Rediscover the true taste of tomatoes - there's no substitute for the home-grown, vine-ripened real thing, says Mat Pember.
If there is one example of how modern industrial agriculture can diminish the true taste of food, it's the demise of the tomato.
The disparity in taste between home-grown and supermarket-bought is the reason the tomato is so popular among home gardeners.
November is the month that the tomato is king, being traditionally planted on Melbourne Cup day, or thereabouts; now, with the assurance of consistently good growing weather, we can confidently introduce our seedlings to the patch.
The ideal growing environment for tomatoes is an A-grade sunny space with protection from the wind. Being a tall grower that requires staking, tomato plants quickly dry out with exposure to wind, elevating watering requirements. You'll also need to ensure the soil is free-draining and rich in nitrogen to give your infant plants an initial boost of growing energy. Finally, introduce compost and chicken manure; we use pelletised manure, which is slow-release and doesn't burn like raw manures, so you can plant immediately after application rather than waiting for manure to break down.
A handful per square metre will do the job.
If your garden has been active over the cooler months, plant your tomatoes where you have just grown nitrogen-fixers, such as broad beans or peas. They will have introduced nitrogen to the soil where it can now be consumed by the tomatoes. Don't plant them where you've just harvested nitrogen-depleting brassicas, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage or Brussels sprouts.
Plant seedlings first thing in the morning, and preferably not on a day that is predicted to be ravaged by extreme heat or wind. Although it feels wrong to do so, planting on overcast, rainy days suits your plants.
Once in the ground, stake seedlings immediately to avoid disturbing the root structures when they're established. Rather than using small stakes that will need to be upgraded, set up a system to accommodate the mature plant, which typically grows to more than 1.5 metres tall. For smaller spaces, consider planting compact bush varieties.
Mulch around the base of the plants, but not up the stems - they need airflow to breathe; sugar cane, pea straw or lucerne are ideal, because they provide nutritional benefits when they break down. Water daily for the first month to encourage strong development, then cut back to three to four times per week and increase the amount of water. Mature plants need two to three good soakings per week, depending on the soil type and growing conditions.
Tomatoes will grow rapidly, and out of control if left untended. Be diligent in maintaining them, which involves staking, pruning and pinching out growth tips (see below). Keeping them in order reduces the risk of disease and pest damage.
After a couple of months you'll begin to notice beautiful yellow flowers, signalling the start of fruit production. To help in the development and the setting of fruit, now is the time to apply potassium, in the form of liquid potash or wood ash.
Early fruit is often tainted with blossom-end rot - due to the plant's inability to draw calcium from the soil - or caterpillar damage, but, over time, these problems dissipate, so keep the watering consistent and the patch clean. The hot afternoon sun is also a threat; fruit heavily exposed to it can become blistered and hard, so have some shade cloth on standby.
To ensure a good harvest, pick green fruit and allow them to ripen in your fruit bowl. Then, as production hits its rhythm, you'll experience the true taste of a home-grown, vine-ripened tomato.
Tip of the month: pinching tomatoes
Tomato growers are known to be a passionate lot, but their passion can spill over when debating the merits of pinching tomato plants. This is perhaps the most hotly debated topic in the vegetable patch and raises the question: to pinch or not to pinch?
Pinching refers to nipping out the bilateral growth tips of the tomato plant, that form between the main stem and its branches.
Proponents of pinching believe that removing the growth tips helps to form a plant that is stronger, more defined and better able to cope with fruit production. Naysayers, on the other hand, contend that more is always more and that a bush with more growth will produce more fruit.
We like to pinch at Little Veggie Patch Co - always have, always will - so it's part of our tomato maintenance routine. Much like when pinching your little sister, it is something best done with sharp nails and absolute conviction.