March 11, 2016 § 7 Comments
Let’s talk about tomatoes: the fruit of love.
The Spanish conquistadors brought the tomato from South America in the 16th century, and in Italy it was known as pomo d’oro (golden apple). In France this became distorted to pomme d’amour — which duly led to the tomato being declared an aphrodisiac.
John Parkinson, the English herbalist and botanist, in his famous Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629) explained: “We call them in English, Apples of Love, Love-Apples, Golden Apples, or Amorous Apples”. He also pointed out: “Wee onely have them for curiosity in our Gardens, and for the amorous aspect or beauty of the fruit.” Tomatoes caught on as a regular food in Britain and Ireland only in the late 19th century.
And now look at us. The “love-apple” is as much a staple as is the ordinary apple. For some of us — myself included — it is our very favourite fruit (technically it is a fruit, although it is classed as a vegetable).
One of the things that makes the tomato so appealing is its crazy range of sizes, shapes, colours and flavours. There are cherry kinds such as the sweet, amber-toned ‘Sungold’, plum varieties for sauce (‘Amish Paste’ and ‘Striped Roman’), great, meaty and rumpled beefsteaks for slicing (‘Brandywine’ and ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’), near-white tomatoes (‘Ivory Egg’ and ‘Banana Cream’), near-black, such as ‘Indigo Rose’, and every colour in between. The last, which looks like a shiny black billiard ball, was the product of a breeding programme at Oregon State University aiming to develop tomatoes with high amounts of purple anthocyanins — a natural antioxidant.
When you grow your own, you can delve into this thrilling diversity in a way that you’ll never experience with commercially-grown tomatoes. There are over ten thousand varieties, but only a handful — mainly red — are likely to turn up in the shops. For the insatiable home grower, however, there are hundreds of different kinds available as seed. If you grew ten new toms every year, you’d never manage to grow them all in one lifetime.
This wondrous multiplicity of tomato-kind was brought home to me a couple of years ago when I visited the Totally Terrific Tomato Festival at Rolestown Garden Centre in north county Dublin. The event was the brainchild of Ireland’s “Tomato Queen”, Nicky Kyle, one of this country’s first organic gardeners. The day celebrated all things tomato, and especially the diversity of this delicious crop. A display of dozens of varieties was dazzling, each tomato full of colourful and cartoonish self-importance, and each wildly different. Most had been grown by Kyle, but some had been harvested by other committed tomato heads. The festival lasted two years, but it disappeared and the garden centre closed.
A few months ago, I was thinking about how sad it would be to lose such a joyous and worthy event, so I resolved to resurrect it. It was remarkably easy: you’d have to be an odd person not to be grateful for a day celebrating tomatoes. Nicky Kyle was on for it, and so too was the venue that I approached: Killruddery House and Garden in Bray, Co Wicklow. Killruddery’s food grower, Frank Jesper, has already pledged to raise several varieties, and a new polytunnel has been ordered for that very purpose. The Tomato Queen will grow some varieties, as will other tomato fans I’ve spoken to.
If you are a tomato-fancier, I hope you will join in, and bring your best to Killruddery next September. The aim is to start building a community of tomato lovers throughout Ireland, a community that will increase in numbers and become more knowledgeable with each year of the festival.
Of prime interest are heirloom and open pollinated kinds. Heirlooms, as the name suggests, are older varieties pre-dating the commercialisation of seeds. They were handed down from grower to grower, and swapped amongst friends and neighbours. All heirlooms are open pollinated: they come true to type when you save seed and sow it the following year. Many were specific to certain areas or people. ‘Black Krim’, for example, was found in the Crimea around 1900, while ‘Cherokee Purple’ was supposed to have been grown by the native American tribe.
