Lisa Salanoa loves tomatoes - and she wants Whanganui to love tomatoes too, as Anne-Marie McDonald reports.

Lisa Salanoa is too embarrassed to let us in her house.

"There's nothing to see in there but tomatoes. They've taken over the place," she says.

So we interview her in the driveway of her Aramoho home, where she has set up a small stall selling heritage tomato plants to the public.

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It's easy to believe Lisa's house is full of tomatoes, because her garden is too. There are tomato plants in several glasshouses, all over the lawn, on the wisteria-clad front porch - and even taking up space on the trampoline.

Lisa is a self-confessed "tomato addict" whose love of the popular fruit has, she says, has kept her off the dole.

Lisa Salanoa says tomatoes seedlings have taken over her house and garden. Photo/Bevan Conley.
Lisa Salanoa says tomatoes seedlings have taken over her house and garden. Photo/Bevan Conley.

A keen gardener her entire life, Lisa's passion for tomatoes flourished when she worked for Bristol's Plants and Seeds. She ran the seed bank at Bristol's for 10 years.

"I've always liked plants and that, but working at Bristol's gave me more confidence in what I was doing."

About 10 years ago, Lisa was involved in the Whanganui heirloom seed project, a partnership between Bristol's and the New Zealand Tree Crops Association. The aim of the project was to collect heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables to identify which ones had the greatest nutritional value - as well as preserving varieties that may otherwise have disappeared.

The project Whanganui heirloom seed project gave away thousands of heirloom tomato plants and apple trees to the public.

Lisa said during the project, up to 20 varieties of heirloom seeds were imported every year, meaning Lisa could be helping to raise 200 or more different varieties of tomatoes.

"It was always really exciting when new varieties came in. I was like a kid at Christmas."

"Working with tomatoes so much, I got to love them - eating them and growing them. I'm definitely a tomato addict, and there's no cure for it."

But at the end of 2016, Lisa was made redundant from the job she had loved for 16 years. For months she struggled to find another job in the plant nursery industry.

"I don't have any qualifications - that was my problem. You'd think that 16 years of experience would count for something, but it didn't seem to."

Eventually Lisa found a small part-time cleaning job and, with the help of her partner Colin, decided to set up her tomato business in their driveway.

Lisa also sells tomato seeds on TradeMe.

"It's good. It helps me not stress about whether I can pay the mortgage.

"I didn't want to go on the dole. I'm one of those people who can't sit around and do nothing."

Lisa had some seed saved from heritage tomatoes she picked during her time at Bristol's, and has since added to her collection by swapping seeds with other tomato addicts.

She spends a lot of time germinating the seeds, and her years of experience has shown, since most of her seeds do grow into plants.

Because she's trying to doing things as cheaply as possible, she uses pots recycled from the Whanganui resource recovery centre and the Springvale Garden Centre. She makes her own labels for the tomatoes and has printed sheets explaining the characteristics of each tomato variety for customers to read.

A walk around Lisa's stall gives a fascinating insight into the many weird and wonderful varieties of tomato that are available. Most of them are very different from the uniform round, red tomatoes available at the supermarket - or even from the plants that can be bought at most garden nurseries.

There's Peach Blow Sutton, the tomato that resembles a peach. This is an old variety that dates back to the 1870s.

"It's got a fuzz on it, and it's the same colour as a peach. It actually does look like a peach," Lisa says.

Snowball, or White Beauty, is an even older variety, from 1850. Tomatoes from this variety are creamy coloured.

Red Pepper is - as the name suggests - a tomato that looks like a red capsicum. And Black Pear is the same shape and size as a pear.

Violet Jasper produces purple tomatoes; Black Striped Cherry gives small, black-striped tomatoes; while the delightfully named Old Ivory Egg has creamy egg-shaped fruit.

"I even have one variety where the tomatoes look like green sausages," Lisa says.

"Many of these varieties are Russian. I do have a couple of French and Irish ones. The Irish one is quite strange - it has variegated leaves but really round, red fruit."

Lisa always has a couple of varieties of traditional red varieties, such as Oxheart and Moneymaker, on hand for those who are more conservative in their tomato tastes.

"It's mostly the older men. They come here and say, 'I don't want a white or black tomato - I want a nice red one.'"

Lisa dispenses growing advice with her tomatoes. The best trick is to plant them very deep, she says, picking up a small plant and showing us how she would bury more than half of it in the ground - leaves and all.

Lisa Salanoa's expertise has allowed her to grow most of her plants from seeds she has saved. Photo/Bevan Conley.
Lisa Salanoa's expertise has allowed her to grow most of her plants from seeds she has saved. Photo/Bevan Conley.

"Tomatoes really want to grow roots. You can see that they have really hairy stems - well, every one of those hairs could grow into a branch if the conditions are right.

"If you plant them deep, more of those hairs will become roots. If you have great roots you'll get a great vine," she says.

"Tomato growers know to plant them deep, but I don't think most people know just how deep you can plant them."

Most heritage tomatoes have greater nutritional benefits than the common hybrid varieties, as the Whanganui heirloom seed project found.

"At first they thought it was the red tomatoes that had the highest lycopene but it turned out to be the orange ones," Lisa says.

Lycopene is believed to help prevent some cancers, and is found in greatest concentrations in cooked tomatoes.

Lisa says she has a passion for encouraging other Whanganui people to start growing their own vegetables.

"I'd really like to inspire people to get back to gardening. It's great for kids to know that veggies don't just come from the supermarket.

"Whanganui is really good for growing veggies - we have a great climate here."

+You'll find Lisa at 280 Somme Parade. Her stall is open every day, depending on the weather. Tomato seedlings are $1 each for small and $2 each for large. She also has a selection of other vegetables such as capsicum and bok choy, and some flower seedlings.

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TOMATO FACTS
+The tomato is native to Peru and Ecuador, in South America, where it still grows wild.

+The Aztecs of Mexico were the first to cultivate it, giving it the name tomatl, meaning "plump thing with a navel".

+The tomato's scientific name is Solanum lycopersicum - lycopersicum means "wolf peach".

+The French call the tomato pomme d'amour, which means "love apple".

+The tomato arrived in Europe in the 1500s. The Italians were the first to take to it, naming it pomi d'oro (in modern Italian pomodoro), or "golden apple".

+The tomato had a bad reputation in Europe for several centuries. It was believed to be poisonous because it is related to the deadly nightshade - the plants look very similar.

+Because of this, the tomato was purely ornamental for about 200 years after arriving in Europe.

+Apart from the fruit, every part of the tomato plant is poisonous to humans.

+The tomato is New Zealand's most commonly-eaten vegetable ... even though it's technically a fruit.

+The tomato's status as a fruit or vegetable was the subject of a Supreme Court case in the United States in 1893. It related to an argument over a tax being imposed on vegetables but not on fruit. Justice Gray ruled that although the tomato is botanically a fruit, it functions as a vegetable and should therefore be taxed as a vegetable.