How to grow tasty tomatoes

Guest post by The Diggers Club

tomato tasting

About the Taste Test

The Diggers Club conducted a tomato taste test to see whether heirloom tomatoes could beat the supermarket hybrids. The taste test was held in February 2013 at the Adelaide Botanic Garden, with South Australian garden experts, and cooks and gardeners invited.

Supermarket hybrids are usually dwarf bushy varieties which are easier to machine harvest and are bred for long-distance shipping. Being dwarf varieties they are invariably low in flavour with short harvest periods. The tasty long-harvest period heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, with lateral branches that continue to grow and therefore need support.

The seeds from these heirloom tomatoes bred in back yards over hundreds of years hold a continuous unbroken link to our history.

The Results

The top ten Diggers Club Tomato Taste Test results were all heirlooms:

Rank Variety Colour Size
=1 Hungarian Heart Pink Oxheart
=1 Jaune Flamme Orange Apricot
2 Tommy Toe Red Apricot
3 Black Cherry Purple-Black Cherry
4 Wild Sweetie Red Pea
5 Wapsipinicon Peach Opaque Apricot
6 Lemon Drop Lemon Grape
7 Ananas Noir Yellow/Black Beefsteak
8 Black Russian Black Apricot
9 Periforme / Granny’s Throwing Red Large pear
10 Purple Smudge Orange Beefsteak

We had three Italian Chef/food experts who rated Italian red heirloom Periforme the best, in preference to highly coloured heirlooms.

tomatoes in basket

Growing tomatoes

Tomatoes are easy to grow with 6 hours of sunshine per day in friable, well drained soil.

  • Sow seed into Jiffy or Peat Pots 6 weeks before transplanting to minimise transplant root disturbance. All but dwarf varieties need support.
  • Being frost sensitive they need minimum 15 degrees C soil temperature for up to 21 growing weeks. Plant out at 1 metre spacing.
  • Heirlooms will fruit from January for 3-4 months in cool climates and all year around in hot climates, hence the ubiquitous supermarket ‘winter’ tomato!

Summary

The first eighteen varieties preferred were all heirlooms from Hungry, France, Italy, Russia and America, and seven of the bottom eight were red commercial varieties from the South Australian market. Since the 1993 taste test which was won by Tommy Toe, fourteen varieties were regarded as better than the garden standard Grosse Lisse.

Would you pay four hundred times the price of heirlooms to an overseas corporation when you can save your seeds and replant for nothing?

Guest post by The Diggers Club

Seedlings at the local markets

bird-box

On Sunday, I went to my local markets and bought some seedlings in heritage varieties – beans, peas, rhubarb and two types of kale. I also bought a little pot of strawberries called temptation. I already have some growing in a long container, but I want to eat more than one at a time, so I planted the new one in the garden bed. Berries are very high in activated folate so I’ve been eating punnets of them lately.

I also bought a handmade wooden bird box. The guy who sold it me said it was his form of art therapy. I noticed he had a wheelchair and I spent some time talking to him about his hobby. He asked me what type of bird I had and I explained it was for the native birds.

I then bought a blue crocheted scarf off of a lady who was selling jam and preserves. She told me how she liked to crochet at night in front of the television with her dog near by for company. She said she wasn’t selling them for the money, she just loved creating things with her hands. Anything that doesn’t sell she donates to a charity for homeless people, where she also spends her time volunteering.

Later we planted these new seedlings in the vegetables beds. I also planted two new bottle brushes, some daisies and other herbs. The parsley has self seeded – which is one of the benefits of buying open-pollinated, heirloom varieties.

We can’t tell if the spring bulbs are coming up yet or if it is grass. We’ll have to wait and see.

Red pepper

Over a month later, finally our first capsicum turned red!

I planted in some bulbs for spring flowers. I’m hoping to see Tulip Silentia, Tulip Ile De France, mixed ranunculus and white rain lilies add some sparkle to our back patio. The bulbs were pushed into the home-grown compost that was littered with broken egg and peanut shells. I just hope we don’t end up with tomatoes instead!

We pulled up all of the tomato plants that were grown from seedlings from the local markets. Matt found them flavourless and unfortunately I have no idea what type they were, but we’ll stick to heirlooms from now on anyhow. The potato plants continue to grow upwards. They received a sugar cane mulch top up, as did all of the beds and pots. We harvested two lemons and several kumquats.

I added some seeds to a set of peat pots – herb robert, tomatillo, tomatoes (various) and broccoli.

If you missed ABC’s Australian Story last week about Dr Maarten Stapper and biological farming, you might want to watch ‘Back to Earth‘ online.

Balancing act

Trying to be self-sufficient is about juggling a number of different factors.

First of all you need to sow the right plant at the right time. It helps to purchase your seeds and plants from a local supplier as they will have already adapted to the climate and conditions of your area.

Grow produce that you like to eat. I know it sounds obvious, but we were putting a lot of effort and time into growing food we didn’t like because it was healthy and we were following a plan. We ended up giving bagfuls away to friends and family. Grow the things that you use the most often, including herbs.

