Best time to start tomato crop is winter

Owen Pidgeon
Italian style: Bruschetta.
Italian style: Bruschetta. 

Gardening is always a mixture of taking care for the present and planning for the future, a combination of hours of labour and patient waiting. We have just been through the cold weeks of winter where the urgency has been to get planted bare rooted fruit trees, berry canes and in ground plants such as asparagus and rhubarb. All of these new plantings will take time to produce their first crop.

Vegetables also need time and for high country areas, like Canberra, the window of opportunity is sometimes small to achieve a good crop. So now is the time to plant out many of the summer vegetables, to get a head start. This does not mean planting the seeds in the garden, as there will still be frosts and cold soil for the next two months. Care is needed and a warm sheltered location is required.

I am not happy about misrepresentation on packages. With food, you want to know if the meat, fruit or vegetable was raised or grown in Australia. How can we get the big supermarket chains to understand that it is sheer nonsense to have packages display the words: ‘made from local and imported ingredients’. Well, last springtime I found the same misleading packaging appearing on many seed packets in terms of times to reach maturity. This was especially bad with tomatoes, where claims were made that the fruit would be ready to harvest in nine to 10 weeks after planting the seeds.

A taste of Italy: Homemade Italian bruschetta.
A taste of Italy: Homemade Italian bruschetta. 

One evening, when I was doing a spot of spring cleaning, I unearthed a 1974 NSW Department of Agriculture booklet on growing tomatoes and I said ‘eureka’. My experience of many years was confirmed. It has always taken 16-20 weeks to produce a harvest in the southern regions of Australia, from the time when the seeds are first sown. Interestingly, the latest Yates Garden Guide provides a range of 12 – 20 weeks but that book covers all of Australia. I was not too impressed when one of the marketeers of seed plants replied to my enquiry: ‘oh, I have not grown many tomatoes so I took my reference from some American sources’.   

For Canberrans and others living south of Sydney, we have a real challenge to produce home grown tomatoes ripe in time for Christmas dinner. I finally achieved this in 2013 with just two varieties which I kept growing in large pots, situated against the northern wall of our house. It is worth taking up the challenge again but it means an early start by propagating your seeds indoors or buying established seedlings and keeping them well protected from cold nights.   

Tomatoes are very nutritious and they are rich in lycopene, the antioxidant which contributes to healthy cells and our skin, vitamin A and B, potassium and a number of essential minerals needed by our bodies.  Growing tomatoes capsicums at home means that you can achieve highest flavour by allowing them to ripen on the vine and you have every opportunity to grow them under organic conditions to maximise health aspects.

Pick of the crop: It is worth planting several types cherry tomatoes to give you a mix of colours and shapes.
Pick of the crop: It is worth planting several types cherry tomatoes to give you a mix of colours and shapes. 

Do we have some Australian tomato varieties of quality? Last summer I had good success with two larger types. College Challenger produced numerous large red tomatoes on strong two metre bushes and the flavour was excellent. Australian Red was the other good, ribbed large fruiting tomato. It does well in cool summer seasons.

Rouge de Marmande remains a favourite of mine among overseas, quick growing types. The tomatoes do have a very bumpy appearance but the flavour excels and it will continue to set fruit into the cooler months of autumn. Other beefsteak tomatoes of repute include Gregori's Atlai from Siberia, Costoluto Fiorentino from Italy and Hungarian Giant.

Oxheart looks just as the name suggests and it is a delicious one to grow. Cour di Bue is the famous Italian one. This family of tomatoes grows well in cooler climates and produces a meaty fleshed fruit with very few seeds, suitable to use in many ways. Try the Yellow Oxheart as an alternative.


There are many medium sized tomatoes which are also very flavoursome. Some have been bred here in Australia. Break O’ Day was bred in the 1930s. It is a smooth round red tomato with excellent taste. It can produce a good crop under a wide range of growing conditions. Burwood Prize was bred in 1900 in New South Wales to be a vigorous, early maturing variety with fruit to seven centimetres. A popular home garden variety, the colour is red to scarlet and the flavour is wonderful.

Olomovic is one of the early maturing, prolific and delicious tomatoes that was bred in the Czech Republic. With its firm flesh it's ideal for cooking, bottling, drying and making sauces. Stupice is another Czech tomato of distinction. It is one of the first tomatoes to ripen in cooler climes and is one of the tastiest available.

St Pierre is one of my favourite medium-sized tomatoes, with its thick, meaty flesh full of flavour. It is an heirloom variety from France and it continues to crop well into autumn when the nights become cooler. Jaune Flammee is another French tomato of distinction. The light apricot coloured fruit is sweet and juicy. It provides much colour to salads.

Black tomatoes are highly sought after. Black Russian is the most well known variety with its distinctive dark chocolate reddish flesh. I have also grown Black Krim which produces larger beefsteak type tomatoes with a full, rich flavour. Paul Robeson is another from this family of tomatoes. It is highly regarded and produces good yields of medium to large flattish fruit up to 10cm. Its flavour is sweet, smoky and a little tangy.

With cherry tomatoes, it is worth planting several types to give you a mix of colours and shapes. I am still searching for an Australian bred variety but there are quality ones available that were originally bred around the world.

Gold Nugget from France and sold supplied here by Vilmorin is the earliest maturing good sized yellow variety that I have grown. Camp Joy and Whippersnapper are two good red, varieties that mature earlier than others and produce good yielding crops. Cherry yellow pear and red pear a delightful little pear shaped tomatoes that ripen quite early and can still produce through relatively dry summers.`


6 thick slices Italian bread
6 tomatoes
6 cloves garlic
100 gms butter
2 tbsp shredded basil leaves
1 red onion, finely chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

Crush three garlic cloves and mix into the butter. Grill the bread until crisp. Brush the butter generously onto the top side of the bread. Dice the tomatoes and chop finely up the remaining cloves of garlic. Mix together and add in the onion, shredded basil, a little olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Add freshly ground black pepper and salt, to taste. Spoon the mixture evenly over the bread and grill.

This week in the garden

  • Sow seeds of lettuce, kale and spinach into seed raising trays. Plant also capsicum and chilli seeds along with tomatoes and keep inside in a warm and sunny location to assist with early germination.
  • Spread a layer of well composted materials over your garden beds in preparation for springtime plantings.
  • Turn your new winter compost heap to provide aeration.
  • If you have planted out young citrus trees, provide frost protection using stakes and hessian or similar materials to wrap around the trees.
  • Spray stone fruit trees with a copper and sulphur Bordeaux spray (Kocide is pre mixed) at time of bud swell to minimise leaf curl problems with nectarines and peaches, and shot hole scab with apricots.
  • Bordeaux Mixture: Dissolve 20 grams of copper sulphate into a plastic container or bucket (dedicated) with 2 litres of hot water. In a separate container, mix 20 grams of hydrated lime with a small quantity of water. Top up to 1 litre and add to the copper sulphate solution. Use immediately; spray when there is no wind.

Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.