Gardening – Taming the tomato

Autumn is both a productive and a busy time for gardeners producing their own fruit and vegetables. Many crops come into harvest now such as apples, pears, persimmons, grapes, figs and feijoas. As if we weren’t busy enough harvesting these crops, many vegetables are in full production also, particularly the subtropical crops such as tomatoes, sweetcorn, melons, beans, eggfruit, courgettes and peppers. This year, I’ve had vast quantities of tomatoes; buckets and buckets of them. But tomatoes are one of those crops you can almost never get enough of. First port of call is, of course, eating them fresh in salads, on toast or just as a delicious snack (scoff a fully vine-ripened tomato still warm from the sun and you’ll see what I mean).

Next up, is basic processing and cooking – fried with bacon and eggs, blended to make a refreshing drink, and chopped and stirred into curries and stirfry. But when you’ve got bulk to get through, a big pot of tomato soup is the go. Chop and fry an onion and some garlic cloves, chop up a big pot load of tomatoes and boil till disintegrated, add a handful of chopped fresh basil, a tablespoon of sugar, a squirt of balsamic vinegar, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and a litre of chicken stock, bring to the boil again, use a handheld kitchen blender to smash it all up, then strain through a sieve. Add some more basil and parmesan as a garnish and you will have the family back for seconds. We always make enough soup to freeze some for a winter pick-me-up, but even then, there’s a limit to how much soup you can eat.

That’s where the final go-to option comes in – making a tomato sauce base. This is an easy, quick way of processing tomatoes that can then be frozen and used during the year as a base for pasta sauce or pizza topping, or even more soup. Just start as per the soup, but stop before you add basil. When you defrost this, it’s easy to boil further to reduce to a sauce and add various herbs to taste, or add the other ingredients to finish making it into soup.

Although my tomatoes have been productive, I hear many crops are struggling, with scraggly, thin growth, yellow or purple tinges to the foliage and hardly any fruit. It is probably due to TPP … No, not the trade agreement that is apparently the root of all evil, but rather an infestation of the dreaded tomato/potato psyllid. There is no cure once infested. In fact, the weakened plants will soon collapse from blight infection anyway, so you may as well pull the plants out now. To protect my tomatoes from this pest, as soon as the crop is planted, I place a tall cloche of insect proof mesh over a frame of plastic pipe, with the mesh well pegged down around the sides. I did a comparison trial this year with one bed covered and one bed open. Not only did the covered plants produce fruit about one month earlier due to the favourable microclimate, but the uncovered crop produced virtually no tomatoes. The uncovered crop has now been pulled out, while the covered crop is still producing. The bonus is you also keep out whitefly, passionvine hoppers, green vegetable bugs, blackbirds and all the other pests tomatoes are prone to getting.