Tomatoes are by far the most popular crop for home gardeners to grow. Why is this so? Why not pumpkins, potatoes, carrots?
For a start, shop-bought tomatoes are dominated by hybrids bred to travel long distances, not for flavour, colour or nutrition. The home gardener, meanwhile, can choose from an amazing array of heirloom tomatoes of different shapes, colours, flesh textures and flavours, from which they can save their own seed. And they are such a versatile crop for use in the kitchen from salads to frittatas to sauces.
Funnily enough, this same crop is arguably responsible for causing gardeners more heartache and frustration than any other... “Why can’t I grow a good tomato?” is one of the most common queries of home growers. Much of the growing success comes down to selecting the right tomato variety for your local conditions as well as knowing a few localised tricks that can only come from years of growing experience.
That’s why we have decided to draw on the expert knowledge of some of Australia’s most recognised home growers to find the top tomatoes.
Favourite picks: There are so many beautiful and amazing tomato varieties to choose from. My advice is to experiment – aim to try them all! But if I had to choose one for all-round performance, it would have to be ‘Mamma Mia’. It produces a smooth, undulating, pear-shaped fruit with a blood-red skin and flesh. Oh the flesh! Biting into a ‘Mamma Mia’ is transcendental; it is the kind of experience that inspires songs.
Growing tips: I find it very hard to be unhappy when eating a home-grown tomato, actually any task that involves my tomatoes gives me great pleasure. Nearly every person I know grows tomatoes and this is especially true for my Dad and his Italian mates. There’s always hot discussion on the best growing technique, although they do agree on a few gospel truths – plenty of sun and water, strip off the lower growth, use sheep manure and only one stake. This is all good, well-tested information, although I prefer to use three stakes when training plants. I find it allows for better airflow and gives more support to the plants, which is important when you’re growing large fruit varieties like the planet-sized ‘Brandywine’. A couple of special tricks I employ with great success in my windy cool-climate garden are deep stem planting and throwing an aspirin in the planting. The salicylic acid in the aspirin helps develop stronger plants. Next time you’re picking off your plant’s laterals (shoots that develop at the leaf joints), keep in mind that if you plant and water them in, they will take root and you will get a bonus succession crop.
Favourite picks: Ahh, the full rich flavour of a home-grown tomato… it’s often the best reason to start a vegetable garden! My continuing search for superior flavour constantly draws me back to heirloom varieties. ‘Tommy Toe’ is one of my favourites. It bears lots of fruit about the size of an apricot, with incredible flavour. ‘Black Krim’ is another standout, with dark red flesh and an intense, slightly salty taste. I also grow ‘Rouge De Marmande’, sometimes known as ‘Early Girl’ because of its early harvest. The trick for me is to plant a mix of varieties, not only for an assortment of colours and shapes, but also staggered ripening times.
Cooking tips: I rarely go a day without eating garden-fresh tomatoes between December and May, and I am always using them in cooking. I love the intense flavour of semi-roasted tomatoes, which I often toss with goat’s cheese or ricotta, and mix through freshly made pasta with a dose of fruity extra virgin olive oil and lots of basil torn and tossed in at the last moment. Or it could be as simple as ripe, cut tomatoes pan-fried in nut brown butter and deglazed at the last moment with a dash of verjuice, and served on grainy bread with generous unsalted butter! The most important thing with tomatoes is to never refrigerate them... it takes away their flavour. If you have a glut, you can make tomato sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, homemade passata, intensely flavoured ‘strattu’ (paste) or a gazpacho, a cold fresh tomato soup.
To find out which tomatoes PETER CUNDALL and JERRY COLEBY-WILLIAMS favour plus get PHIL DUDMAN'S advice for growing a good tomato.
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First published: October 2013