It’s hard to say what vegetable I like growing the most. It’s a bit like choosing your favourite child. I think tomatoes would be one of my favourite vegetables in the summer garden. They are fairly easy to grow, relatively disease resistant and taste great. Nothing beats the classic tomato sandwich: juicy red tomato, perhaps with a leaf or two of lettuce and a slither of mayonnaise between soft, fresh slices of bread. Simply divine!
Traditionally, tomatoes can be planted outside in New Zealand by Labour Weekend, which is a long weekend with a public holiday falling on the Monday after the weekend. Labour Weekend usually falls towards the end of October.
Sowing tomatoes from seed
It’s too early to think about planting tomatoes outdoors. However, I wanted to write a guide to growing tomatoes now because it’s not too late to start sowing tomatoes from seed. In fact, the timing is perfect. It takes about eight weeks from the time of the germination of a tomato seed to produce a plant that is large enough to transplant outside. It’s really easy to grow tomatoes from seed and it allows you to grow unusual varieties which aren’t found in garden centres.
Tomatoes can be started from seed indoors in July and August. In the past, I have started tomato seedlings as late as September, but they will produce a crop later in the season, towards the end of February. For a continuous supply of tomatoes from January through to April, successive sowings are recommended. Tomato seeds need warmth in order to germinate. I germinate seeds in punnets filled with seed raising mix and place them inside plastic incubators which you can purchase from garden centres. I then place the incubators on a heat pad indoors and spray plants with water twice daily. If you don’t have a heat pad you can also use your hot water cupboard which will also provide seedlings with a warm environment.
How to care for tomato seedlings
For new gardeners, those who don’t wish to start their tomato seedlings from seed or if you’ve simply left it too late, plants are available for sale in nurseries from August onwards. Take care to keep plants undercover until early October as tomatoes are frost sensitive. The weather can be temperamental in spring and the nights are often still quite cool. From then on, start “hardening them off”. This is the process of exposing plants to the outdoors incrementally, for example, for two hours in the middle of the day for the first week, increasing to four hours per day for the next week. Continue to bring the plants indoors at night. By the third week of October, it should be safe to leave plants outdoors overnight.
Generally speaking, varieties of tomatoes fall into a couple of different categories: (i) “determinate” or “indeterminate” tomatoes; and (ii) “hybrid” or “heirloom” tomatoes. You may have heard of the terms “determinate” and “indeterminate” in the context of tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes are also called “bush” tomatoes. They usually grow to a compact height. Determinate tomatoes stop growing when fruit sets on the terminal or top bud. The crop ripens around at or near the same time (this normally occurs over a two week period). The plant then dies. Indeterminate tomatoes are also called “vining” tomatoes. They will grow and produce fruit until the plant dies from frost. Indeterminate tomato varieties will bloom and set new fruit which will ripen at the same time during the growing season. You may have also read or heard of the terms “heirloom” and “hybrid” tomatoes. Heirloom seeds have been saved and handed down from generation to generation. They will come true to type, meaning that the off-spring will be identical to the parent plant. You can therefore save seeds from your own plants. Hybrid seeds are produced by crossing two different varieties. Hybrid seeds will not necessarily come true to type, meaning that it may not be worth saving seeds from your plants. A common misconception is that hybrid varieties have been genetically modified. Rest assured that this is not the case. Another misconception is that hybrid varieties are inferior to heirloom varieties because the latter are said to have more flavour. The truth of the matter is that modern hybrid varieties are often more disease resistant than heirloom varieties and therefore often perform better in the garden.
Popular varieties that perform well in New Zealand include Beefsteak, Moneymaker, Mortgage Lifter, Grosse Lisse, Potentate, Sweet 100 (a variety of cherry tomato) and Red Russian. These varieties can be found in garden centres throughout the country every spring.
Last summer I grew Principe Borghese and Red Cherry from Franchi for the first time, which performed marvellously well and were extremely tasty. Franchi is a range of magnificent heirloom seeds imported from Italy and supplied in New Zealand by Italian Seeds Pronto, owned by my friend Gillian Hurley Gordon. For more information and to order seeds or find stockists, visit http://www.italianseedspronto.co.nz/.
