Tasty tomatoes have deservedly become one of the mainstays of Australian vegetable gardens. They are easy to grow, productive and versatile in the kitchen – that’s what makes them irresistible! Once you have sampled delicious vine-ripened tomatoes, there’s definitely no going back to the supermarket.
My sister-in-law’s parents come from Italy and some years ago she introduced to some fantastic heirloom tomatoes with a basketful of home-grown varieties all exotically named and wonderfully tasty. These tomatoes varieties had been grown by her mother and grandmother, passed down from one generation to the next.
My father does the same thing. When I was young, I remember sneaking off into our vegetable garden to snack on our ripe crop of tiny red tomatoes. Dad still grows the same unnamed variety that my grandparents also grew and he collects the seed every year, not just for the sentimental value but because it’s a delicious sweet, genuinely good performer. These are just two examples of a wise gardening practise that’s been going on for centuries.
The tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) originates from South America and is a member of the Solanaceae family. In the wild, this is a variable species with tiny bite-sized fruit. Over the generations, its popularity and productivity inspired growers to develop a diverse range of tomatoes. Wherever it was introduced, locally bred types with different tolerance, shapes, sizes, colours and flavours emerged, resulting in an impressive roll call of varieties.
Why are they special?
Heirloom tomatoes are garden-worthy varieties that have stood the test of time. They have been selected and saved by generations of gardeners, often because of the outstanding taste, good cropping power or unique flavours, textures or colours.
Growing heirloom varieties has opened my eyes to the incredible diversity of tomatoes and the best thing is that you can experiment with so many types of tomatoes that aren’t available in the supermarkets.
Most commercial tomatoes have been developed to have tougher skins, uniform shape, colour and ripening, as well as an improved storage and shelf life, so it’s not surprising they often lack flavour. Over the years this focus on commercial priorities has seen the disappearance of many of the traditional varieties. Many gardeners have turned to heirloom tomatoes not only to capture the traditional taste, but also for benefits such as longer cropping times or early – or late-ripening crops. So why confine yourself to boring, round, red tomatoes when you can choose from Italian, Russian, Australian or South American tomatoes in greens, yellows, pinks, reds and even blacks, and a diversity of shapes and sizes?
One of the biggest attractions for me is how incredible ornamental these varieties are, not just in the garden but on the plate. This is reinforced by the number of top restaurateurs and chefs who are turning to heirloom varieties to spice up their dishes.
When to harvest them
Heirloom tomatoes tend to crop over a long period, providing a steady supply of ripe, tasty fruit for up to four months, in comparison to most hybrids which usually produce their crops over a shorter period. Pick you fruit when the skin has changed to its mature colour to maximise sweetness.
Preserving the past.
Such is the popularity of the tomato that at the turn of the 20th century more than 4,000 varieties had been recorded. Sadly, many of these have now been lost. Seed savers’ groups and networks play an invaluable role in conserving our fruit and vegetable heritage, but the best way to ensure we don’t dose traditional varieties is the plant them in our gardens – the more friends and family members you give them to, the greater the chance of a variety’s survival.
Heirloom tomatoes have the same needs as regular tomatoes. Here are some tips to help you grow a bumper crop.
- Plant them in an open, sunny spot. They need about six hours of sun a day.
- Prepare the soil before planting. Roughly dig the area to around 60cm deep and incorporate additional compost to open up the soil. Do not overcrowd as they like a lot of area for their roots to run for stability and access to water and nutrients in stressful periods.
- Do not incorporate excessive amounts of animal manure as high nitrogen levels will encourage leaf growth rather than flower formation.
- Make sure the soil is well-drained. Tomatoes like a soil pH between 6 and 8. If your soil is too acidic, add lime or dolomite. Sprinkle a handful or tow per square metre on to the soil before planting. Lime will also help prevent blossom end rot developing.
- Apply an organic mulch to suppress weeds and also to conserve moisture.
- If you stake your plants, use a soft cloth or twine tied in a figure eight.
So you’ve followed all the directions, but no joy. Consider these suggestions.
- Over-watering increases the incidence of fungal problems, so water your plants regularly and deeply. Apply the water to the base of the plant, not on the leaves.
- Practise crop rotation. This means avoiding planting tomatoes in the same bed for a least two years (this will reduce disease build-up).
- Drip irrigation or watering at root level and surface mulching helps prevent leaf and soil-borne fungal diseases.
