Helen McKerralMy cool-climate tomato harvest

A highlight of my first northern hemisphere trip was… tomatoes. Italian tomatoes. Pathetic, right? Just… tomatoes. Yep, a food and gardening tragic… but – oh! – those Italian tomatoes!01 fresh tomatoes in Italian markets02 Italian market tomatoesForget the hard, watery, sour excuses in Aussie shops – even the ones labelled vine-ripened don’t taste that way (how is that done?). Tomatoes in Italy were so ripe when you bought them that they lasted only two days before liquefying in the fruit bowl – but that didn’t matter because you could buy every variety, every day, from every corner stall.

03 Italian market tomatoes

Just grab a few ingredients…

04 A few ingredients for a divine pastafor divine pasta.

05 Yum tomato pasta

Yum tomato pasta

Briefly warm tomatoes with garlic, chilli and a little mince or anchovies in a glug of olive oil in a pan, then toss the lot through pasta with fresh basil, white wine, salt and pepper – done! You’d have to cook the crap out of store-bought Aussie tomatoes to get the same depth of flavour!

06 Too shady for tomatoes, reallySo of course a high priority – in fact, the highest priority– in my new vegie patch was tomatoes. Even though the soil had not yet been properly prepared, and the spot by the chook yard was too shady……

….in 2011, I planted half a dozen cherry tomatoes for a modest harvest

07 A modest harvest of tomatoes

A modest harvest of tomatoes

…before they succumbed to blight in the poor conditions.

Tomatoes suffering from blight in shady conditions

Tomatoes suffering from blight in shady conditions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A bigger crop was planted in 2012, including black, yellow and red cherry tomatoes, Grosse Lisse and a few others:

09A better crop in 2012Better (albeit still first year) soil preparation produced a larger harvest.

I had a larger harvest in 2012 with different varieties and better soil preparation

I had a larger harvest in 2012 with different varieties and better soil preparation

9m of new, trellised tomato plantings

9m of new, trellised tomato plantings

In 2013, I aimed to grow a year’s supply of tomatoes – about nine metres of trellis in a new bed, plus another ten individual plants scattered elsewhere, in many varieties: Roma, Tommy Toe, Yellow Tommy Toe, Sweet Bite, Apollo, Red Russian, Grafted Mighty Red, Burnley Bounty, Tigerella, My Ugly, Burke’s Italian, Green Zebra, Tom Boy, Tiny Tim. This time, I weighed the crop to identify which varieties were the best performers and best tasters. But this wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

I harvested 70.9 kilos of tomatoes. The graph shows cumulative harvest per variety but, where multiples of a variety were planted, I divided by the number of plants to get crop per plant.

2013 Tomato Harvest -- cumulative harvest per variety

2013 Tomato Harvest — cumulative harvest per variety

First: yes, good old Burnley Bounty, an Australian tomato developed for (relatively) cold conditions, did the best (just over 10 kg from one plant). It was reasonably disease-resistant, and the mid-size fruit, 50-75% larger than a golf ball, made harvesting and preparation less time-consuming than for cherry tomatoes. An early-bearing variety, it also finished late.

Green Zebra tomato

Green Zebra tomato

The single grafted Mighty Red did well (8.72 kg) but nowhere near as well as expected, given it received the same soil preparation in the same part of the garden. Worse, rather than ripening, the fruit spoiled on the vine at the end of the season. Apollo was pretty good too, followed by Green Zebra, which impressed me with its vigour, health and fruit that continued to ripen very late. Grosse Lisse performed acceptably too. Last of the reasonable bearers was Black Russian, which was so delicious I’d grow even if it had half the fruit. The Sweet Bite plants were spindly and weak, were hard hit by blight, and the fruit split easily.

Sweet Bite tomatoes

Sweet Bite tomatoes

So what of the others? Tigerella, touted to be one of the heaviest croppers (up to 15 kg), producing just 2.4 kg? Why did Tommy Toe Yellow produce very little, but still almost double that of Tommy Toe Red? What happened to the four Romas, Burke’s Italian, Sweet Bite, Mr Ugly, Tiny Tim and Tom Boy, all with negligible crops? Are they all useless in my garden?

Well, no. Lies, damned lies and statistics. Read on for clues.

1. Season and planting time.
Look at those harvest dates: February! That’s very late indeed to be harvesting the first tomatoes: cherry varieties are usually ready long before Christmas. So the season in the Hills was – by all accounts from numerous customers I asked at the Crafers Garden Centre – atrocious. Many gardeners picked no tomatoes at all, or a tiny fraction of their usual harvest. Even though I had potted seedlings into black plastic pots to grow on, and only transplanted them into the ground at the end of October, the plants sulked through continuing cold, damp conditions, and were finally battered by a hailstorm at the end of November.

Symptoms of tomato russet mite perhaps?

Symptoms of tomato russet mite perhaps?

