?
Supermarket tomatoes are hybrids bred for efficient machine harvesting and long-distance shipping. They contain an introduced slow ripening gene which prevents full development of the natural sugars which are a major component of a tomato’s flavour.
Don’t get me wrong. Supermarket produce is an essential part of feeding the world. Growing my own veggies has given me a huge reality check- the reality is that self-sufficiency is unachievable for the vast majority of our population. But I can use my home vegetable garden to get the “best bang for the buck”, and home-grown tomatoes are top priority for me and for most gardeners I know.
Out here in Mudgee, the biggest problem I’ve had with tomatoes, is fruit fly. In recent years, these pests have even begun to infest the cherry-type tomatoes (which used to be fruit-fly resistant), as well as the standard sized varieties.
It’s unbelievable how many kinds of fruit fly traps, lures and sprays are promoted, from recipes on organic gardening websites to the expansive (and expensive) arrays on supermarket shelves. However, it’s been my experience that, unless these remedies contain serious chemicals, THEY DON’T WORK.
A couple of years ago I decided to go all out in my quest for a supply of delicious home-grown tomatoes. After discovering fruit fly-proof mesh at the local hardware store, a friend designed and built some “tomato cages”, in which I would grow my summer tomato crop.
Michael’s cages are designed to fit onto the top of existing raised garden beds. The framework is made from marine ply. Michael cut strips of ply long enough to bend into a parabola shape, to create a dome. He bent the strips and glued them to the rectangular base of the frame. The ply was then painted with an exterior clear paint to protect it from the elements. This structure was then covered in fruit fly mesh and hinged to one side of the raised garden bed with stainless steel hinges. A watering system was then added.
These cages can be removed completely, over winter. They function very well and are also quite visually appealing.
We’ve now had 2 satisfactory crops of tomatoes of various varieties, unaffected by fruit fly. Productivity is probably reduced due to the screening effect of the mesh which does reduce the sunlight available to the plants.
Many people asked how the tomatoes get fertilised, if bees can’t get into the cage. At first Michael tried shaking the flowers to release the pollen, but after a while he got sick of that, and nature just seemed to take its course anyway- possibly due to the actions of wind or the watering sprays.
One important point for coastal gardeners- in the central west we have very low humidity in summer. In humid areas, there could be disease problems with using a system like this.
This year I’ve turned to my old Diggers Seeds magazines (2011 and 2013 editions) to make sure I’m leaving no stone unturned in my quest for tomato perfection, and to drool over the pictures of their fantastic range of heirloom tomato varieties. Here are some great tips I’ve found in these magazines.
Growing heirloom tomatoes
- Heirloom tomatoes come from seeds which have been bred in back yards over hundreds of years. These varieties shouldn’t be pruned.
- To achieve earlier fruiting in heirloom varieties, the terminal bud can be pinched out to encourage the lateral branches to grow. Overall, though, this will reduce yield.
- The whole tomato bush should be staked for support.
- Tomatoes need 6 hours of sunshine per day and well drained soil.
- If sowing from seed, use punnets or jiffy pots, and place these in a warm, well lit position to germinate. Don’t let them dry out.
- About 6 weeks after the seed is sown, they’re ready to be planted out. Make sure the chance of frost has passed- the soil temperature should be around 18-20 degrees Celsius.
- Seedlings can be watered with a weak solution of liquid fertiliser, prior to planting out.
- Plant at 1 metre spacing to ensure good air circulation. Provide support to all but the dwarf varieties.
Keeping your plants healthy
- Tomatoes planted too close together and not mulched are prone to disease being transferred from the ground onto the foliage by water splash. Water in the morning, making sure to avoid foliage. Drip irrigation is ideal.
- Avoid replanting in the same position each year, to avoid diseases which may build up in the soil.
- Mulch to keep the roots cool and reduce evaporation of soil moisture.
- Feed tomatoes throughout the growing season to ensure a bountiful crop.
- Once your plants are spent in summer or autumn, remove them and rejuvenate the soil with a soil fumigant like Diggers Seeds Bio-Mustard.
It’s so satisfying to be able to pick a luscious, perfectly ripe Black Russian, Beams Yellow Pear or Tigerella for the evening’s salad.
Good luck with your tomatoes this summer!