I need help. I need to go to a tomato head-shrink. Seriously, every year, I grow triffids. Oh, I get plenty of tomatoes, I’m happy about that, it’s just that I grow these jungles of plants that intertwine, and it always ends up in a land grab. They fight for soil, for mulch, for sunlight, and just grow bigger and taller trying to outdo each other. They spread out way more than you ever see in brochures or in the gardens of those who really know how to grow tomatoes. They’re an embarrassment.
Gardening is in my blood, it’s true. My father was an ace gardener, growing all our vegetables. My mother grew spectacular dahlias. And daphne. And sweet peas. Their parents were also terrific gardeners. My father’s father, (yes, yes, that’s my grandfather), grew roses for Palmers in his retirement. That was quite prestigious back in the day, you had to know what you were doing when propagating, whether to nip below the node or above it, and you’d need to wash your nippers often so that you didn’t spread disease, and a hundred things like that. It was old-fashioned gardening.
My father grew all our vegetables is a true enough claim, but he didn’t grow our tomatoes. Tomatoes are a fruit, so I didn’t mislead you. His friend Ray grew tomatoes commercially for Turners & Growers, so Dad would do an exchange of his garden produce with Ray for tomatoes. I LOVED going to the Tregidga’s home – the tomatoes spilled out the door of their house, almost, with what seemed like rows and rows of tall tomato plants festooned with red globes. This was before tomatoes went upmarket. There were no yellow tomatoes, or black-red jobs, and no cherry tomatoes. These were big, red, juicy, friggin’ delicious tomatoes that tasted of sunshine. Dad would have a beer with Ray and wife Beryl somewhere in the shade and I would run amok between the rows, breathing in the curious, heady scent that tomato plants give off when the sun beats down on them so strongly it almost pushes them back into the soil so they can suck up the last of the moisture. I had plenty of time to experience the curious world of tomatoes and insects, as one beer often turned into two, and as much as I wanted to, I was too well brought up to help myself to a tomato. I loved it when Ray or wife Beryl cut one off a plant and handed it to me warm from the sun. Those tomatoes smelled of the vine, the earth, sunshine, summer. They had a thick gell around the seeds. They were juicy but not wet. They were as sweet as watermelon. So, what did I learn from these childhood experiences? Tomatoes need sunshine – we never visited in winter. I probably pollinated the plants as I ran among the vines. Tomato growers have grubby, green-stained fingers ANDthumbs. They were really nice people.
The late Sir David Levene once picked me up in a flash vehicle and drove me to NZ Hothouse headquarters to show me around the company’s glasshouses in South Auckland. I was writing a book about tomatoes at the time. The glasshouses stretched as far as the eye could see and were full to the gunnels with tomato plants. What did I learn there? They didn’t use spray. Little wasps ate the bugs, and gazillions of beautiful, big, furry bumblebees pollinated the plants by buzzing among the vines just like I did as a child, except, I ran, I didn’t buzz. The glasshouse tomatoes grew regardless of how often the sun shone. As long as it was 17°C, they were happy.
What I failed to notice as a child, observing a skilled tomato grower, and later, as an adult, viewing a commercial operation, is that the tomatoes were staked. They weren’t allowed to flop over, say hi to their neighbour, mix and mingle and share DNA. They were made to keep to themselves. The plants weren’t jammed in, tight for space, like mine. They had plenty of room to grow and air could pass around them so they didn’t get rot or fungal thingies.
Sometimes we know the answers, but we plod on making the same mistakes as we did last time. That’s me and tomatoes. If we get too much rain, my plants will probably suffer. If it gets humid, they will suffer. Every day they seem to have grown back the bits I chopped off the day before. I chop and chop, but obviously I chop the wrong bits. I have learnt to chop off leaves on the bottom of the plants to allow air to pass through. But some snuck away and now they’ve got tomatoes growing on them and it would hurt (me) to cut them off.
And I’ve got a mound of chopped leaves strewn at the back of the vegetable plot. I did the strewing, so need to do the picking up. It’s just that I read or saw somewhere that if you steep the fresh cut leaves in water for a day or something (I never get the full information!), and feed the liquid to the plants, they will go nuts. They’ll love it. So, I cut off some leaves and threw them down on the ground intending to come back later to make tomato leaf tee. But I forgot. Every day for a week I’ve thrown leaves on the pile but I haven’t yet managed to make tomato leaf tea. The pile is quite high, as I chop and chop the triffids, so that’s another thing to deal with.
Having written this confessional, do you see what I mean? I think I need a tomato head-shrink, or someone to teach me how to trim tomato plants from when they are babies, to shape them into strong plants, to ensure the plants don’t get too neighbourly. Maybe I’ll remember to do that next year.