Tomato season – creeps forward each year!
It is August and for most of Australia it is the end of winter. Technically Spring starts on the equinox which is mid September (around 21st or 22nd) . For us Aussies spring starts on the first of September but for our plants spring can be anytime from late July to late September. The northern and western non tropical regions spring growth will take off when the first few warm sunny days hit in late July. In southern Tasmania this may not happen until late September.
We could spend months talking about all the different ‘springs’ around the world. All the pagan cultures have festivals around the start of their spring. So often they would pray to the gods for an abundant harvest. A good spring for us is nice but for them it was life and death. Like the pagans, for most parts of the world the real spring is told by what the plants do. I think that spring starts with the arrival of three flowers; the wattles, the daffodils and the deciduous magnolias. When I see these flowers I just feel better. Granted this may have something to do with cash flow but still the bright yellows of the wattles bring our local bush to life.
For the retail garden centre there are a multitude of plants that are just waiting for the longer days and extra warmth. With the modern controlled environments so many plants are coming on much earlier than is natural or practical. So many home gardeners now have their own small greenhouse. They are keen to get the first of the new season basil, chillies and tomatoes. Practically spring means the end of the snow and a significant reduction in the severity of the frosts. It was these changes that allowed the garden centres to start selling their favourite early season tomato.
One respected bedding plant grower told me that tomato season went for 10 weeks. If it start in late August it finished in mid November, If it started in late September it finished in early December. Until recently this seemed to hold true but now the season starts so much earlier. In the west people are buying their first tomatoes in mid July. In Melbourne it is not much later. As a grower, if we don’t have tomatoes available at the start of August we are losing sales.
We know that there are many gardeners that have their own glass houses and they can buy and start growing them in August. However we worry that there are many gardeners that don’t have a protected spot and will buy the plants and los them. This maybe good for short term sales but could result in the industry losing a customer. None of us should be telling gardeners what they can and cannot grow but we must inform them of what can happen under different climatic conditions. They can then make the choice.
Often in our industry the early supply of plants is a result of growers needing cash flow or retailers wanting to be ahead of the pack. Gardeners are an unusual group. For many the drive is to have a garden that gets ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ from friends. For others it is having the biggest or best flowers and for others it is the ability to grow a variety that they ‘cannot possibly grow’ where they live. Then there are the real passionate eccentrics that have a real passion for a particular plant. We have a local Chinese customer who has paid thousands of dollars for Clivia pollen.
For us regular people the real passion comes in two home veggies; the chilli and the tomato. We will look at the chilli plants later in the year. Tomato growers love their fruit and will swear their own cultivar of a particular variety is the best. I am sure there has been any a physical discussion about who has the best tomato. Similarly there has been many a dollar and lots of face been bet on who will have the first fruit each season.
It is this passion and love of a bet that has brought about the huge expansion of the tomato season. So many growers want to be the first on the block to have fresh home grown fruit. They want their baby plants and they want them now!! As a grower we have to listen and now supply plants in late July. Our season now goes from the then to the second week of December with many plants still selling right through to late March.
The old rule was to have your tomatoes in by Cup Day if you lived in a frost free region and start planting after Cup Day if you lived in an high frost region.. This is still a good guide but there are so many varieties now available that will flower and fruit earlier and later. These varieties are cold tolerant and will start growing early in the season or will produce fruit right through to start of winter. They just need to be kept free of frost.
Tomatoes originated, like so many of our modern foods, southern and central America. The original plant had small cherry sized green/red fruits and was a rambling vine. In its native climate it is a perennial but in areas with cool to cold winters it is treated as an annual. Tomatoes have the Latin name Lycopersicon esculentum and a member of the nightshade family; Solanaceae. This family includes several very important crops, potatoes, capsicums and tobacco as well as the poisonous nightshades. It is basically a tropical or subtropical plant and thus likes frost free environments.
With a plant that is major part of the plant and food palette of so many people around the world it is no surprise that there are cultivars able to be planted from July to March with fruit being harvested from December to June. As growers and retailers we just need to be aware of which cultivars are most cold tolerant, which are the earliest to fruit and which actually taste the best. We recommend Beefsteak, Patio, Rouge de Marmand and Orange Cherry as good varieties for early planting. They are relatively coo tolerant and should fruit early.