I have only ever used (organic) sulphur and copper fungicides on my tomatoes, but the Early Blight was winning, and I was pretty certain I’d lose every plant, so I sprayed a single time with Mancozeb, which saved them. After that I continued dusting with sulphur, which also controlled a small area of what I think might have been tomato russet mite. The leaves affected by early blight shrivelled, but subsequent growth in warmer weather was fine.

Tigerella tomato

Tigerella tomato

Planting at the right time is essential. Tigerella, Mr Ugly and Burke’s Italian weren’t planted until early December, which casts the Tigerella harvest in a completely new light ie, not bad at all! I’m giving Burke’s Italian another chance this year too (which should be a much better season as soil temperatures are tracking two weeks ahead of normal).

Still, with the exception of Burnley Bounty and Sweet Bite, almost all the varieties established on the trellis had a band of fruit at the bottom of the bushes, followed by a band without fruit during the cold snap, followed by fruit again at the top of the bushes. So regardless of what seed catalogues say about cropping, those figures are meaningless in a bad season: in other words, season will have more impact on your harvest than variety per se (unless you can exactly match cultivar requirements to specific conditions).

2. Microclimate and aspect:  I was happy with 70 kg, because the season was poor, plus my southerly aspect warms late, and trees to the north exacerbate this. Full sun position? Yeah right, who has that luxury in forested Crafers, Stirling, Aldgate and Bridgewater? Once the sun arcs higher in the late spring sky, our tomatoes take off but, until then, things are slow. Many Hills gardeners grow tomatoes in dappled shade – sometimes exacerbated by root competition from stringy-bark eucalypts – or in morning sun only, or afternoon sun only. This affects yields of all varieties, but you can still get a modest harvest with excellent soil preparation. If you live locally, I’d love to hear which tomatoes do best in your garden’s microclimate (Legef, Super Roma, Principe Borghese and Gabriella have been recommended to me).

3. Soil preparation:   Preparing (soil improvement, irrigation) all the garden beds in the new area at once wasn’t feasible in either time or dollars. So of the five beds, each of my tomato crops in the new area have gone in as the first crop in that particular bed (excluding the first season where I grew tomatoes in the berry area; I’m now on the third bed). The beds were prepared with manure, rock dust, Go-Go- juice, Seasol, and compost… but each time for the tomatoes it’s still the first year of soil improvement in that particular bed, which won’t reach peak productivity for another three or four years.

Because I mix vegetable plantings in a sort-of-permaculture system, I don’t bother with crop rotation, except for the tomato family. Once the soil is fully improved, I probably won’t bother rotating them but, at the moment, the plants are more susceptible to disease because the soil still has such a long way to go.

Soft growth on tomatoes is more susceptible to fungal attack

Soft growth on tomatoes is more susceptible to fungal attack

For the first time last year I tried a Manutec tomato tablet (one tablet, not the two recommended per plant). It’s very possible that this concentrated fertiliser exacerbated the disease situation by creating lush, soft growth more susceptible to fungal attack, and this season I’ve added only a sprinkle of sulphate of potash to the compost, manure and rock dust.

So what’s with those Romas, the Tiny Tim and the Tommy Toes? Are they crap varieties for my garden? Again, the graph is misleading. I planted these varieties into areas of the garden that had no soil improvement at all… what a difference! More than variety, soil quality dictated harvest, so prepare it well and any variety will probably thrive too. In fact, Yellow Tommy Toe cropped amazingly well, considering! Only Tom Boy, planted right beside Grosse Lisse, Black Russian and the other good performers in the same soil in the same bed, has no excuse for its poor performance. Still, there are probably variables I haven’t considered, so I’ll try it again in a year or two to see if this was an aberration.

4. The taste test:   All those taste tests comparing numerous cultivars are fine but, in my opinion, two things trump variety per se. First –

the worst home-grown tomato variety will still taste much better than any store-bought one

Second, for me at least, ripeness has more effect on taste than variety, so a fully vine-ripened tomato of any variety tastes better than a less ripe tomato of any other variety. So although I’m still experimenting with varieties old and new (this season, new ones include Black Krim, Rouge de Marmande, Super Roma, Oxheart, Mortgage Lifter, Honey Drop, Corn Boy, Tumbling Tiger, Principe Borghese as well as repeats of Black Russian, Green Zebra, Mighty Red, Tommy Toe and Tigerella), I’m confident that they’ll all taste good!

Part of my 70kg tomato harvest

Part of my 70kg tomato harvest

Home-made passata

Home-made passata

What did I do with 70 kg of tomatoes? Gave away lots, of course, but also cooked down much of it into passata (reduce by 50 per cent, then freeze in ziplock bags). The cherry tomatoes were tossed with chilli, garlic, seasoning and olive oil, roasted till syrupy, and frozen in ziplock bags.

