Two of the country’s most passionate and experienced gardeners are on opposite sides of the tomato stake when it comes to the benefits of heirloom versus hybrid seed for growing tomatoes at home. On the heirloom end of the stick is Clive Blazey of Diggers Seeds. Diggers sells heirloom seeds. Blazey believes that generations of gardeners can’t be wrong and have saved the seed of the tomatoes worth growing.
David Glenn of Lambley Nursery doesn’t discredit the great flavour of heirlooms but argues that there’s no point in great flavour if your plant doesn’t live long enough to fruit. He stakes his claim on the last two decades of scientific plant breeding (not-GM modifications) that has delivered tomatoes with high germination rates and high disease resistance, as well as flavour.
Choose your side and sow seed now into seed raising mix in a punnet or tray. You’ll need just two seeds per cell. Pluck out the weakest seedling to allow the other enough space to grow. Keep the soil moist but not sodden and keep the tray or punnet somewhere warm and brightly lit. When the seedlings are a bit taller than your longest finger they’ll need to be transplanted into bigger pots. If you live a frosty area, keep them indoors until the weather improves, but if you live in a mild area, they can be planted out. Expect fruit 7 – 10 weeks from transplant.
You can skip the seed-sowing bit and simply buy grafted plants in garden centres in spring, but what you save in effort you lose in choice. Those Spanish, green-skinned tomato flavour bombs? Find them in Lambleys catalogue, called ‘Montenegro F1’. Winner of the inaugural tomato taste test at Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, the magnificently named ‘Wapsipinicon Peach’? Find it in Diggers catalogue.
Sowing seed also allows time for preparing the tomato patch by digging in compost to a spade’s depth. Choose a different spot from where you grew them last year as some tomato diseases can linger in the soil for four years. Add a handful of garden lime if soil is acidic as acidic soils prevents the uptake of calcium and calcium deficiency is a risk factor for blossom end rot. (The best way to know if your soil is acidic is to test it, but a strong clue is thriving azaleas and gardenias, which prefer acidic conditions.) If there’s no garden room, choose a big pot or a dwarf cherry tomato.
Tomatoes aren’t set-and-forget crops. They demand regular watering and feeding, a sharp eye out for pests and diseases, and a program for dealing with fruit fly. But don’t be put off. No one squirting juice down their chin from biting into a sun-warmed, just-plucked, flavourful ripe tomato, grown with their own fair hands, ever complains.