The big test: tomatoes

The big test: tomatoes

A few seasons into market gardening, we faced the ultimate test: can we grow tomatoes? Why am I calling it the ultimate test? Because people tend to have quite strong opinions about growing tomatoes. Either they grow a plant at home every summer, or their father does. We'd read lots of posts and articles about commercial tomato growers watering each plant 20 litres of water a week in irrigated tunnel houses with fans. Pruning and feeding the plants sounded complicated and only fit for an expert to attempt. 

We don't have tunnel houses, we'd love one ... but just haven't had the money to buy one. We don't have a town water supply to rely on, or a spring or river. We collect all our water from the sky and store it in tanks. Would we have enough water to sustain the tomatoes? Would the tomatoes be ok in our no-dig beds out in our front paddock in the wind and rain?

When I was a kid, my parents and grandparents were market gardeners. They grew a lot of different crops, mainly through the summer, but they were mostly known for their tomatoes. Penny's tomato shed was quite well known in the district. They grew most of the tomatoes in glasshouses but also grew some tomatoes out in the paddock. There were die hard outdoor tomato customers that would wait for the outdoor tomatoes. They'd come in week after week asking when the outdoor tomatoes will be ready. It was flavour they were after, the paddock tomatoes have a different flavour, maybe it's because they're out in the direct sun, sometimes not quite getting enough water, open to the wind and rain.

I remember riding my bike along the smooth dirt track alongside the tomato beds in the paddock. The tomato plants were dying, it was the end of the season. I saw one last deep red little tomato on a plant and ate it. It was the sweetest, strongest flavoured tomato I've ever tasted.  

So, anyway back to now - we knew growing outside was possible, but I didn't remember all the hard work to pick the tomatoes when they're down on the ground. I wish now I'd taken more notice when I was a kid instead of riding my bike around.

Like most things we do for our business, we jumped in boots and all with great enthusiasm. We seeded 150 tomato plants, all cherry tomato varieties. We decided that's what our customers would like the most because we loved eating them. It didn't occur to us until the plants were big enough to transplant out into the paddock how time consuming it was going to be to plant, stake, train, prune them all. We got them all the in ground, staked and tied up and did a round or two of pruning. Then it all got out of control.

I told my grandma, 'we're growing outdoor tomatoes. 100 metres of them. We haven't kept up with pruning and tying and now they're great big tangled bushes. But there are loads of tomatoes'. Her face dropped and she rolled her eyes. She said 'that's fine, they'll just be really time-consuming to pick'.

Something quite interesting to me is that my Mum told me that back in the earlier days, when my Grandparents were in charge, they didn't used to sell the little tomatoes. The little tomatoes wouldn't be picked and would be left on the plants or thrown away. My Grandparents once went away on holiday and left my Dad, a teenager at the time, and his sister in charge of the market garden and roadside shop. I think a customer saw the little tomatoes still on the plants and asked if they could buy some. So my Dad and his sister had a brainwave to box the little tomatoes and sell them for more than the larger tomatoes. It was a success.  

Anyway, just to reassure you, our baby tomatoes were a success too. We ended up with a huge crop, the flavour was outstanding, our customers loved them and we sold them all for a good price that made the time-consuming crop worthwhile.

This is our third summer growing tomatoes and we haven't learned our lesson. We still grow 150 plants, and this year we got behind in pruning and tying up. It takes us 1 hour per bed to pick the baby tomatoes and there are a couple of plants that you pretty much have to lie on your tummy to get the massive handfuls of little tomatoes hiding underneath. We thought we had it cracked this time, too, with a whole lot of bamboo tepees supporting the plants. But they weren't strong enough for the heavy weight of the fruit laden plants.

Note to ourselves: next summer ... buy big steel Warratahs to extra support the tepees.

We tried a new variety this year - a variety called Andiamo, a 'San Marzano' style, lower acid, plum tomato. San Marzano tomatoes are famous in Italy for their flavour and as a canning tomato. I'm sure you'll agree the description sounded quite romantic so we grew it, and it's all true, Andiamo is our new favourite. We'll be growing that each year along-side (or along-ground) the baby toms.

I think back to my childhood again and I remember my dad coming in from the tomatoes, his hands all black from the tomato plants and smelling of tomatoes. I remember him scrubbing and scrubbing his hands and never getting it all off. Now our hand towels have tell-tale yellow marks from the tomato season, and one of our sons once said there's nothing better than the smell of a tomato plant.

Does this mean we can now call ourselves tomato growers?