Clare Payne entered last year’s Tastiest Tomato category at the Royal Botanic Gardens Tomato Festival as a bit of fun. She decided to put her tomatoes to the test on the day of competition, encouraged, not to say goaded, by her neighbour who had won the previous year. Payne picked her ripest, best-looking tomatoes, which happened to be the handsome gold and red streaked berries of a variety called ‘Pink Bumblebee’, and headed into town.
As a very part-time gardener and full time music teacher Payne didn’t expect to take out the prize. She lives on the lower north shore and like most city gardeners the available space for edibles is pocket-sized. Squeezed between the house and a council-managed bush path are masses of herbs, beans, potatoes, eggplants, chillis, and those tomatoes.
Payne doesn’t think of herself as a serious vegetable gardener so when the judges named her tomato the winner she burst out laughing.
This year things are not looking promising. The summer’s very hot, very wet weather has been compounded by a late start, a long holiday and rampaging possums.
Last year her prize-winners were grown from seed, which she thinks gives plants a sturdier start in life. This year time constraints demanded seedlings, namely a punnet of heirlooms from Diggers, which went into the garden at the end of November. She only grows the less demanding cherry-type tomatoes, and gardens organically, relying on the quality of her homemade compost to boost growth, and companion plantings of basil and marigold to confuse pests. Brown leaves from the bottom of plants are binned to keep plants clean and they are watered at root level, never over the leaves, to reduce mildew risk. She doesn’t remove the laterals, figuring that more growth means more flowers and more tomatoes.
A few weeks out from competition, I visited for a pre-competition trial of ‘Pink Bumblebee’. This tomato is not strictly an heirloom, but a relatively new, open-pollinated variety that has been very successful for farmer’s market growers in the US. It’s very pretty, almost heart-shaped and with skin that looks to have been painted by a watercolour artist. Anticipation is high, but our first taste is underwhelming. Though juicy and with great texture, the flavour is a little thin and watery. “I’m gutted,” says Payne with a laugh. Our next one is better and the flavour is pleasingly fresh, but neither of us thinks it tastes like a winner.
Payne is hoping that a few sunny days will intensify the flavour in the still-green trusses, but a back-to-back win seems unlikely. The field is wide open, so if you’re proud of your tomatoes go for gold! And if you’re not, head to the Tomato Festival for the tomato taste test, which is on both Saturday and Sunday from 11.30am to 1.30pm and work out which tomato will get the run of your garden next summer.
To enter the Tastiest Tomato competition take two tomatoes of the same variety to the Botanic Gardens Loading Dock in Mrs Macquarie’s Road between 10am and 12pm on Sunday February 21. Winners will be announced at 3.30pm in the D’Vine Ripe Cooking and Learning Hub. For details on the full program of the Tomato Festival go to www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au.
It’s time to
The International Garden Photographer of the Year exhibition travels the world and has landed at the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. 10am-4pm, until March 6. Entry $5.
All the heat and the rain has exploded growth. Get things under control so treasures aren’t swamped.
Burnt heads of hydrangea can be trimmed off, but leave the gently fading ageing heads to take on sepia tones through autumn. Hydrangeas from the ‘Endless Summer’ range are exceptions, as they like a bit more time to put on new growth so should be pruned now.
Take 10cm cuttings and strip the bottom leaves. Use your finger to make holes in a pot of propagation or potting mix, and put one cutting in each hole and firm it in. Dipping the cutting into hormone or rooting gel (or raw, unpasteurised honey), increases the success rate, but isn’t necessary.