If you want early tomatoes you need a rock. Preferably a large rock, or even a small quarry, where the rock will absorb heat during the day, reflect it onto your tomatoes and then radiate warmth all night so the tomatoes aren't touched by frost and nor do they go into that sulking stage when the tomatoes get wonderfully warm days but chilly nights and refuse to grow at all.
The best cold climate tomatoes I have ever known were grown in a garden that is almost entirely concrete, except for narrow plots for the vegies. It was extremely productive, obsessively neat and pretty much weed free, as even the birds avoided it with their seed-laden droppings. It was also ugly (though I never hinted as much to its proud owner).
I make do with the hot spot by the water tank. It doesn't reflect much heat but it is a bit like a hot water bottle at night, keeping the tomatoes alive. They don't grow much in the chill, but at least they are still there, a promise of summer crops.
In other parts of the garden we do have big rocks that shelter frost-tender sages or daylilies and very welcome they are too. If I was designing my garden again I'd have rocky terraces for my vegies. Happily my back, knees and schedule mean there is no question of redesigning the vegetables gardens, at least this decade.
The questions now is: which tomato?
Last year I decided that Tommy Toe was the best flavoured, as well as the most productive of the varieties we trialled. It's small – almost a cherry tomato – and you need five slices to cover a slice of bread. But I'm not sure it will be the best next year.
The taste of a tomato depends on sun and soil, water and feeding. Different varieties vary in taste depending on how they are grown and what the weather is like. Most years I like Grosse Lisse best, or Black Krim, which is black and green and should look horrid but instead appears extremely elegant. Its downside is that it gives only a small crop, for a short time here, at any rate. It maybe bountiful for you.
Don't confuse it with Black Russian, which is cold hardy but red, not black, though slightly purple tinged. Green Zebra – a yellow and green variety – sounds delightful, but is actually a bit ho hum.
If you can find Oxheart, Grand Zeppelin, New Zealand Pink or Brandy Wine, grab them and grow them. They are delicious, hardy and long-bearing.
Actually the best tomatoes are the ones you can find. Choose any garden seed catalogue and you'll find dozens, even hundreds to choose from. Try at least six and compare flavour, crop size and resistance to disease. Even nurseries and garden centres will give you a plenitude of choice. Be wary of only growing the old fashioned varieties – they may be delicious but usually have less resistance to wilts, nematodes and viruses than modern hybrids. Your healthy tomato bush may suddenly go flop in mid-February. It's safest to do one planting in spring, then another in mid-summer – that way you will not only be safe if wilt strikes (younger bushes are more vigorous and disease resistant) but have productive plants that crop longer and more prolifically as the weather cools. You also get a lot more varieties to choose from.
Just at the moment I am tempted by Tigerella, red fruit with dark red stripes; Siberian Winter, which is supposed to be frost hardy but no seeds have ever geminated here; Tommy Toe and maybe a yellow cherry cocktail, just for a change. And always, of course, Grosse Lisse.
If you are thinking of growing your own seedlings this is the time to choose and order the seeds. If you intend to let the garden centre grow it for you to plant in a month or two, choose the warmest spot in the garden now and begin to prepare it, loading it with mulch to kill weeds and tossing on hen manure that will have broken down by planting time.
If you don't have a garden, think giant hanging baskets or pots. But even if you only have the dashboard of your car free of foliage, do grow tomatoes.
It isn't truly summer without the scent of tomato, the slightly rank foliage, the swelling fruit, richer than any commercial variety the supermarkets sell, their remnant of flavour leached out by cold storage. Then you can have a cup of pre-dinner gazpacho, or the slight squish of a perfect tomato sandwich – summer between two slices of bread.
This week I am:
- Finishing the last of the winter leeks, baked in a lemon cream sauce;
- Looking suspiciously at the rabbit I saw six kilometres down the valley, in case it intends hopping up this way but if it does, we have a surprise for the rabbit – White and Red Goshawks and Little Eagles in residence, all of whom are very fond of rabbit;
- Picking daffodils and camellias, to enjoy them in their season;
- Looking at all the frost-bitten foliage that will need to be pruned off … sometime;
- Farewelling a much-loved and aged bursaria, its trunk encrusted with lichen and a mass of white flowers early each summer, with a haze of hoverflies and other insects around it, and at least two birds' nests in its branches – its trunk finally snapped in a gale this winter but hopefully it will shoot from its base because it is hard to kill a bursaria; and
- Hoping the plum blossom survives the frosts, and the trees give us at least a few boxes of plums. To be honest, frost-bitten trees that bear only a small fraction of their crop are a blessing here. We have a succession of plums, from tiny ones in late November to fat ones in late January, and one box from each tree is plenty, to eat fresh and freeze for winter, plus a few basketsful to give away.