Some modern toms are open pollinated also, but most are F1 hybrids (first filial generation), the offspring of two separate varieties that must be crossed every time seed is required. The resulting cross combines desirable characteristics of each parent, but the seeds cannot be saved successfully, as the offspring will not resemble the cultivar. F1 hybrids are the domain of seed companies, which is fair enough, as they have gone to the trouble of crossing them each year. Most open pollinated and heirloom varieties, on the other hand, can saved by anyone. Because of this, they are more vulnerable to extinction. While seed companies do stock open pollinated and heirloom varieties, there is less financial incentive to keep them growing. As Nicky Kyle points out: “It’s so important to preserve all of them, all of their genetic diversity. We don’t know what we may face in the future in terms of disease or pests. So each one of them may hold the key to actually saving all of tomatoes in their genes.”
Therefore, if you love tomatoes, do grow something odd this year and bring it to the festival. Between us, we’ll grow as many different tomatoes as possible — the weirder and wonderfuller the better.
The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival takes place on Sunday, September 4th at Killruddery. Tomato display, competitions (for adults and kids), talks, food, market.
Sligo firm Quickcrop is partnering with the festival to sell seed of heirloom kinds suitable for the Irish climate, as well as young plants . Order now to harvest your tomatoes in time. Cork-based Brown Envelope Seeds also has many open-pollinated varieties.
Visit the Totally Terrific Facebook page.
A version of this blog post appeared in the Sunday Times
November 27, 2015 § 9 Comments
When I was in art college studying woven textiles, I won the Lillias Mitchell award for hand-spinning. I got a nice letter and a small cheque. That was decades ago, and I never won anything after that except for two raffle prizes.
Yesterday, my book, The Irish Garden, won the Inspirational Book of the Year award at the Garden Media Guild Awards in London. You could say (and I have, a bit) that they are the BAFTAs (or the Oscars) of the gardening world. My husband, Jonathan Hession, took the photographs, so it is very much our book, not just mine. We worked on it for over four years. It was so all-pervasive that it was almost like having a small person living with us, with all the attendant joys and difficulties.
During this period, our publisher, Frances Lincoln, showed a fair amount of forbearance, especially my editor, Jo Christian, who now runs her own independent publishing house, Pimpernel Press. The book designer Anne Wilson created a thoughtful and beautiful design. If you ever need a garden book designer — she’s the best.
We didn’t go to the awards ceremony, so we learned by email that we’d won. We had a couple of glasses of Prosecco to celebrate. The dog vomited. We went to bed at 2am. It was a grand night.
Here is what the judges said:
“A superbly researched book that reads as wonderfully as it looks. Sumptuous, illustrative photography illustrates copy that takes you by the hand to enjoy a journey through the history, styles, variety, atmosphere and characters of a huge range of valuable Irish Gardens. There is much to admire and inspire in the pages of the book, and its relevance is so important to any gardener’s library. Congratulations to the husband and wife writer/photographer team Jane Powers and Jonathan Hession, their passion for the gardens in the area they live is alive and obvious in every page.”
Victoria Clarke The Gardener’s Garden
Heidi Howcroft & Marianne Majerus Garden Design: A Book of Ideas
Carol Klein Making a Garden: Successful gardening by nature’s rules
James Wong Grow For Flavour
November 13, 2015 § 20 Comments
A couple of weekends ago, about forty garden people travelled from all over Ireland to Baltimore in west Cork. Some, such as Gerry Daly from the Irish Garden magazine, and myself, were members of the garden media, but most were those who open their gardens to the public. We had come to the 97-acre estate at Inish Beg for the first Open Gardens Conference. We also came to witness the sowing of a seed which, if nurtured, will grow into an all-Ireland organisation devoted to promoting gardens as a tourist attraction.
