The Gordon Gnohm

Play along at home, read Future Farmer in The Braidwood Bugle every Wednesday. 

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

The hero of summer vegetable gardens everywhere, but growing tomatoes in our Unpredictable Highland Climate, can be frustrating and unproductive. A bit of know-how, applied logic and good timing, you’ll get a crop by Christmas, probably…

When I moved to the Region in 1994, I heard a radio competition, to produce a fullsize, ripe tomato by Christmas day. This was not a thing at the coast. I was into this challenge, but I had no garden. So, I paid attention and questioned gardeners.

The common tip “wait until Melbourne Cup Day”. Logic plus maths demonstrates this lore would never provide ripe tomatoes for Christmas. There weren’t enough days, less than 50. A fullsize tomato takes 90 to 120 days. The radio challenge wasn’t for rule followers.

Recently ABC Canberra said plant Tomatoes a week after Melbourne Cup, according to past frost data. This tip will not bring fruit in December or January, rather February/March where first frosts may damage your ripening fruit.

So don’t try this at home, it’s bad advice.

I started planting tomatoes in October, whatever I could get at the local nursery. I tried them all to get January fruit. The frost was never a real problem. I used boxes overnight, if a frost was forecast. The problem was slow growth, but only some years. Other years the tomatoes would start producing fruit in November/December. I found the risk worth the reward.

Endless sharehouses and summers landscape gardening, I had many sources to learn from. I continued pestering gardeners, and I started finding folks who were going to great lengths for Christmas tomatoes. Not for the radio challenge, but because family get togethers required BBQ, salad and boasting about home grown tomatoes.

I heard tales of shade houses, messes of agricultural fabric on hills hoists and the occasional greenhouse. Growing in a green house has its own problems in peak summer, but most folks were growing in pots and moving them inside at night. All this required material or energy and what if I was away for a few nights? 

Then I met folks using microclimates. I heard about water barrels & bottles surrounding the new seedlings. They collected and stored the heat of the sun. Well placed courtyards were common mentions, as were compost heaps, cold frames, cloches and eskies. 

Growing in an esky works better than pots, buckets or bins. The root temp is stable and warm. My early hypothesis was that root temp was more important than air temp, and this has proven to be true.

If you’re playing along, you’ll know your soil temp and where your tomatoes are going to grow this season. Keep in mind that they are best planted somewhere different for 3-4 seasons before returning to the same spot. You don’t want to give the tomato nasties a chance to build up in your soil. 

Tomatoes are a feeder crop and will need lots of nutrients to get through the growing season. They are from the nightshade family and have no filter in their root system as other plants do, so it is super important to grow them organically. Prep your beds for feeders as found in Edition #173 (hyperlink this please Alex)

Planting

I’m not suggesting you plant your seedlings now, but it might be worth the risk. The worst of the hard frosts are over. Air temps will reach 20C this week, and the heat will transfer to the earth, and it’ll be summer in the soil very quickly.

Check your soil temp, 16C+ is tomato planting time. Don’t worry about the frost. I’m more worried about summer hail, but bigger healthy plants survive it. As mentioned last week, I rarely box now, as I plant under snow peas for simple, free frost protection. 

Plant seedlings with 3-4 sets of leaves. They have a much better chance of surviving the frost and less likely to be eaten by snails or slugs. Take the bottom 2 leaves off and plant it deep, to develop root mass and to reduce swaying in the wind.

The frosts in my garden have really softened off, only freezing the early morning dew. No real risk to a healthy tomato plant. Seriously. 

In 2021 I grew a Hillbilly tomato from Prana Produce. I let it grow into autumn, after several frosts. It reached 10 feet tall. The frost burnt the top of the plant eventually but not the rest of it. It was removed in midwinter because it was costing nutrients.

Tomatoes are rarely touted as being frost hardy, however, utilising the varied genetics in heirloom seeds, some specimens will tolerate light frosts. Recently my tomatoes starters got melted through their glass lid but half survived! 

I hedge my bets with varieties in our short growing season. I always grow Tommy Toes. Quick, small, tasty tomatoes on a massive bush. I’ve had luck with Siberian Cherries and Tigerellas, but the seed was lost. 

I grow Romas reliably and I try to grow a slicing tomato each year with varied success. This year I’ll also be growing Amish Paste and San Marzano. 

I usually plant around Father’s Day, led by my soil temp. Fast forward 13 weeks and its Christmas Day. 90 days away. That’s timing. Ignore old myths about planting tomatoes, let the soil temp be your guide.

This week

Every morning I’m met with a new song in my garden. It’s tough to identify little birds but their song often gives them away. This week I was treated to a Brown Headed Honey Eater calling for a mate. That’s 61 different birds spied in my garden since January 1, 2023. 

Before the leaves, flowers or fruit arrive,. Its not too late to prune your crepe myrtles for summer flowers. If you cut prunings up into small pieces you can drop them to feed the microbes at the base of the plant, unless you are removing disease. While outside, you may as well deadwood shrubs and hedges, to direct new growth into healthy limbs.

My Chanticleers are in flower, an ornamental pear that flowers after the Manchurians have set leaf, another indicator that my garden is well into spring. The bees are going crazy for any flower they can find and there are plenty in my garden. 

And today our black snake is awake…

Spring arrived early and summer is quickly approaching, time to think about other summer vegetables. 

Next week Striking Seeds.

Stay Awesome

The Gordon Gnohm

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