Gardening: Tomatoes go for gold

By Leigh Bramwell

We all know what started on July 27, and we all know what New Zealanders will be talking about until August 12, and beyond. Their tomatoes.

No, there is no event on the Olympic calendar for tomato growing, but given that New Zealanders are just about as obsessed by tomatoes as they are by sport, it may not be long before it's included.

In the meantime, it's approaching that time of the year when the big decisions have to be made: what to plant, where to plant them and how to make sure they grow well.

There's really no question about whether or not you should grow some - tomatoes are New Zealand's No1 selling vegetable and in recent times Kiwis have spent upwards of $99 million a year on them. Auckland has just hosted the TomatoesNZ annual conference, where delegates were addressed by European tomato guru Frank Florus from Belgium, where they grow more tomato fruit to the hectare than anywhere else in the world.

Labour Weekend is the traditional time to plant tomatoes, but really, there's no time to lose. With so many varieties available and such a surfeit of information on how to have the best crop on the block, you'll need to make a start on your research.

There are probably as many tomato varieties as there are Olympic events - possibly more - and certainly they come in as many shapes, colours and sizes as the competitors inhabiting the Games village.

They're yellow, green, orange, purple and black, they're round, oval and elongated, they're smooth, ridged, and lumpy, they're heirloom and mass produced, they're dwarves and skyscrapers and, of course, they're as little as marbles and as big as balloons.

When it comes to working out what you want to plant, treat tomatoes as you would a prospective partner. Looks are important, for sure, but even more so is whether or not you're going to get on together, whether they'll like living at your place, and if they're going to be around for the long haul.

The really big decision, of course, is heirloom or hybrid.

Heirloom vegetables have become terribly trendy in recent years and are widely touted to taste better and contain more nutrients than their contemporary cousins.

Hybrids, on the other hand, are bred for high cropping, uniformity of size, shape and colour and resistance to pests and diseases.

The best way to decide is to grow some of each and see which performs best for you. I did exactly this last season and can report that both heirlooms and hybrids did incredibly badly.

I was forced to draw the conclusion that I had done something very wrong and immediately sought counselling to recover my self esteem.

Heartwarmingly, I was not the only person in our region to have this problem last year and I have vowed to set up a support group for failed tomato growers should it ever happen again.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of information on the internet on how to choose and grow hybrids and heirlooms.

Two useful sites are, which lists 150 kinds, and, which has produced a chart to make comparisons easier.

There are also numerous blogs where the pros and cons of each are discussed in remorseless detail, and it would not surprise me if some tomatoes have their own Facebook pages.

What to grow

Growing heirloom tomatoes these days is a bit like growing wine or olives: you're expected to be able to discourse knowledgeably about them at dinner parties. If you don't want to get that serious, here's a short selection of some interesting heirloom varieties.

Baxters Early Bush Cherry

An early red cherry which can set fruit under adverse temperatures. It's resistant to splitting, quick growing, productive and compact, requiring minimal staking. The fruit is firm and sweet. Determinate.


A productive Russian heirloom that produces an abundant crop of smooth, 7.5cm round, slightly flattened, yellow/orange tomatoes. The fruit are flavourful, sweet, with a hint of citrus. Indeterminate.


A rare tomato producing slightly pear-shaped, black-red fruits. Flesh is deep red-black, juicy, sweet and of excellent flavour. Plants are compact, with heavy clusters of fruits that grow between 80g to 170g. Indeterminate.


A simple name for this compact plant with rich, mahogany-coloured, medium-sized fruit. A delicious, complex flavour of sugar and acid. Indeterminate.

White Wonder

An excellent producer of medium, creamy white, mildly sweet tomatoes. Indeterminate.

Brandywine Pink

For sheer flavour-power Brandywine is perhaps the most famous of all Heirloom varieties. The fruit is pink with green shoulders and large - 350g to 700g each. They are slightly prone to cracking and to producing some misshapen fruit. The flavour is full and well-balanced, a rich blend of sweet with tart and the seed cavity is small so the slices are solid and meaty. Indeterminate.

Purple Russian

High yields of large, 10cm long purplish-black tomatoes that are flavourful and meaty. Excellent for slicing, sauce and paste. Indeterminate.

Determinate tomatoes grow to a compact height. All the tomatoes from the plant ripen at about the same time. They require a limited amount of staking for support and are good for container planting.

Indeterminate tomatoes will grow and produce fruit until killed by frost. They can grow to heights of about 2m. They will bloom, set new fruit and ripen fruit at the same time throughout the season. They require substantial staking for support.


- Hamilton News

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