When is a tomato not just a tomato?
When you sow the seed yourself and grow your own.
A tomato becomes the end result of an experiment. It becomes more than just a tomato. This year, I started my chillies and tomatoes are the same time. Tomatoes, with chillies and aubergines are something of a sowing triad.
Aubergines and tomatoes, are part of the same family. May be cousins, a couple of times removed. They all require heat to crack the seed case, so that the seeds germinate. Trouble is, if you sow them too early, they get leggy in needing a fair bit of light as well as heat to keep them happy. Even now, I have no idea when to sow them. Especially as we get a frost in Birmingham ’til the end of May, so there is something of a gauntlet being run in moving from the windowsill, to the four tier blowaway and beyond to the plot. If the plants are not hardened off, it could all be Good Night Vienna with a freak night time drop in temperatures.
If they are happy, tomato plants grow quickly and become quite robust. In the summer you can end up with tall, metre high plants that sprawl if you don’t armpit. This isn’t as creepy as you would think. Imagine the main stem, with a branch at a right angle to it. In the corner, you often end up with a shoot erupting from that spot. You can either be mean, and get rid. Or you can remove after it has grown a sizeable shoot and let them root in a glass of water or moist compost to have a brand new tomato plant.
I remember giving an allotment neighbour a branch from a variety called Ukrainian Purple, then hearing about the branch establishing as a plant and bearing fruit. I have sown a number of varieties. Some of them I have grown previously, with fairly positive results. Others are new to the windowsills and therein new experiments. The varieties being tested this year are cream sausage, Moneymaker, Marmande, Yellow Stuffer, Cherokee Purple and True Black Brandy Wine. A number of these are heritage seed varieties.
I was introduced to these last year, when I panicked and thought I wouldn’t have any tomatoes after a slug disaster, so bought some heritage variety plants. Turns out I had more than I needed as the plants cropped quite abundantly. Cue chutney, more on that later though…
This is the first time that I have sown Cherokee Purple, Cream Sausage and True Black Brandy Wine from seed. I have kept Yellow Stuffer, Moneymaker and Marmande, having sown them previously. Yellow Stuffer is a variety of tomato that I grew mainly because of it’s colour and I quite fancied making a yellow tomato chutney. Moneymaker is a simple red tomato, that folks like because it’s a generic tomato, or hate because it can be fairly prolific. Marmande is a beefsteak tomato; is a large creature that in comparison is ridged and a bit different to look at. I have found that the Cherokee Purple are a slower variety, different to your average tomato plant. The leave are very different, look like potato leaves. The fruits themselves are also quite big, and a lovely bruise coloured tomato.
Having these varieties is a world beyond generic red round one that you shop for in the supermarket. These are a world away from the minibel variety that I first grew all those years ago. A small bushy cherry tomato. Especially as you become aware of just how many varieties exist beyond what appears to be a humble red tomato. Whilst I’ve quite like the yellow tomatoes and the beefy beefsteaks, I have yet to try the striped green ones, that look quite quirky. I can’t imagine trying to convince my mum that the tomatoes are supposed to be firstly green, and second, striped. When life gives you green tomatoes on the plot though and lots of them. You can make chutney.
Then there are yellow ones too. Yes, yellow tomatoes that like sunflowers, are a little drop of sunshine. Last year I had a panic and thought I would get any tomatoes. Rushed out and bought some plants. These were Cherokee Purple, a heritage variety. Truth being told,I saw the word ‘purple’ and was sold. Thing is though, I ran a risk. I transplanted the plants into raised beds and open ground. I deliberately chose, and scoffed somewhat, at growing them under cover. Plants were plugged into both open ground, which is predominantly clay, and raised beds of multipurpose compost. The end result being, I had a lot of green tomatoes. I learned a very profound lesson, in being so gung ho and flying in the face of previous knowledge and experience.
This year, the tomatoes are going under cover. I actually want tomatoes to ripen and become what they are supposed to be. One thing I will mention though, is that even though tomatoes can be straight forward to grow. They are not impervious to being struck down. The dreaded Blight can annihilate your crop, and leave you fruitless. In my experience, tomatoes go a slightly funny shade of brown, have horrible manky leaves, and look like horrible creatures. If the tomatoes aren’t immune, neither are their relatives the aubergine and potato. I’ve yet to escape it, it does exist and it can cause you and the plants to sulk. Look at the plants carefully though, if you have suspicions. You might just need to water them, rather than have a small episode over the dreaded, woe is the world, blight.
Those green tomatoes sat in mum’s kitchen, and I willed them to turn. There are all sorts of tricks to get them to ripen. From bananas, brown bags to warm window sills and Pyrex pudding basins. To be honest, the green tomatoes did get used. Mum was happy to use them in cooking Indian dishes. But seeing dozens on her window sill, she did that thing where she looked at me; urged me to be responsible for my produce. It was fine growing all these things, but there was only some you could eat. Plus the windowsills needed to be reclaimed. It was time to crack open the preserving pan, and flick through the preserving books for guidance.
With that many tomatoes, I went through a number of recipes last summer. Not only were the tomatoes in abundance, they were joined by courgettes too. That summer, was the start of what has become preserving training. The yellow tomatoes, yellow stuffer, made a lovely bright, sunny chutney. Even managed to throw in a couple of home grown chillies. There was a spiced green tomato chutney with paprika. As well as tomato and apple chutney. The apples were donated by a plot neighbour. Mum’s request to do something productive, was met with approval. Especially when the spices from her pantry were used to make some Bollywood-esque preserves.
At this moment, the tomatoes are sat beneath a double layer of horticultural fleece in the four tier blowaway. Looking a spot purple stemmed, but they will need to suffer a spot of cold before they move house and land in the poly. Each of the varieties are at different stages of growth, so there is variation with some being quite robust and tall. With others still being quite petite and diminutive. So a tomato is not just a tomato. It’s far more than. Especially if it is purple, yellow, or chutney-ed.
Follow the Horticultural ‘obbit’s chilli journey on twitter: @HorticulturalH