The universal sentiment in this house, shared by both cook and gardener, is that tomatoes are a lot of hard work to raise; planting, staking, pruning and tying seem to go on for months, consuming more management effort than any other vegetable or fruit. Furthermore, there is a real sense that all this handling and pruning transfers diseases between plants.
So this year is different – we separated tomato crops between those for salads and sandwiches (a small number staked and tied in the usual way) – and the bottling tomatoes grown in the commercial way – on the ground on a barley straw mulch mat.
The Red-a Marl tomato variety that we planted has been grown over the road from us for nearly fifty years by an old Italian gardener. I was given the seeds on his death some years ago now. So these tomatoes can be considered to be well-adapted to our local climate – one of the great advantage of seed-saving between generations of local home gardeners. His hard-working wife would turn his tomato crop into sauce for all-year round consumption with their pasta.
Four months after planting in rows beside the drip tube irrigation system, and with zero handling, these tomatoes needed to be picked before the mice got them all (an obvious disadvantage of ground-grown fruit in an organic garden). For gardeners more fastidious than I am, these tomato beds would not be a pretty sight; tomato vines sprawl all over the place and intertwine, grow huge laterals and ripen at different rates because of variable sunlight access and shading.
Both green and red tomatoes are picked, leaving some on the vine to ripen further. This harvest will lie around the house for another week, allowing further ripening on old towels laid in shallow trays. However, the idea is to pick them in no more than two trips down the yard, with bottling tomato sauce day restricted to a single weekend.
Finally, there’s not much point in growing bulk tomatoes without growing bulk basil; rows of basil have been grown on either side of the tomatoes as companion plantings and destined for the same sauce. Planted in advance of the tomato seedlings, close-planted basil also forms a sturdy hedge for the tomatoes to lay their limbs on, keeping at least some of them above mouse height. The garlic harvest will be taken from storage; it too is an important part of the sauce-making process.