If you choose plants that yield over a long period of time, you can prevent a glut. The modern hybrids are bred to get to market in one hit, so give preference to the heirloom varieties. If you can stagger your planting of a particular crop over a number of weeks you will also spread out your harvesting time (known as successive sowing).

You need to grow enough to allow for some losses. You may lose plants to pests and diseases, sudden changes in the weather (drought or flooding) and sometimes birds and the local wildlife. To allow for these losses you can grow a variety of different plants and species, that way you don’t put all your eggs in one basket or as I like to say “don’t put all your seeds in one pot”.

It’s better for your health and the environment to practise organic and sustainable methods of gardening. Use crop rotation to prevent diseases and pests from building up. Try companion planting.

Make gardening easy – plan out your space so that you have what you need close by. Put your vegetable patch and fruit trees near your water source. Consider perennials and self-sowing plants to make some of your edible area low maintenance.

Tomato twinkies

tomato-twinkies

I predict that heirloom tomatoes will become a food trend some day soon, similar to how sun-dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar were a few years ago. A couple sells heirloom tomatoes at the local markets and that’s where we were introduced to all the different flavours and colours. They can range from peachy yellow ones to ugly black flecked sweet ones.

Tomato twinkies are a family favourite and something I fondly remember eating with my dad after school. I haven’t a clue if anyone else calls them that. It’s important to use real butter and home-grown tomatoes. A few years ago, I changed the version slightly to Jatz biscuits with mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes and torn basil. Either way they’re still the best snack.

Sao biscuits
butter
tasty or cheddar cheese
tomato
salt and pepper

  1. Butter sao biscuits
  2. Top with sliced cheese and a slice of tomato.
  3. Season with salt and pepper.

Garden tomato and basil soup

Our tomatoes are starting to pick up the pace in our garden. We need to pick them early to stop the caterpillars having a feast before we do. Soup is a great way to hide any less then perfect tomatoes. I used some that had split from the fluctuating rain and my half-hearted attempts at remembering to watering. I recommend using a tomato peeler – it makes the job ultra easy with it’s special serrated jaws. Add some milk to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. Make a big batch if you like, and then freeze the leftovers. You could use this recipe as a basis for passata for pasta sauce or a stew base.

Garden Tomato and Basil Soup

1 onion, chopped
1 garlic, minced
1 cup tomatoes, cored, peeled and chopped
1 cup vegetable stock
1 tbsp soy milk or milk
1 tbsp sugar
½ lemon, juiced
4 fresh basil leaves, chopped

  1. Saute the onion and garlic in some canola oil for several minutes.
  2. Combine the tomato, stock, soy milk, sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan.
  3. Simmer for 30 minutes.
  4. Take off the heat and add some basil leaves.
  5. Puree in a blender or food processor.
  6. Season with salt and pepper to taste and garnish with basil.
  7. Serve with toasted cheese sandwiches or a crusty bread roll for a easy dinner or quick lunch.

Variation: Use a tin of tomatoes or a cup of tomato juice (e.g. V8) instead of real tomatoes.

Serves 2.

Buying seeds

If you are new to buying seeds there are thousands of different varieties to choose from. You may like to consider:

Heirloom seeds have stood the test of time. Each time they are chosen from the best plants, so you progressively get seeds which suit the climate, give good yields and taste great. Modern hybrids are selected for looking good on a grocery store shelf and transporting long distances. For example, hybrid tomatoes often have thick skins. Hybrids may crop all at once, while heirloom tend to crop over a longer period which are more suitable for the home grower.

There are a number of good places to buy heirloom and/or organic seeds in Australia:

Beautanicals
Eden Seeds
The Diggers Club
Green Harvest
Green Patch Seeds
The Lost Seed

I was surprised to stumble across some heirloom seeds on ebay. You can also buy some seeds on etsy, but the sellers are mostly American. I’ve not bought seeds from overseas as I imagine that Australian Customs would quickly quarantine them.

Seed Savers is another option.

Mystery melons

We picked four melons off the escaping vines in the fourth bed. We love melons because they weigh a lot and are currently the only thing keeping our fruit score high. Our citrus trees are straggling with yellowing leaves and tease us with green unripe fruit.

Our very first melon turned out to be a jam melon (pictured above), so we had high hopes for these four new ones.

Here’s the results of our mystery melon taste test:

  1. We worked out the first one was a mini melon minnesotta. It was the nicest tasting and best looking. It was a nice yellow oval shaped melon but not so sweet.
  2. The next one looked hairy and I can see why it doesn’t sell in the shops. I haven’t worked out the variety yet, but when we cut it open it looked like a traditional rockmelon that you buy. Again not so sweet.
  3. The last one wins the prize for most interesting looking. We harvested two prescott fond rockmelons, which are a French heirloom. They looked like a pumpkin with blistering thick skin, but it had melon shaped seeds. The flesh was a nice orange in the centre, but it was green for about a centimetre at the outer edge. It dripped juice when cut. This was hard and the second melon looked deceptively better but I couldn’t even sink my teeth in!

Next time we’ll need to leave them to rippen for longer on the vine and not be so hasty to pick them.

Big M closed the taste taste by sweeping the seeds and uneaten slices into the compost bin, saying “Honey, no more silly varieties. Just get the normal stuff, ok?”