Tomato fetish, yes I mean fetish, not relish. Gardeners can be an obsessive lot and certain plants have a certain attraction. Tomatoes rope you in the day you produce your first vine ripened fruits.
Every spring at Waldecks nursery a major chain in Western Australia Italian customers would wander in to buy the first seasons tomatoes. They wanted to know the answers to two questions. What was new and was it bigger.
They loved the grafted tomatoes. Try them they would wave at me. Honestly I’ve never had much luck with tom. The staking and the plucking of laterals, like grooming some future cat walk model. I’m not even that high maintenance. I’ve had reasonable success with the small cherry toms but nothing BIG. So I decided to ask an expert.
Heres the lowdown on everything you need to know to grow great tomatoes.
Keith Risk has a tomato fetish. He’s been growing them for 20 odd years and so I asked him:
What is the best tomato?
I don’t know what it is but I just love growing all different types of tomatoes. I’ve come along way from helping my father with his Grosse lisse and thinking that was what a tomato was supposed to look and taste like.
Most of my tomatoes are open pollinated heirloom varieties, but I do grow some hybrids. I haven’t grown any cherries for the last couple of years but I like Tommy Toe which is indestructible and Black Cherry and Sweet Bite. A hybrid from America called Sun Gold, a yellow orange, is very nice. I also like and grow Stump of the World and Mexico. Momotaro, is a Japanese hybrid that I have been dehybridising. This is probably the best tasting tomato I’ve grown. Just the right sweet to acid ratio, with the colour of a strawberry, I only grew the one plant and somehow lost the packet of seeds. But those tomatoes never made it out of the tomato patch. I’m getting some nice tasting tomatoes from the saved seed but not the same as the original. I also like Brandywine, and Pink Ping Pong. Most pink tomatoes are nice tasting. Cherokee Purple and Carbon are nice black tomatoes. There are so many types of cherries and then there are the grape tomatoes as well. The list goes on and on, except new quarantine laws have hampered my ambitions, bugger.
How long is your growing season?
Depending on when the wet season is finished, but usually from mid to late February through to September. I think if the night time temperature doesn’t drop below 19 degrees the fruit will not set, so the build up to the wet season is normally the end. Some tomato varieties will fruit in 65 days while some take 85 days.
What is your soil type?
Our soil is acidic with little nutrients. This is what I do to improve it. Before the wet season I’ll get a load of cow manure from the local export yards and a load of palm frond mulch from the local dump. Both products are reasonably cheap. I mix this with the previous years soil, along with garden lime to sweeten the soil up, and bring the PH down, and then let the wet season do its thing. By the time the dry comes it will have broken down into a really nice soil with worms and microbes. So a big part of the growing season is looking forward to how well the soil will support the growth of the tomatoes.
How often do you fertilise? And with what?
There’s normally enough fertiliser in the soil but I do use pelletised chicken manure, super phosphate and miracle grow for tomatoes as it has added calcium. Tomatoes and zucchinis and a few other vegetables will suffer blossom end rot. This is normally from a lack of calcium, but can also be from over or underwatering.
Do you stake?
There are two main types of tomatoes. Determinant and indeterminate. The latter are a compact small plant that usually doesn’t need staking or pruning. Indeterminate plants need trellising or staking and some varieties will grow quiet large. These plants will fruit over the entire season. I like to grow indeterminate.
Do you take out lateral growth or do any kind of pruning?
Yes I’ll normally prune off any laterals and keep four main branches until very late in the season when my enthusiasm has worn off and then I just let them go. This is where I’m at now. I’ve used about six 30 metre rolls of twist ties cut into 150mm lengths this year alone. It’s a full time job and its only a hobby!
What pests are of major concern?
Birds, grubs and this is the first year that something has been stinging the fruit, I don’t know what it is yet, whether its fruit fly or moths. There is a white fly that will sting the plant and gives the plant a viral disease where the new shoots turn yellow and stop growing. When this happens I pull that one out and plant another as it doesn’t effect the soil. Then we have problems with nematodes, I used to buy nemacure for the nematodes but I think they banned it, and the only other stuff that’s available is too expensive and very poisonous. So this year I’ve used molasses. Very cheap at $1 a litre. It doesn’t kill them but they don’t like it and will stay away from treated areas, plus molasses has other nutrients.
Have you grafted?
Yes I used to graft a lot when I grew tomatoes in the ground
What kind of grafts?
V graft. Cut the top off the rootstock and make a slit down the middle of the stem. Cut a V shape out of the plant that you want to graft onto the rootstock, that is roughly the same size and push into the split stem of the rootstock. The ‘graft’ is secured with grafting clips. Before I got the grafting clips, I used plumbers thread tape but this needs two people. I’ve also used women’s aluminium hair clips.
What rootstock did you use?
A prickly Thai eggplant that grows wild around here and is spread by the birds. It grows very large and will grow for several years. The fruit off these eggplants are green and the size of a large pea and are used in soups.
How did the grafted plant compare in yield?
Same if not better. I’ve had tomatoes grow for two seasons on this rootstock. I don’t grow tomatoes in the ground anymore. I use two hundred litre plastic drums cut in half. I have slowly changed them over from steel 44 gallon drums which I would get two or three years use out of before they rusted.
I started out with two drums and this year I have 90 half drums in five rows with concrete mesh for trellising.
I’ve got thirteen different varieties growing this year and probably have fifty different varieties or more in my collection. I’ve grown red, orange, pink, white, yellow, black, and green. The green tomato when ripe is nice. It’s a potato leafed variety.
Last year I grew a red egg type tomato called Prue. I saved the seeds but it’s now a yellow colour. The only yellow tomato I grew last year was Brandywine. So it seems I have a natural cross between the two.
The biggest fruit?
Select the tomato that you want to save the seeds from. Cut it in half and squeeze the juice and the seeds into a jar or cup. Leave for a day or two or three until a white scum appears, this is what you want to happen as its a bacteria that will eat all of the gel coating from the seeds, so give it time to do this. It doesn’t smell too good at this stage but soldier on. This process is quicker in hot weather. Then fill the jar with clean water and slowly tip the water out . All of the particles will come out leaving the seed in the bottom. Repeat rinsing two or three times until pure seed is left. This process gets rid of any diseases and pathogens. Don’t leave it too long or the seeds will start to sprout. As I found out on a few occasions and then the seeds are useless.
Some tips and tricks?
Prepare your soil and get a good variety but you wont know a good variety until you grow it. Everyone has different taste buds. Some like a sweet while others will like a acid tasting type.
Here’s a link to one of the sites that used to buy from in the USA. its a tomato growers dream looking at all those full on over the top descriptions and photos. id start to look at these catalogues in January some time
Here’s one in Australia that I will go back to and start buying from again. I see that there’s a growing list on eBay as well.