Tomato growing: How to get an early crop in the ACT

As the daylight hours lengthen and the temperatures begin to warm, many gardeners think about springtime plantings.

Thoughts turn to the wonderful tomato which comes in so many shades, colours and shapes. There are thousands of varieties around the globe and Australians can now source a very good range of seeds from specialist suppliers.

Home-grown tomatoes can be one of life’s pleasures. Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin A, C and E, high in antioxidants and have plenty of fibre. Tomatoes have a high sugar content and so are best eaten soon after harvest. They are also rich in glutamates which partly explains the wonderful flavour when tomatoes are sprinkled with salt (with its sodium).

Many growers will be planting their selected varieties in propagation trays in the hope of winning that race to pick one’s own delicious tomatoes by Christmas. They are a warm climate plant so do not plant your seedlings out into the garden until early November, when the frosts are finished and the night temperatures have risen.

At this time of the year, you can get a head start by planting tomato seeds just five millimetres deep in shallow trays.

Use good quality seed raising mix with plenty of well broken down organic matter. You can transplant into individual garden pots when they have produced their second pair of leaves.

Keep the pots in a warm, sunny location. Provide ample cover at night to keep the tomato bushes warm. The overnight temperature is so critical to good growth and fruiting of tomatoes.

From little things, big things grow. Photo: Getty Images

Good preparation of the garden bed is essential. Also remember to avoid planting in any bed that has been used in the past three years for any of the solanum family vegetables (tomatoes, capsicum, eggplant and potato). It is vital to provide a clean, fresh bed for this wonderful summer crop. When grown with care and attention, tomato bushes can yield between five and 10 kilograms of fruit.

Dig in generous quantities of organic matter before planting out tomato seedlings. The roots of tomato plants will go in search of nutrients. Allow spacing of 50 centimetres between plants. Provide good drainage and hammer in a wooden stake at time of planting for all the tall varieties.

Mulch well and keep the tomato patch well weeded. Sprinkle some additional pelletised organic fertilisers around the plants when they begin to flower and set fruit.

Water regularly during the hot summer days. Avoid overhead watering because leaf spot and leaf blight diseases can be spread quickly. Blossom end rot is a sign of irregular watering. With good, regular watering many of your tomatoes will grow to 1.5-2 metres tall and require regular tying up to the stakes

Breeding of tomatoes has taken many twists and turns across the world in the past two hundred years.

Italians have developed tomatoes with few seeds that can be used in cooking and making pastes, including the Romas and beefsteak tomatoes. Russia to the east have developed a number of black tomatoes, with fine flavour. French breeders sought to produce fine flavoured, round tomatoes. And even Australia can claim a number of “home grown” varieties. Beefsteak tomatoes

There are quite a number of excellent, highly productive varieties of the large, flattened, slightly ribbed fruit known collectively as beefsteak tomatoes. They tend to have few seeds, have wonderful flavour and are a firm tomato that will slice well. Top restaurants love them for the same reasons. Red and Pink Ponderosa, and Mortgage Lifter hail from the USA. Hungarian Giant and the French Rouge de Marmande​ are top quality European beefsteaks. The dark pink  Gregori’s Atlai is from the Atlai mountains on the edge of Siberia. Black tomatoes

For exotic rich flavours, you can grow the group of Russian bred dark red to maroon coloured tomatoes for rich flavour. Black Krim which originated in the Crimea is a large beefsteak type, with chocolate brown flesh that has a distinctly smoky taste. Black Russian and Paul Robeson are smaller round tomatoes with a similar distinctive rich taste. Nyagous is round and medium sized, with a sweeter aromatic taste. Oxheart tomatoes

I make special mention of this family of tomatoes for three reasons. They will grow well in cooler regions, such as in Canberra. They are one of the first large tomatoes to ripen. And the firm thick flesh of these tomatoes’ along with few seeds mean that they can be used in many ways, for slicing to make sauces and more. Medium-sized tomatoes

There are so many good, round tomatoes that it is worth considering growing a selection. Two of my favourites are from France. St Pierre is a medium sized, red tomato with meaty flesh with superb flavour. Jaunne Flamee is a bright apricot coloured tomato with a rich, sweet taste. It produces a big crop quite quickly and will produce well in heavier soils and cool summers. Olomovic is an early maturing, globe-shaped tomato from the Czech Republic that grows well in cooler regions. Its firm flesh makes it ideal for sauces, bottling and drying.

Three excellent Australian varieties are the early maturing Break O’Day, medium sized Burnley Bounty which grows well under cooler conditions, and the larger sized College Challenger. For long time growers, Grosse Lisse is well known bearing good sized, juicy tomatoes. It was first marketed in 1900m by the French seed company Vilmorin but it is believed to have originated in America.

I have found the best Roma type tomatoes to be the larger San Marzano red and the yellow Roma. Good size, very productive and excellent for salsa, paste, sauces and soup making. Small tomatoes

There is such a range of small cherry and pear shaped tomatoes. I have found the fastest maturing one to be the Gold Nugget tomato, supplied by Vilmorin (and available at Hall Rural Supplies and Stockfeeds). Camp Joy and Cherry Fox are two good sized, heavy cropping red cherry varieties. Cherry Yellow Honeybee and Lemon Drop are two very productive yellow coloured varieties.

Bruschetta with parmesan. Photo: Getty ImagesRecipeBruschetta with parmesan

6 thick slices Italian bread, 8 Roma tomatoes, ½ red Spanish onion, 2 cloves garlic, 80g butter, 2 cups Parmesan cheese, grated, 2 tsp olive oil, ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, salt and black pepper.

Grill or toast the bread until crisp and golden brown. Crush the garlic and mix with softened butter. Brush onto the top side of the bread.

Dice the tomatoes, finely chop the onion and shred the basil leaves. Combine in a medium sized bowl. Add the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Add salt and ground pepper to taste. Evenly spoon the mixture over the toasted bread and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Place under a hot grill for one minute then serve. This week in the garden

* Enjoy the warmer days by cleaning up your garden beds and removing any remaining dead plants. Chip out the winter cover of weeds and dig in generous supplies of well finished compost.

* As well as planting tomato seeds in propagation trays, plant capsicums, eggplant and basil. Keep the trays in a warm, sunny location.

* Plant out mixed open leaf lettuces (such as cos, romaine, oakleaf and mignonette) bok choy, rocket and mitzuna.

* Plant your first rows of carrots and beetroot. Do not add fertilisers or manures as that will cause root forking.

Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.