It's that time of the year when everybody becomes an expert in the garden. It's tomato time.
Tomatoes are a touchstone for both would-be gardeners who don't know where to start and seasoned experts who have been honing their tomato regimes for decades. The fact is tomatoes are pretty easy to grow and I suppose that's why they are just so darn popular.
There are several main groups which fall into one of two categories, indeterminate varieties which are supposed to have their side shoots removed (although in gardening there are always exceptions to the rule) and determinate varieties which grow as a bush and can be left alone. Most varieties are indeterminate but if you didn't remove the side shoots the sun would still come up in the morning, and you'd probably have some pretty decent tomatoes to pick.
The tomatoes I love are the ovoid, plum shaped darlings like roma black, yellow or red and the sausage-like San Marzano - all good for sauce and oven drying as well as providing really big yields. We grow lots of the grosse lisse which is very popular in Australia. The big fruit are really reliable and our biggest one weighed in at 1.2kg which I thought was some sort of record; however I'm reliably informed that kind of size is quite common for this variety.
The beefsteak is the ultimate sandwich tom: each slice is big enough to cover a slice of bread, and don't forget about the humble cherry tomato - it will go and go all summer long. These come in a variety of colours including the black cherry which is the same colour as a tamarillo.
Besides selecting your favourite tomatoes to sow, the first thing that needs to be done is ground preparation. I select a spot by firstly making sure I haven't had tomatoes or any other member of the nightshade family in that particular spot for the last two to three seasons. This is not only an important way to combat nutrient deficiencies in the soil but also important for combating the dreaded blight.
Do a soil test. You can get a soil testing kit from Bunnings; you're aiming for a soil ph of about ph6.5. If it's higher than that work some sulphur into the soil; if it's lower, work in some lime. Once the beds are cleared and the soil has been tested, dig through some sheep pellets and, blood and bone and a little potash.
The next step is to install the stakes. I like to make them six foot and sturdy: this is important because once the plants have fruit on them it's a bit late to go back and re-stake them. Propagating tomatoes from seed gives you the opportunity to save your own seed from your best fruit which, over time, will give you a head start.
One of the main afflictions of tomatoes, especially in humid parts of New Zealand, is blight. To combat this depressing ailment, I mix a quarter cup of milk powder and a quarter cup of Epsom salts with a shovel-load of compost and place that around the rootball at planting time.
This is an old remedy, which requires a follow-up programme of a sprinkle of milk powder around each plant once every two weeks. For me it's a new way to fight blight but I'm told it works a treat. It's easy to see why tomatoes are so popular; they're colourful and sweet and more than good enough to eat.