- Pruning tomato plants reduces yields but encourages early ripening. In tropical areas it can be a good tool for increasing air circulation around plants. Some gardeners choose not to prune to reduce disease entry points and to ensure higher yields.
- Tomato plants can root along the stem, so seedlings can be planted deeper than normal to encourage a larger root ball and a stable start.
- Generally, fruit will not set if night temperatures fall below 12 deg C or day temperatures go above 35 deg C.
Heirloom tomatoes, with their many colours, flavours and textures, add zest to recipes – from big flavoursome ones that are perfect for stuffing, to types suitable for drying or for using in fresh salads and sauces. They look gorgeous all tossed together in a bowl. Follow the lead of creative chefs and experiment with new and exciting ways to use heirloom tomatoes.
When to plant
Heirloom tomatoes are warm-season, frost-susceptible plants that typically have a four-month season. In cooler areas, plant out seedlings after the risk of frost has passed – so work out the last frost and sow seeds indoors six weeks before. In cold areas, plant from September to November. As a general guide, in temperate climates plant from August to December. In tropical areas, you can sow seed into the soil in March – if grown in winters there’s less risk of fruit fly attack.
Did you know?
When brought to Europe in the 16th century, tomatoes were considered to be poisonous and were only used ornamentally.
How to save tomato seed
Theoretically, you only have to buy heirloom tomato seeds once, as long as you save the seed. Save seeds from the strongest, healthiest, most flavoursome crops. Share them with your friends and family.
Here’s how to do it
Scrape the seeds from three or four ripe tomatoes into a small container and add a small amount of water – enough to wet them set it aside for about four days to allow the mixture to ferment (until it has developed skin or mould on top). Wash the mixture in a fine sieve under running water, spread the seed out in a fine layer of a paper towel or newspaper to dry. Seeds can be stored for up to six years if kept in a cool, dry environment in a sealed container. Let the mature for three months before sowing.
Top 10 heirloom tomatoes
There are so many varieties of heirloom tomatoes to choose from. What you select will depend on your conditions, the particular taste that appeals to you and how you wish to serve them. Here are 10 varieties to try.
Tommy Toe is the best one for my money! Loads of 6cm red or yellow fruit with an outstanding sweet flavour. It fruits from January to May. They rarely make it to the salad bowl because they’re so irresistible picked from the vine. Also delicious dried or made into paste.
Green Zebra is tops for its slightly acidic taste and high yield, providing a steady crop of exquisitely striped fleshy fruit for up to four months. What’s more, bird don’t find the fruit attractive. They are ready to pick when the fruit is striped green and yellow.
Black Russian has a nice crop of firm, medium-sized fruit with unusual charcoal-coloured flesh. These tomatoes have a lovely rich, sweet taste and are very fleshy. They are great in salads, served dried and are ideal for sauces. They fruit for about four months.
Broad Ripple Yellow Currant produces tiny bite-sized yellow fruit that are deliciously sweet and are salad favourites. Yielding large crops, the vines last into winter in many regions. These tomatoes are the perfect size for eating straight out of the garden. Delicious!
Tigerella lives up to its name with wonderfully decorative tomatoes that sport red and yellow stripes. The plant produces loads of small, round fruit, ideal for salads and tomato paste. This early variety appears in many regions from med-December until March.
Tiger Tom produces distinctly striped ornamental tomatoes that are slightly larger than Tigerellas. Fruiting from mid-December in most regions, they make fine decorative additions to the salad bowl. And being so sweet and juicy, fresh is the best way to eat them.
Beam’s Yellow Pear is probably the most elegant of all the small cherry varieties. These tasty pear-shaped tomatoes look fabulous on a plate mixed with other varieties and they also work well as a salad or side dish. A long-cropping variety, it fruits for about 80 days.
Jaune Flammee is a small tomato that’s big on taste. Its fruit has brilliant orange skin that covers blushed yellowish-red flesh. A wonderfully decorative plant, this meaty old French variety is a joy to cut into. With its explosive flavour, it’s a good tomato for drying.
White snowball produces unusual medium-sized white fruit with few seeds. This meaty but sweet tomato is not as acidic as most and was traditionally used to make preserves. A late-season variety, it produces fruit right up to June in temperate climates.
Speckled Roman is the only decorative Roman-style tomato known in Australia. These elongated tomatoes are scarlet red with distinctive wavy yellow stripes. With a very sweet rich flavour, these medium-sized tomatoes are ideal for making pastes.