Bored with traditional tomato varieties? Why not try growing something a bit different this summer. This season, I’m sowing Kiwi and Green Sausage, which appealed as they are both rather interesting and differ from the appearance of conventional tomatoes. Kiwi is a beautiful green tomato, with lime-kiwi colored fruits that have a great, sharp acid-sweet flavour. Like the name suggests, Green Sausage is a variety of tomato with sausage-shaped fruits with yellow stripes and have a kiwi-like green flesh.
How to care for tomato plants
Tomatoes need at least 6 hours of sunshine per day, so be sure to plant seedlings in the sunniest spot in your garden. Before planting tomato seedlings, take the time to prepare the bed properly so plants receive adequate nutrition. Dig the area over that you wish to plant your seedlings in. Mix plenty of compost and some sheep pellets into the ground. Add some tomato fertiliser to each plant’s hole at the time of planting, to give plants a strong start to life. As fruits can be heavy and weigh plants down, some support is recommended. It is a good idea to stake and tie tomato seedlings at the time of planting to avoid injury to the roots of your plants later on.
Be sure to water plants generously every day, preferably early in the morning or in the evening. In November and December, plants are in their most active growing phase. Liquid feed tomatoes weekly to encourage the growth of healthy leaves and the formation of flowers, which will develop into fruit.
As your tomato plants grow, remove the laterals. These are the small side shoots which appear at a 90 degree angle from the stalk. Laterals produce only leaves; no flowers or fruit. Laterals are removed so the plant can put its energy into the formation of fruit rather than leaf growth.
Harvesting your tomatoes
It can take what seems like forever for green tomatoes to ripen but be patient! They need a lot of sunshine in order to turn red. Always remove fruit with a pair of scissors or secateurs rather than pulling them off the plant. Enjoy!
Every spring I look forward to planting potatoes. This rather humble crop is one of my favourites. For starters, it is hard to beat freshly dug new potatoes on Christmas day. This is possible if potatoes are planted by September at the latest in New Zealand. Another reason why I find growing potatoes so appealing is because they are rather easy to grow. I will outline my top tips for success later in this post.
This year, I am planting three varieties: Liseta, Jersey Benne and Agria. Liseta is an early crop variety which matures in just 70 days. It is supposed to be a very high yielder and was commended for this in a potato trial carried out by the New Zealand Gardener Magazine several years ago. Jersey Benne is also an early crop variety of potato which matures in around 90 days. It remains a firm favourite on the Christmas dinner table in New Zealand and I have always planted this variety ever since I started gardening about five years ago. Early varieties of potato such as Liseta and Jersey Benne have waxy skins and are ideal for boiling. Agria is a main crop of potato which matures in approximately 100-120 days. This variety is ideal for roasting as the flesh is more floury than early varieties such as Liseta and Jersey Benne. Perfect for hot chips!
A variety which I am very fond of but which I am unfortunately not growing this year in the interests of space is Heather. An early-main variety, Heather is a prolific cropper and the soft-skinned potatoes are perfect for boiling and for making potato salads. Another popular main crop variety is Rua. Like Agria, the floury flesh is perfect for baking or roasting.
I highly recommend using certified seed potatoes rather than relying on planting odd potatoes that have accidentally started sprouting at the bottom of an old bag at the bottom of the pantry. While the latter will probably produce potatoes, certified seed potatoes are preferable in the interests of avoiding diseases in the ground. If certified seed potatoes are used, then the resulting crop will come true to type.
Potatoes can be grown in a number of ways, including in trenches in the ground, in containers or in tyres. Having experimented over the years, I have found that the traditional method of digging trenches and burying potatoes in the ground is the most successful way of growing spuds. Container grown potatoes produced a pitiful yield. I have not tried growing them in tyres.
Start by mixing compost and sheep pellets generously into the area where you intend to grow potatoes. Dig a trench in the ground three times as deep as the seed potatoes you are planting. Work in some potato food fertiliser to give your spuds an instant growth boost. Line a row of potatoes in the trench, spacing each potato approximately 30 cm apart. Cover the trench with soil.
The key to growing potatoes successfully is to continue to mound the potatoes (i.e. cover around the tops of the potatoes with soil). This is essential to ensuring that the potatoes do not turn green and therefore toxic to consume. This occurs when potatoes come into contact with the sun. My advice is to mound potatoes as they grow. Be careful not to break the tops of the potatoes as you do so.