My favourite tomato salsa is indescribably good only with home-grown, fully vine-ripened very ripe tomatoes (don’t bother with anything else). Chop tomatoes roughly and put in a bowl with 20-30 per cent by volume of good olive oil. Stir through salt, freshly ground pepper, crushed garlic, torn basil leaves and chopped chilli to taste. Cover with cling wrap and leave to macerate at room temperature for 2-3 hours. Use as a side salad with chicken or steak, on bruschetta with feta or shaved parmesan, or tossed through pasta. Drizzle torn sourdough bread in olive oil and season, roast bread till crisp, then toss through tomatoes for panzanella. Yum! Can’t wait for this season’s harvest!

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

7 thoughts on “My cool-climate tomato harvest

  1. Bernhard Feistel on said:

    Hi Helen,

    A wonderful inspiring article. The number of your tomato varieties is just amazing.

    I have always been impressed by your meticulous, thought-through, systematic approach to all things you appear to do in your garden. And it looks vibrant and colourful at the same time. I admire this a lot, being myself far too chaotic to follow spring resolutions: mislaying labels, forgetting to prune or fertilize at the right time etc. (Quite often I think the garden owns me instead of the other way round…)

    Your statistics and the book-keeping reminds me of my parents’ gardening.

    One questions remains: Do you allow for some deviation in your harvest result in case you can’t resist eating on the spot? (:-)

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Haha, Bernhard, and thank you! Re your last comment, there was no point recording my raspberry harvest because none ever made it inside the house! I will try to be more disciplined this year! And of course like you I too forget things, or do them too late or too early.

      To be honest, my science is dodgy because the variables are so numerous in a garden environment I can’t possibly control them all, and only the broadest conclusions can be drawn, and even then only for my own garden! It’s all a bit of fun and hopefully over the years I’ll learn from and fine tune the results.

      And yes, like your parents, my grandmother kept meticulous records of planting dates and harvests for numerous vegetables and fruits over three decades, but her notebooks have sadly been lost – how I wish I had them!

  2. Eugene on said:

    Great article Helen. I learnt me some stuff. Glad at least someone is trying to make sense of it all.

    For me – I’ve been growing tomatoes for 35 years and still I know nothing. The vagaries are just too vague for me to figure out. Tried most every variety I come across, let seedlings go when they appear from gawd-knows-where, I’ve added innumerable composts and brews and my conclusion is….the lap of the gods, yes, and grafted varieties nearly always disappoint.

    No matter. Some times we get some in before Xmas, most times we do not, but we always get fruit and that’s always worth the effort. Come retirement I will take a cue from people like your good self and devote more time to understanding their ways and maybe iron out a few glitches. Till then I will just adore their smell as I prune and know that Cup Day has passed and that summer is upon us.

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Eugene, I strongly suspect that with 35 years of tomato growing under your belt, you could teach me plenty more than I could offer you!

      I remember once watching my grandmother pushing cuttings (prunings) into the ground near the bush she had just trimmed. I asked her why she’d put them there, and not in another spot, and she replied, “They’ll grow there.” Why? She couldn’t tell me, they just… would. But this decision wasn’t random, quite the contrary – five decades of gardening knowledge underpinned it. I suspect it was a synthesis of such complexity that it was difficult for her to articulate, a combination of shading and soil and moisture and timing and aspect and half a dozen more things she’d intuited after so many years of trial and error. The cuttings all struck.

      My record keeping and analysis is not an end in itself but a tool to help me hone and hopefully hasten the development of that kind of intuition: the kind of intuition that you, with 35 years of tomato growing, almost certainly already have!

  3. Adele on said:

    I agree that season can be one of the strongest determinants of a tomato crop. I have been growing tomatoes here in Glen Iris since 1989, and am still learning. Also some varieties cope better with the dry hot days of January/February than others whose flowers all burn off. I am forever trying new seed and now grow only from seed although I originally started with grafted plants all those years ago.
    My secret to healthy plants is to apply a solution of blackstrap molasses dissolved in water to the newly planted seedlings. I have done this the past 3 years, and the difference in health is astonishing.
    Also rat pellets placed inside a length of plastic pipe once the plants set small fruit takes care of mice eating the fruit even when small and green. Nothing worse than seeing your crop disappear before your eyes!

  4. helen mckerral on said:

    Wow, that’s fascinating, thank you Adele! Which varieties do you find cope best with the heat? And may I ask what concentration of molasses you use? And have you found the seed grown plants healthier than store-bought seedlings? Certainly, the seedlings plants that popped up in situ in my garden have been splendidly prolific this year.

    • Adele on said:

      Helen, I only have space for 6 tomato plants each year, and I really like Legend which I have grown before, and this year from Lambley I grew Gabriella and Rugentino which have both been winners. Mary Italian and Pedersons Beefsteak did not cope with the heat, and in the past few years neither did Mortgage Lifter. I also gave up on Amish Paste which is delicious, Rugentino is a better bearer. It has been a very slow year for ripening and I am crossing my fingers that I am not left with loads of green tomatoes.
      Certainly seedlings grow vigorously, but not to type! No difference really between store bought or home grown, except that the store bought are always more advanced than mine. I don’t have any fancy propagating equipment.
      One cup of molasses mixed into 8 litres of water is what I use.
      Every year is an experiment don’t you think?

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