Irish gardens have one of the most favourable climates in the world for plants (if not for people). The range of vegetation, from the subtropical to the subarctic, is greater than that of almost any other similarly-sized area. The North Atlantic Drift (the tail of the Gulf Stream) ensures that in many parts of the island frost is rare or non-existent. Tree ferns from Australasia; primulas and magnolias from the Himalayas; crinum lilies and crocosmias from South Africa: all have made themselves at home here, at the same northerly latitude as Siberia. Our landscape — variously majestic, romantic and pastoral — is splendid in all its modes, our heritage is rich, and our position on the edge of Europe holds an appealing mystery for visitors.
Yet, many of our gardens are woefully under-visited. This can be a bonus for the garden lover who wishes to wander lonesomely, but for garden owners it presents a problem. Low visitor numbers mean low income. Gardens are expensive to run: nature never stands still, especially in Ireland where there can be growth all year round, so horticulture and maintenance must be constant.
Paul Keane, of Inish Beg — which has a charming walled garden and a pretty woodland — presented research at the conference collated from figures he had garnered from the Central Statistics Office and Fáilte Ireland. Of the 6,668,000 overseas visitors who landed on these shores in 2013, 24 per cent visited gardens. He compared these with figures he had acquired from Visit Britain (the British tourism agency). In the UK, 36 per cent of all overseas visitors included a garden in their itinerary.
My own recent poking around on the Fáilte Ireland website revealed that of the top 44 fee-charging attractions in 2014, less than ten included gardens, and in nearly all these, the main crowd-pleaser was something other than the garden. For example, Blarney, Glenveagh and Malahide Castle all have remarkable gardens, but lamentably, tourists generally visit these for a reason other than communing with the planted space. For number 17 on the list, Powerscourt (with 232,605 visitors), the garden landscape is paramount, but it is a notable exception. I suspect also that Powerscourt sucks up a huge number of the visitors in the statistical pot, leaving many of Ireland’s other hundred or so good gardens hungry.
Pardon this big bouquet of statistics, but I’m using them to illustrate a serious deficit that we have here. For some reason, Ireland’s gardens — most of which are crying out for visitors — are not tempting enough people inside their gates.
Fáilte Ireland no longer has a product manager for Irish gardens, so those who have their gardens open have had to fend for themselves in recent years. It was this situation that led Skibbereen woman Miriam Cotton to organise (along with her husband, Bev) the Open Gardens Conference. Cotton, who describes herself as a media activist and disability rights campaigner, has a background in product management and marketing. For the last three years she has been the voluntary coordinator for the West Cork Garden Trail (WCGT), a group of 15 gardens spread along the southwest tip of Ireland. She says: “I was trying to raise funds for the WCGT… [but] the tourism bodies didn’t seem to be listening to us.” She came to realise that “the story was the same all over the country, and that we lacked a national voice.”
It had taken Cotton seven months “of pleading and begging at the highest level of the organisation” to make contact with someone who would discuss marketing gardens. When the meeting finally happened, she found Fáilte Ireland “very interested and supportive”. A salient fact emerged, however, that the tourism agency will meet only with representatives of national organisations, not with local groups. And so, an urgent need arose for a single island-wide body for open gardens, a need that prompted Cotton to organise the Inish Beg gathering. By the end of the conference, accordingly, a committee of seven volunteers was appointed to help establish the body. When the organisation is launched, Fáilte Ireland will then offer mentoring, workshops and training to its senior representatives.
The business of promoting open gardens has always been a difficult one in this country. Most of the regional garden groups (of which there are about twenty) are run by volunteers, and while some receive backing from local businesses or rural development funds, many are fuelled by goodwill. Breandan O’Scanaill, for example, who runs the Connemara Garden Trail, printed and delivered the brochures himself when the sponsorship ceased; and Kerrie O’Connor, who runs the Lough Derg Garden Trail, got some funding from LEADER, and then matched it out of her own pocket.
It is worth giving you a final, rather depressing statistic that might help explain the plight of Irish gardens. Fáilte Ireland’s 2014 figures showed that in the domestic tourism market a mere 16 per cent of trips taken by Irish residents included gardens. If the people actually living here are reluctant to mosey around amongst plants, then we’re hardly the best ambassadors for our horticultural attractions.
