Every gardener should grow a few tomatoes – there is such a diverse selection of plants now available. The traditional varieties such as ‘Alicante’ and ‘Moneymaker’ still retain their popularity however hybridization has led to the development of hundreds of tempting varieties. Many of these require lower maintenance and are more disease resistant so can easily be cultivated by the domestic grower.
My father produced tomatoes under heated glass on half an acre in east Cork before the oil crisis hit in the 70’s. He was retired by the time I showed a dedicated interest in horticulture and unfortunately died just days before I received my graduation from the Botanic Gardens. I have one photo of me as a little girl lost amongst hundreds of tomato plants in the glasshouses, oblivious to the fact that my future grew before me! My dad’s tomatoes were renowned for their sweet flavour but I have yet to recapture it!
The tomato fruit has an interesting history, first originating in South America and carried back to Spain during the days of the conquistadores. In its natural habitat it is a perennial plant which grows wild but possibly does not resemble our cultivated varieties which have now adapted to a completely different climate. Its strange relative Tomatillo aka husk tomato is used a lot in Mexican cooking and forms the base for salsa verde and other chili sauces. I have grown it out of curiosity! Both are in the Solanacea family cousins of the potato but also relatives of that black enemy ‘deadly nightshade’ which of course is seriously poisonous.
Tomato varieties are best listed into groups in an effort to understand their individual qualities:
Classic/Traditional; This is the simple tomato as we all know it. These are often referred to as cordon varieties and all of them require staking and side shooting. The tip should be removed after the plant has produced 6-7 trusses (bunches) of flowers to ensure the plant directs its energy towards ripening. Although they can be grown outside in a sunny, sheltered position they are more suited for indoor culture. My specialty this year is an unnamed heirloom variety I got from an ardent gardener in Jersey Island. The young plants look incredibly strong with broad leaves and I have been giving them to friends to try. Another variety I grew was a yellow tomato called ‘Golden Sunrise’. Unfortunately I rarely get to taste all the varieties I grow from seed so I have to rely on my customer’s feedback.
Plum: Last year I propagated an heirloom tomato called ‘San Marzano’ and it has proved a great success. It is revered in Italy and – evidently – by gourmet chefs worldwide as the best tomato for cooking. As the story goes the King of Peru gave the seeds to the King of Naples as a royal gift; no doubt a similar gesture to our president presenting shamrock!
Beef: I have also produced plants of the variety ‘Marmande’. It may prove difficult to ripen in our short summer but could definitely be used to make chutney!
Bush: These dwarf plants which produce full-size tomatoes have been bred for outdoor production. I have not grown them for many years.
Cherry: These come in two sizes the upright such as “Gardeners Delight’ which again requires staking and side shooting, and, the dwarf cherry which is my ultimate favourite. Varieties such as Minibel, Tiny Tim and Tumbler can be grown in large pots or hanging baskets. They require no side shooting or staking just basic liquid feeding and diligent watering. I would recommend these for the beginner and also children love them. The extra advantage is the pot can be moved inside to a sunny windowsill in autumn to aid ripening process.