Nothing beats the satisfaction of a glowing red homegrown tomato bursting with flavour. Justin Newcombe shares a few tips to achieve the perfect tomato.
Collecting and sharing are all part of the gardening experience. It's a pastime that gets you away from the competitive urges of modern life and lets you be free for a few hours every weekend. You may choose to spend some of your hard-earned hiatus with friends or family. You could show them around the garden. Aren't you lovely?
On the other hand gardening isn't immune to petulant, unreasonable bravado either. Take tomato growing - even the most disinterested gardener can become nauseatingly competitive about it. I mean, we don't get pumped about sorrel do we? Maybe it's the colour - red rag to a bull and all that - but in the garden, nothing says "in your face" more than a great big red tomato (and no one says it more than my father-in-law). On the plus side, everybody has a great tomato story, even if they're just basking in the reflective glow of a childhood memory, and that's something I've always liked.
Like many gardeners my first tomato experience was with a cherry tomato. Cherries are fast growing and vigorous. The yellows are probably pretty similar to the first varieties cultivated by the Mesoamericans, who domesticated tomatoes from the highlands of Peru.
Although cherry tomatoes were developed in Israel in the 1970s, I can't help but think it's this closeness to the original wild tomato that makes cherries so easy to grow.
As with the potato, it was the Spanish who bought the tomato into Europe and it quickly became an important part of many food cultures - perhaps most famously in Italy, where under the shadow of Mt Vesuvius, the plum, or roma, as it is commonly known, was first propagated. Funnily enough, it took a few years for Italians to realise you could eat it, but once they did it became the mainstay of the most nationalistic dish on earth, the pizza.
I personally like to grow many of the varieties developed in the US, and nothing floats my boat more on the tomato front than a beefsteak. Unlike roma, beefsteak have poor keeping qualities and are the wrong size and shape for canning so are not commercially viable, but on a hot day you can't beat going outside to pick a sun-ripened beefsteak tomato for a fresh lunchtime sandwich.
The main points to remember when growing your tomatoes are:
* Give your toms full sun, shelter and a friable, rich soil. If your soils are heavy, grow them in a raised bed, pot or bucket. If you're really hard up just grow them out of the side of a bag of compost.
* Water evenly but don't water the leaves; this attracts pests and disease. Uneven watering and over-watering result in split fruit.
* Start feeding with liquid fertiliser and blood and bone when the flowers appear. Comfrey tea is good here as it is rich in potassium which is essential for flower and fruit development. Bunnings sell a good bagged tomato food.
* Good companions for tomatoes include parsley, carrots, chives, and basil which is also a great table companion.
* The varieties are endless but I go for the ones you can't buy in the supermarkets. So, now you're armed with some basic information, there's no reason why you can't grow an award winning table tom of gargantuan size and unbelievable colour and flavour this summer, that will impress your friends and your father-in-law.