Gardens, as I am constantly saying, are an important part of our heritage. They are living and breathing things. If we don’t visit them and show some interest, they die.
♣ ♣ ♣
A version of this blog post appeared in The Sunday Times (Irish edition)
December 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
Around this time of the year, I regularly have a battle with florist’s wire, lumps of foam, lengths of ribbon, green tape, pliers, spray paint and bamboo skewers. It’s all part of my annual attempt to wrestle greenery, cones and berries into garlands and other decorative whatnots. The fruits of my labours are satisfying and festive, but the operations usually swallow up two evenings. The first one is great fun, but by the second I’m feeling a little strained and at the mercy of various ungracious thoughts. Surely, there must be an easier way of decking the house with plant material?
Well, yes, there is, as I learned from a recent visit to Denise Dunne, proprietor of The Herb Garden. Denise grows organic herbs, salads and wildflowers, and produces seed for sale at her home in Naul, Co Dublin. Her unusual herbs and edible flowers are in demand by food stylists and chefs — including the contestants in the Irish Masterchef television show. She has applied her expertise in herb garden design in several places, among them Brook Lodge Hotel at Macreddin in Co Wicklow and Drimnagh Castle in Dublin.
Yet, what made me sit up and take notice recently were her table decorations for the Web Summit at the beginning of November. For the dinner at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham for 300 people, she supplied dozens of herb posies: delightfully simple bunches of bay, sage, lavender, meadowsweet and hawthorn berries. Then, for the Summit’s buffet dinner at Dublin Castle she made a table runner of material foraged from her garden. Hawthorn berries featured again, combined with ferns, ivy and oak leaves in full autumn glory.
“They were all native Irish plants, which was perfect — as the dinner was promoting Irish producers,” says Denise. And, because her whole garden is certified by the Organic Trust, all were organic, another nice touch. “It was all very simple and natural, we just laid them out, with no wiring, no tying, and no Oasis.”
Actually, it wasn’t quite as simple as that, as the day brought non-stop torrential rain. Picking and gathering was more akin to a water sport than plant collection, and then, because all the material was drenched, every leaf, sprig and berry had to be individually and carefully dried with a towel before being laid on the pristine white table cloths.
When I ask Denise to suggest some natural trimmings for a Christmas table, she takes to her garden again. She chooses native ferns — both the hart’s-tongue and male fern — for the long, flowing shapes needed to give continuity to a central runner. Additional foliage includes ivy, variegated holly, and a few autumn-flushed spindle leaves. She adds a sprinkling of bright fruits: plump rose hips, pink-and-scarlet spindle berries and rough-textured and perfectly-round Arbutus unedo fruits in lime-green, orange and crimson. The last is commonly known as the strawberry tree, and is unusual in that it is native to Ireland and the Mediterranean, but not to Britain. The fruits take a year to ripen, so the trees often bear fruits and flowers at the same time.
Denise is not averse to adding a bit of glitz to her Yuletide efforts, and she uses the occasional, judicious spritz of copper spray paint to give warm, metallic accents to ivy berries, birch twigs, teasel heads, and the curious, inflated seedheads of Nigella damascena. Tea-light holders with copper rims and a copper-toned candle “bling things up a little bit” while keeping the colour scheme co-ordinated.
She embellishes her napkins by tying them with raffia and inserting bunches of plant material. A green and red combination is sage, rosemary, French lavender and rose hips, while a more opulent mix is copper-sprayed nigella seedheads with the pearly, wafer-thin pods of honesty (Lunaria annua).
Denise’s kind of table decorations can be assembled relatively quickly, which is a boon when there are a million little tasks that need to be done. What I also love, though, is that they are snippets of nature at the Christmas table — a place where many of us linger for hours. The smooth perfection of a rose hip, the intricacy of a fern frond, the translucency of a honesty seedhead — all these offer moments of calm and contemplation in this sometimes frenetic season.
