It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Canberra gardener should not plant their tomatoes until after the October long weekend. Our tomato growing is curtailed by frosts at either end of the season and the challenge is to produce an eating quality tomato by Christmas (fresh – not the Fried Green variety).Whether you are working to to beat your personal best or fighting it out with a friend this is a serious business! I’m not sure what other rules there may be but if you are serious the challenge is to grow from seed rather than buy in seedlings. How early and how successfully you get your plants to grow is critical in getting a good start on the challenge. Seedlings are nurtured on window ledges in homes and offices, sheltered spots and, it is rumoured, in the glasshouses of august scientific establishments. Our tomato seeds were put in their first seed raising tray on 17 August and spent their nights on a brewers heating pad. Each day they were carefully taken out to enjoy what sun there was and were bought back inside each night. The varieties we planted were Amish Paste, Wapsipinicon Peach, (no I did not make that name up), Cherry, Mortgage Lifter and Siberian. By 25 August the Amish Paste, Wapsipinicon Peach and Siberians had sprouted. Then interim the plants were pricked out and transplanted to larger pots and their stems buried just a little bit more deeply each time they moved. This is designed to get strong root growth and a sturdy stem. These tactics came from the patriarch of Australian gardening Peter Cundall (everyone genuflect) in an article in the September/October 2009 issue of the ABC’s Organic Gardener magazine. The Beloved opened a ‘second front’ with the construction of a bed enclosed with pea straw bales and filled with compost recycled potting mix and cow manure. He also started construction of a polytunnel to top the bed and increase the inside temperature of the bed. This is quite easy to achieve. A sturdy post is hammered in at each corner and depending on the size of your bed in several places along each side. Lengths of conduit or bendable plastic pipe are then placed down over the poles and the plastic sheeting placed over the top. the plastic sheet was nailed to a batten of wood on either side to help weigh the plastic down. Holes were also drilled through the batten and into each corner post and a tent peg threaded through the holes to stop the cover from taking off in strong winds. Some of the inspiration for this engineering triumph came from ForwardTumble’s UK blog http://tunneltime.blogspot.com/. Our present estimate is that inside the polytunnel the temperature is raised between five and ten degrees depnding on whether the bed is is sun or shade. This is acheived even though the ends of the tunnel are both open. In the end it wasn’t until 26 October that the tomatoes actually made it into the bed. All varieties were planted out. They were sturdy plants and now they are 30 cm high and the first flowers appeared on the Siberians last week. Since planting out our first tomato seeds another batch has gone in and will I expect will be transplanted to the bed by the end of the month. Keeping up a succession of plants is important if you are in anyway serious about keeping up an ongoing supply of food for your table. Just for the record our last batch of tomatoes picked this year were Siberian Tomatoes, picked green, on 13 June 2009, two days after the first frost of the year. These were made into a very tasty relish from a recipe of out A Year in a Bottle by Sally Wise (http://shop.abc.net.au/browse/product.asp?productid=165469). I’ve used plenty of the recipes since I bought this book last year. I’d recommend it for good recipes for preserving your harvest.
I also wanted to mention, prompted by SB’s comment, that one of the most useful books for Canberra gardener’s that I’ve found is Jackie French’s Backyard Self Sufficiency. As Jackie lives not too far from Canberra this book is full of knowledge about growing in our local climate. I also think she has a very practical approach to just getting things in the ground and growing. The result may be rather more random than your classic european potager garden but it suits me.