Rewarding ... Now is the time to start planning and planting tomatoes.
Rewarding ... Now is the time to start planning and planting tomatoes. Photo: Mel Hill

I have just returned from Darwin, where our daughter Felicity lives. She works with communities in east Arnhem Land and has just been awarded a Winston Churchill Trust Fellowship to study caring for remote indigenous people in Canada and Arizona. Because she works away from home, her vegetable gardening must be fine-tuned.

Given the high house prices in Darwin, she shares an apartment. It has good access to sun, with shade in the afternoon. On her balcony, she grows tomatoes and chillies in big pots, with excellent results.

On our visit, the bushes were more than a metre tall and the cherry tomatoes were well into flowering; the chilli bush had at least 50 good sized fruit with colour developing well.

In Canberra, the mornings are still crisp, but with longer daylight hours and rising temperatures we can enjoy time on the balcony or in the garden.

The early blossoms are appearing on stone-fruit trees and spring flowers are everywhere.

Now is the time to begin planting, but with the prospect of occasional frosts over the next two months take care. With tomatoes, the challenge is to make progress through late spring when the night temperatures are still quite low.

This has a significant impact on the growing phase of the tomato plant and fruit development. It is even more pronounced with capsicums and eggplants.

I think in terms of the small cherry tomatoes, the medium plum tomatoes and the large round or ribbed shaped ones, each variety has its own flavour and use.

For growers it is good to note that there are two distinct groups of tomato plants. First, those that grow as a bush, referred to as determinate varieties. Once the bush produces its single crop of tomatoes, it's all over.

The other group is the climbing tomatoes. These must be staked as some can grow to two metres. They will produce flowers and fruit over a longer period, and with a good crop you can harvest three to five kilograms from the medium and large varieties. Our overall average this year was below this yield, but we did well with some varieties.

Given the challenges of the early part of the season and the relatively short harvest period for tomatoes, I would recommend a modest number of early plantings then following up with later plantings to keep a harvest going through to May next year.

We have been preparing the ground by running our free-range hens as a ''chicken tractor'' over the area in winter. They have scratched and dug up the ground intensively, adding their little doses of fertiliser as they work the garden over.

You can also prepare your garden by digging in generous amounts of compost and leaving it to settle until late October/early November transplanting.

It can take four or five weeks for the first flowers to produce ripe fruit, this side of Christmas. So if you want to serve ripe tomatoes at Christmas, you need to have the plants flowering well before the end of November. So choose varieties that are quick maturing - apollo and college challenger are often sold as early seedlings in garden centres.

To fully meet the tomato growers' challenge, plant your own seeds. Sow them into punnets and keep them in a warm location, such as in a bay window, on a window sill or in a little glasshouse covered at night.

Once the seedlings are 20 centimetres high, transplant them into individual pots.

Plant the stems well down into the soil, as tomatoes will grow more roots from the stem when it is buried.

From the dozens of varieties that I grew last season, the Siberian and kotlas tomatoes produced early crops, even in cool temperatures. Siberian is a very productive, globe-shaped variety from the northern Altai mountains of southern Russia. Kotlas's growing season can be quite long as it is resistant to blight. Sweetie and golden nugget have been the quickest maturing cherry tomatoes for us.

The famous old French variety rouge de marmande is probably one of the fastest growing large, beefsteak-type tomatoes. Cooks love this tomato and you can hope for the crop to continue into autumn, as it is quite disease resistant.

Peron is a tomato from Greece that is disease and crack resistant. It produces large, round, deep red fruit of distinction.

For flavour but with extra time needed to mature, try growing at least one beefsteak variety, such as the Mary Italian or the gregoris altai.

The black Russian is my pick of the delicious dark maroon tomatoes. St Pierre is still a favourite round, medium-sized fruit with excellent flavour.

I successfully grew yellow roma and san marzano last summer, for Italian cooking.

>>  Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.


This week:

■ Sow a row of mixed open-leaf lettuces - cos verdi, goldrush, mignonette, oakleaf, butterhead, and Japanese aromatic mitsuba and rocket.

■ Plant one or two rows of snowpeas and/or peas. Massey gem is a quick-maturing dwarf bush variety. Oregon giant and mammoth melting are excellent snowpea varieties.

■ Prepare a bed for the first sowing of spring carrots, building up the depth by adding some very old compost, but don't add animal manures or fetilisers, which will lead to forking of the carrots roots.

■ Prepare a garden bed for later planting of potatoes. Ensure that the soil is well worked over and the bed has good depth.

■ Spread compost over other garden beds in preparation for sowing of crops in the next month. Lightly turn it in with a garden fork and the soil microbes and earthworms will begin their work.