Every spring I begin the countdown for our first home-grown tomato. Competition used to be so great around here 60 years ago that a previous owner of our farm daily lugged water and fertiliser up to a sunny plateau 600 metres above the house.
I don't go that far. But over the past 40 years or so I have tried buying advanced plants, as well as buying enormous grafted plants that already have tiny fruit set on them. I've tried shrouding the tomato bed with rocks, a kind of ''hot electric blanket for tomatoes'', and tried pruning the tomato bushes onto tall stakes to get the maximum of sunlight on the remaining branches.
Absolutely none of these gave me earlier tomatoes. Unless you have a glasshouse, greenhouse, grow tunnel or portable glass frames to move about your vegie beds, tomatoes fruit when the weather has been kind enough to bestow sufficient heat and sunlight, and when you have given them enough food and water, which in the case of tomatoes is ''lots''.
A sunny courtyard, on the other hand, will give you earlier veg - and keep them producing longer too, especially if part of the garden is paved. Protecting your plants from cold winds also helps. Our earliest avocado trees only survived because they spent their first five years in large shelters filled with dried bracken insulation - the cheapest (i.e. free) insulation we could find. A friend uses daggy wool (i.e. the grotty unspinnable bits) to insulate her frost-tender plants.
One of my fantasies is to add a greenhouse to the side of the house to share its warmth, and, just possibly, to get home-grown tomatoes in October and grow a vanilla orchid. I have also considered a grow tunnel - a polypipe frame covered with weighted down plastic - but as we already have a frame around the vegie gardens to wallaby-proof them (mostly) it would be more sensible to roof them instead. It is also unlikely I will ever get around to it.
I have tried propping old windows up on bricks over my seedlings, but the windows got covered in weeds and leaves, which defeated the purpose. For many years I made miniature greenhouses out of plastic bottles with the bottoms cut out, which also kept off snails, slugs and butterfly or moth larvae but the bottles eventually migrated messily about the garden.
These days I rely on good feeding. Well-fed and watered plants really do better and crop faster. They are also far longer lived. The fruit trees, camellias, roses and other shrubs that best survived the last drought here are all the ones that had the most tending, either because they were near the house, or accidentally, like the camellias and fruit trees downhill from the chook house that get the overflow from the water dish, and a small dose of liquidised chook droppings each time it rains.
Foliar sprays, like the organic ones based on seaweed, or composted feral species, also appear to increase frost resistance and root growth, and makes plants hardier and better flowerers or croppers. It is also worthwhile scattering a potash-rich fertiliser to your plants in early autumn - a VERY light scatter of wood ash, for instance. A lucerne mulch is excellent. Potash is especially important in wet years, like this year and last year, as it's more easily leached from the soil than nitrogen and phosphorus. Your plants may not show the scorched leaf or interveinal yellowing of severe deficiency, but will still do better with a richer diet.
And if you want the earliest possible veg and flowers, don't mulch - yet. Or not around the plants you want to grow fast. The soil is not yet warm, and while mulch will help keep it warm, it will delay its warming up. On the other hand, this is the time to mulch any soil to be kept bare for later plantings, so it's moist and weed-free when you need it.
The true secret of early tomatoes, asparagus, dahlias or petunias is to feed, and feed and feed. Many plants do two-thirds of their annual growth in spring. And as the rain keeps coming, lavish feeding now will bring a reward for decades - and possibly just ripe tomatoes by Christmas.
* PS: Dear Santa: Claiming I only want a ripe tomato is strictly literary hyperbole. I would also like a vast wrought iron Victorian-era glasshouse, an automatic watering system linked to soil dryness, and 10 hours of Superman's time to turn piles of rock into stone walls. I suspect though that none of these can fit into a sleigh.
This week I'm:
- Hoping the bees will get enough dry sunny air to pollinate some of the million flowers on the fruit trees.
- Possibly, just possibly - with regular glances at the weekly weather forecast - planting lettuces, silver beet and other greens, and beans and tomatoes - but keeping most of the tomato seed to put in after Melbourne Cup Day.
- Envying a glorious red-leafed crab apple up in town, and considering putting a possum guard on the trunk of our red-leafed crab so Possum X can't get a grip. On the other hand, I still feel guilty about chopping down his loquat tree ... and if I protect the red-leafed crab, what will he decide the guzzle next?
- Hardening my heart and not buying any of the truly delicious new varieties of perennials, like new dwarf salvias that bloom all summer, or dwarf buddleias, or butterfly bushes that only grow to 1.5 metres, bloom from spring to late autumn, and truly are beloved by butterflies.
- Explaining to everyone who walks up our garden steps that the paradisical scent isn't from the flagrant rhododendrons but the insignificant blooms of the glossy leafed but otherwise inconspicuous Port Wine Magnolia, one of the greatest fragrances of spring.
- Still waiting for the first ripe mulberry - they are staying stubbornly red.