Love as Tomatoes by guest blogger, Russell Kelly

My dad used to say October was when there was a lot of growth in the soil. It’s funny how you find strength in single sentences like this, years afterwards.
I’ve learned gardening myself from books and TV. I spent a year observing things grow and writing down what I saw. Food takes longer to grow than you think, and it’s easily lost.

Now is the time you have to plant what you want to eat for Christmas. I have just sown oregano, chives, dill, potatoes, carrot, pumpkin and zucchini.

By December we may also get early tomatoes because we’ve planted the seeds in the greenhouse. If you have children, plant seeds with them, or with someone you love. It’s important.
Tomatoes and Hobart are strangers and they’ve taken a while to trust each other. The tomato has travelled a long way to get here, like many of us they’ve been transplanted in alien soil.
Growing up in the northern suburbs my classmate Peter’s dad was a tremendous tomato grower.  He still grows them I presume, long rows in his suburban back yard, cool green aisles in the
summer. Peter hasn’t been back here for twenty years and they don’t talk.

In growing tomatoes, my own father followed the advice in ‘Gardening in Tasmania’ by T.D Raphael. I have his copy still. ‘Tomatoes’, it advises, ‘are one of the more rewarding crops for Tasmania’s climate, although at times, can be a challenge for the amateur to cultivate’. I’m glad we don’t think that way anymore.

My foster father Ernie had his own methods. He was a terrific gardener and would plant mostly big cropping, certain varieties, no fuss and mucking around. Reliable. My foster mum Doreen made the most delicious relish and chutney – the secret ingredient was Ezi Sauce. Now I know there is a great variety in the making of such things, and not least because #sweetbaby is such a terrific cook.

This year we went to the Royal Botanical Gardens tomato sale. Held in September, it is an institution if you’re new to Hobart. They sell heritage varieties, old hard-working or nearly-lost cultivars that are difficult to get. This year we got 11 kinds – $5 a plant. Some have come a long way to get here, some have been saved from extinction.

This year we chose cultivars with distant names like Cherokee Red, Hungarian Heart, Arkansas Traveller. Varieties from a different climate, transplanted into Tasmanian soil, here to live and to belong.
A lot of the first fruit grown was at the Botanical Gardens – despite the cold.  Governor Arthur had convicts build a wall that could be heated by fire from within to provide a heat sink
and ward off the frosts that kill young plants right up till mid October.
That’s why the number- one rule with growing tomatoes here is: Don’t Plant Them Before Hobart Show Day. That’s today.

From today frost is less likely and the warming sunshine can work its magic.

Five things you need to successfully grow tomatoes in Hobart:
The seed: there are so many varieties, why not experiment like a real amateur: regular and potato-leaf, beefsteak, oxheart, tom thumbs, bush and vine; red, pink, yellow and purple – and striped.
Dad used to dry out the variety that fruited best, flicking the seeds with his nicotine fingers  into a brown paper bag for the next year. Some made it, some got lost on the concrete.
The soil: As the soil warms up, dig in lots of rotted manure, river sand, charcoal, fish emulsion and seaweed emulsion. In this, it is Peter Cundall’s advice from TV I have taken.  Like a friend,
the soil is a patient and dependable force.
The water: In Hobart we are fortunate to have such pure, clear and life-full water, straight from the wilderness and virtually free. It is a gift to be able to use it.

The stake: Don’t skimp on a good stake.  A tomato plant can get too tall and flimsy to hold the weight of its bounty.  By the time it’s fully grown it’s not possible to know which is more important – the plant in all its achievement, or  the stake it relied upon.  When the time comes to take out the stake, the plant collapses instantly.

Tending: Make sure you feed the tomato every two weeks – but not too much or you’ll promote leaf growth but not fruit growth. Water every couple of days but not too much, or they’ll get blossom end rot. Keep them hungry for experience and thirsty for life. They say pinch out the lateral branches between the main branch and the stem, but I don’t really know why you do this, it seems a waste to me.
The harvest: If you’re lucky by Christmas you may have an early tomato. By end of January you’ll be harvesting bucket-loads. Pick them green and ripen them The plants are living larders, trusses of deep vermillion fruit, sun warmed and full of juice and pulp and seed.  The plants give back to you.

One last thing: remember who you planted the seeds with and don’t eat the fruit alone. If that’s not possible, give away some of what you grow with pleasure and good grace and best wishes.

Tomatoes are simple and their lessons are simple too.

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