I’ve spoken to a few Canberrans this last season, who have mentioned that they didn’t bother with tomatoes this year. Most frequently the reason is that they couldn’t be bothered with the work; pruning, staking, spraying, dealing with the fruit flies.
Well, after running a pretty lazy experiment this season I’m here to tell you that all that work traditionally associated with tomatoes is not truly necessary.
Last season, tomatoes were an abject failure for us. I bought seedlings from the local supplier, maybe half a dozen, and planted them around the vege patch. I think we got about a kilo of good tomatoes off them, and threw out 5 times that. Fruit Flies and rot from sitting on the ground were the major problems. I went close to swearing off them entirely, worried that the failed fruits were attracting flies and ruining everything else around them.
A change of tack was necessary.
Started well, with a glowing recommendation for Principe Borghese from a work colleague. This is a small tomato, traditionally used as a drying tomato. This was the first part of my plan; choose a variety more suited to my lazy style of gardening. Small tomatoes have a number of advantages; faster ripening and smaller fruit, so there are less staking requirements. I’d actually been told these were a ‘bush’ tomato and so didn’t need staking at all. Perfect.
I also bought a pack of Digger’s Russian Mix tomatoes. The idea here was that I would plant a bunch of seedlings and see which ones performed best, then save their seeds and use them next year.
So, step one is buy good seeds. Get fresh ones each season (or save some yourself) for maximum germination rates.
Then, with $8 worth of seeds I planted them out into pots. One column of Principe and one column of the Russians, mostly so I could remember which was which later.
I had almost 100% germination rate and suddenly had WAY more tomato plants than I knew what to do with. So, I just prepared the beds and kept planting them anywhere there was space.
This violates my Do Nothing approach a tiny bit, but this is what I do with each change of season. Nothing special in here for tomatoes.
Pull out the crop from last season. Observers within my house have suggested this is my favourite part of gardening. Probably true.
Then, for every couple of square metres of soil add a big shovel full of chook-poo pellets and about the same amount of lucerne. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s a type of mulch, fairly high in nitrogen and pretty good worm food. Year on year this will improve your soil structure and get the worms multiplying. Our veges are planted in the appalling Canberra clay and this process is yielding benefits, slowly but surely.
Dig this all through with a fork. Forks are good, because they aerate and turn the soil, with out much cutting, which again can wreck the soil structure.
After buying some good seeds (or saving from last year) you’ll need to germinate them. The killer with tomatoes is getting them in early enough (some time in spring) that they have a good long summer to ripen, but also not so early that the frosts kill them. If you’re far enough north to escape frosts, I’d be looking to have seeds in dirt by late September. Canberra though, and her unpredictable and late frosts, are a nightmare for vege gardeners, and require a bit more caution.
If you’re serious about gardening, you’ll be getting up at dawn most days in winter to see where the frost is settling. That’ll usually be in the open, flat sections of your yard, while spots under trees and next to walls tend to escape the falling, icy, plant death. A north facing wall would be ideal to raise your seedlings out of frost-harm’s way. Alternately some sort of glass arrangement could be worth considering if you’re truly serious.
Get some potting mix. Either buy it or make your own. Potting mix is essentially very good soil, with high organic content that retains moisture to help seedlings germinate. So, if your soil is halfway good, a wheelbarrow of soil and even more lucerne and poo will probably be good enough.
Find a box to put the dirt in. Egg cartons work, old plant pots, ice-cream containers, recycling bins, shoes, perhaps a hat. You’re looking for something that can hold dirt, but let water drain from the bottom. Wet feet are a killer for seedlings. I used a bunch of pots from previous plantings. Your garden centre might also have a gigantic bin full of old pots they’re recycling and be amenable to you taking some. For the cause and all.
Stick your seeds in as recommended on the packet. Probably 2cm under the dirt and not too densely packed. Water well and keep them wet until the plants are at least 10cm high. A hot day will dry out the pot and kill them pretty quickly if you’re not attentive.
Plant the Seedlings
I had an astonishing germination rate and 2 packets of seeds yielded 80 seedlings. So many that I got really careless about handling them. Pots with 10 seedlings were unceremoniously upended and the seedlings pried apart and jammed into the dirt; at quite high densities too, maybe 10cm between plants in some cases. I planted 60 seedlings and 50 survived.
Apart from frost, tomatoes are incredibly hardy. In the right conditions I suspect they would run absolutely rampant. I’ve heard that in the tropics that you don’t so much grow tomatoes as try and keep them under control. My time in sewage treatment plants support this as well; the only plant I’ve ever seen successfully growing out of the cracks in the concrete in the side of a sewage treatment pond were tomatoes, and they were thriving. Actually fruiting!
Plant your tomatoes, keep the water up to them, then, go on holidays, cos your work here is done for the moment.
We were in Tassie for the 3 key weeks in the tomato season, the 3 immediately following Christmas. So, I didn’t do any staking, pruning or even stern suggesting to tomatoes about how they should grow. They just went completely feral, forming an impenetrable jungle which crossed vege garden borders and took over most of the back yard.
After the first bout of civilising the vines. Paths finally visible.
This was a pain, mostly because I had to get into the middle to harvest the obscene number of tomatoes we had. So, I just kind of bent them out of the way, picking vines off the path and folding them back on themselves into a gigantic pile of tomato vine. I wasn’t gentle either, breaking quite a few in half and generally dismembering the rambunctious lycopenes.
A pile of broken tomatoes. They continued flowering and fruiting.
Some of the tomatoes had even attempted a sort of vegetable hari-kari, overburdened by the weight of engorged tomatoes, the vines were already tortured and damaged. Still, they flourished embarrassingly.
So each week I would go through the vines, pulling off the red ones and preserving what I could. It was a time of plenty. At a guess I’d say we ended up with 15kg of tomatoes, possibly a lot more.
I picked, cooked and preserved tomatoes for at least 4 hours every Saturday for 7 weeks in a row. I made passata, cooked sauces, green tomato chutney, oven dried tomatoes in oil, tomato and passionfruit jam, bolegnese, pasta sauce and added raw tomatoes to dozens of bruschetta and cheese on toast.
The bruschetta taste-off.
Acknowledging that the plural of anecdote is not data, I’ve got a suspicion about some of the reason this worked. Folding all the plants into a gigantic mess meant a beautiful, intricate network of branches and leaves for things to live in. And live in there they did! The dominant species was an incredibly ornate lady-beetle. I suspect that by making a nice dense thatch for animals to live in I created good conditions for predator insects, like the beetle, to get in among the tomatoes, protected from birds, and spend their life cycle eating things that want to eat my tomatoes. If this is what happened this is a good system and one we should employ elsewhere.
I definitely put in less labour than last year, for 20 times as many plants. But, yield was down on what it could have been. The Principes proved incredibly disease resistant and per kilo of fruit harvested the failure rate was low, 1 or 2 percent. This included some tomatoes that almost grew underground, so heavily inundated were the plants. So, the Do Nothing method probably works best with little tomatoes.
The various Russian tomatoes did well also, but closer to 30% by mass failure rate. These were mostly fruits that ended up ripening on the ground and were infected with various fungus and burrowing insects. Some bad scenes in among there.
Rot ended up getting these guys. I watched them ripen for 2 weeks, then missed it on the last day as they went very, very bad in the rain.
Summing up, I’d guess that I lost 10-15% by doing nothing, but with 80% less labour. This is good value in my books. I might improve the system a tiny bit next year, but the principles of good seeds, good soil and high-density planting will definitely get another run.