About a week or two from the time they are due to be harvested, you can ‘bandicoot’ some potatoes for a meal. This is also a good way to test whether the spuds are on target for their due date. You need only use your hands. Gently scrape soil away from the sides of a few potatoes. You should be able to feel potatoes as you do this. Very carefully separate them from the mother plant, if they are not already loose.
To harvest potatoes, I recommend using a fork rather than a spade. Work slowly and carefully. Start by digging about 30cm from the tops of potatoes, gently working your way inwards. Don’t worry if you spear a few along the way. Put these ones aside for cooking first, the others can be consumed later. I always use a willow basket with a handle when I harvest potatoes. If stored properly, potatoes can last much longer. We always store potatoes in a dark place in old hessian sacks, which prolongs their life.
Try to remember not to grow potatoes in the same place the following year in order to prevent diseases. It is also helpful to avoid growing tomatoes, eggplants, capsicums and chillis (which are in the same horticultural family is potatoes) in the same location the following year for the same reason.
Over the past week, I’ve been busy planting berries in the garden, in anticipation of summer when I hope we’ll be picking bright, juicy berries loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants. With a bit of planning, it is possible to harvest berries from November right through until April in Auckland. Considering the amount of room they require to grow and their potential yield, berries are a good fruit to grow in the garden and children just love them!
For the sake of completeness, I should begin by mentioning the blueberry plants that I planted in large containers in May. I planted the following varieties: Blue Magic, Blue Dawn, Sapphire Blue, Blast, Burst, Tasty Blue, Powder Blue and Climax. Blueberries grow perfectly happily in the ground but thrive in acidic soil. Unfortunately our soil tends to be on the alkaline side and I’ve never had any luck in growing them successfully in the ground, hence trying to grow them in containers this time around. I have been advised that the key to success is to use a good quality potting mix that contains peat. I used Tui Pot Power which is sold in 40L bags in garden centres and hardware stores in New Zealand. I used a range of spare containers I had, ranging from plastic pots to half wine barrels, approximately 30-40L in size. Since Pot Power contains long-lasting nutrients, it was not necessary for me to add an additional fertiliser to the berries. Just ensure that the containers you use have drainage holes at the bottom, to prevent them from becoming waterlogged over the winter months when it can rain constantly.
I planted about 40 strawberry plants over the past week. The varieties were Camerosa and Pajero. The amazing thing is that I didn’t have to purchase a single one. Last spring, I bought 18 healthy runners from a top quality local garden centre and over the course of the summer, they multiplied prolifically. Each plant sent out what is known as ‘runners’, which stem from the parent plant and put down roots, becoming a plant in their own right. Once they are anchored down sufficiently into soil then you can snip and separate them from the parent plant. I happened to pot mine up so that I had room to plant other things in the garden over winter, with the intention of planting out the new runners in May. Unfortunately I fell behind schedule, as you can see from the fact that I only got around to doing this task in August. However it’s not too late – but get them in quickly though. Last year I only planted the store bought runners in August, yet we had a prolific supply for Christmas, which is when they are typically enjoyed in summer desserts such as the pavlova. At the time of planting strawberries, be sure to mix in plenty of compost and sheep pellets, as well as a little slow release fertiliser to aid their growth (I used tomato fertiliser which is fine to use with strawberries as both contain potassium which is essential to their flowering and eventual fruiting).
I also planted a variety of brambles to extend our berry season, which typically starts with strawberries at the beginning of November and is followed by blueberries in the new year. Brambles include raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries and hybridberries. I decided to plant one of each in the garden. I planted a Raspberry called ‘Aspiring’, a Blackberry called ‘Black Satin’, a Boysenberry called ‘Starlight’ and a Hybridberry called ‘Thornless Jewel’. At the time of planting, be sure to add compost, sheep pellets and a fertiliser to kick-start their growth. I used a 2-year slow release fertiliser called Kings 24 Plus which comes from my local garden centre.
Don't forget to cover your delicious berries with netting to protect them from birds who can't resist the sight of juicy, bright berries. Beware blackbirds in particular, who are always drawn to my strawberry patch!
While some gardeners who plant berries are keen jam makers or rely on berries heavily in baking items such as muffins, we prefer to enjoy our berries fresh with a little ice-cream or yoghurt; either ordinary yoghurt or for a delectable treat, a dollop of coconut yoghurt.