`Better late than never’ is, all too often, my gardening maxim. I still haven’t planted all my tomato seedlings, but this month is the last chance to get them in the ground.
Up to a point, lateness can be passed off as strategic `staggering’, to avoid gluts. I planted some `Bloody Butcher’ tomatoes back in September, which are already carrying small green fruit. This is an early variety, meaning they fruit 8-9 weeks after planting; these fast-maturing types, perversely, can also be a good choice for late plantings when you’re running out of tomato-ripening weather. `Bloody Butcher’, as the name suggests, are deep red, tasty and juicy and I’ve had good results from them in the past.
The last few gaps in my tomato beds will soon be filled with seedlings of yellow-fruited `Jaune Flamee’, a zingy little French heirloom that will burn a torch in your heart after just one bite, according to the catalogue. I’m also trialling `Claire’s Purple Torere’ to add colour to this summer’s salads. Every year I also grow cherry tomatoes for their dependability and disease resistance, and because I love sending kids out to pick all they can eat. Cherry types sprawl inside netting cages (old plastic laundry hampers also work well) rather than needing traditional staking.
Slightly later into the ground, the `Sweet Virginia’ plants are sturdy and strong. These were raised from seed from Mark Christensen, whose Central Tree Crops Research Trust is seven years into a study of tomatoes, particularly the nutritional makeup of heirloom varieties. Research shows that although red tomatoes contain the most lycopene (which helps prevent heart disease and certain cancers) they need to be cooked, or oil added, for this to be absorbed by the human body. Yellow and orange tomatoes, on the other hand, contain a different form of lycopene that’s more easily absorbed, even when eaten raw.
When tomatoes first came to Europe from the Americas they were known as pomod’oro, `golden apple’, and were orange. Christensen suggests tomatoes closest to the wild forms – cherry tomatoes, and those of golden colour – are the most nutritious. Modern tomatoes have been selected for redness, firmness, strong skins, shelf life and yield at the cost, he says, of nutritional and medicinal quality. “In my view, those breeding tomatoes over the centuries have been completely unaware of the long-term implications of what they were doing.” Tomatoes being one of our most popular vegetables, he sees the study as an opportunity to improve nutrition and health.
Christensen’s tunnel house in Wanganui, which I visited last summer, certainly opened my eyes to the depth and breadth of the tomato gene pool. Red, green, striped, pleated, pear-shaped or peach-skinned, all his tomatoes are allowed to grow freely without pruning or pinching out. There’s plenty of whitefly, but the crops don’t seem to suffer and fruits are tested at the end of the season for lycopene levels. So far, the orange ones are winning.
Weekly tomato care:
- You don’t have to prune tomatoes, but it can mean better harvests. Experiment.
- Choose a sunny, windy day to reduce fungal infections
- Tie in new shoots with soft ties
- Nip out tiny laterals (the shoots that appear where a leaf joins the stalk) to keep plants concentrated on fruiting, not leafing
- Feed with seaweed fertilizer, watered or sprayed onto leaves.
For more about the tomato research project, see treecropsresearch.org