Denise Dunne may be contacted at theherbgarden.ie
Material for seasonal decorations can be found on woodland walks, but remember, you should be foraging, not pillaging. It is best to collect only nuts, cones and leaves that have fallen to the ground. Plentiful plants, such as ivy, can also be harvested in moderation. Leave holly alone, as there are far too many people plundering it already. Gardens – your own or a friend’s — offer plenty of material.
A version of this blogpost appeared earlier in The Sunday Times, Ireland
March 22, 2014 § 13 Comments
On the night of Monday, March 3rd 2014, Ireland’s most respected botanical artist died, a month before her 99th birthday. Wendy Walsh (née Storey) was born in Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria, but she came to live here in 1958 when her husband, Lt. Col. John Walsh, originally from Edgeworthstown in Co Longford, retired from the British army.
It was not until Wendy Walsh was in her sixties that her work became widely known. In 1978 her paintings of wildflowers were reproduced on four postage stamps, and for the following six years she was commissioned annually to produce stamps on the theme of Irish flora and fauna. In 1983, she collaborated with Dr Charles Nelson and Ruth Isabel Ross on the first volume of An Irish Florilegium: Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland, a sumptuous publication with 48 hand-tipped colour plates. Her name was suddenly everywhere, and the book was found in all the best drawing rooms. Today, the scarce first edition is offered for between €600 and €1250 by rare book dealers. The second volume followed in 1988.
Wendy’s paintings are keenly observed plant studies, with each detail carefully and faithfully rendered. They exactly capture the vulnerable softness of a petal, the beige brittleness of an autumn flower stalk, the joyful freshness of a spring bud, the angular kink in a year-old twig. Her colour matches are flawless and her composition elegant. In her best works, her subjects inhabit the page with the same kind of poise and presence that a great dancer manifests on stage.
The paintings are all the more remarkable because Wendy Walsh was that rare thing, a self-taught artist in a discipline that requires a precise knowledge of a science: in this case, botany. She was brought up, as she told me a few years ago, “in a curious old age” with a “mother who hated school and wouldn’t let any of her girls go to school.” She was taught by an “indifferent governess” until she was 14, and had no further education after that. Yet, she had an analytical and curious mind, consuming books and — as a teenager — keeping an illustrated wildlife diary.
Her mother named her Wendy Felicité after a favourite cocker spaniel and a French rose. She was gracious about the quirky origins of her name, and believed that it shaped her career as a painter of animals and plants. In the 1930s, she undertook commissions to paint dogs. She rode horses and hunted, and enjoyed herself immensely. “The 1930s were blissful times, no money, but lots of fun!”
During the Second World War she worked as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), a voluntary field nurse, and met a man whose horsemanship made him stand out from the many other officers. She married John Walsh in 1941, following him from camp to camp — moving 13 times in a year — until he was shipped out with the Eighth Army to north Africa. His army work during and after the war saw him travel extensively, including to the United States, India, Japan and Singapore. Sometimes Wendy and the growing family (three children eventually) were in tow, sometimes not. She told me: “That’s what the army’s like. We were always being separated and starting again.”
Eventually they settled back in Ireland, in Lusk, while John worked as the agent for Trinity College in Dublin, managing the campus. In 1999, after 40 years in north county Dublin, they moved to the stable-yard of Burtown House in Athy, Co Kildare, the home of their daughter, Lesley Fennell, a portrait painter.
Throughout her life, Wendy drew and painted whenever she had time, and over the years completed hundreds of commissions. She won numerous awards, including gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society and the Alpine Garden Society. In 1996 Trinity College Dublin conferred an honorary DLitt on her, which, she said: “made me laugh, and delighted me so much. It struck me as funny that someone who had never been to school could call themselves doctor.”
Wendy worked on over a dozen books, almost all of which were close collaborations with Charles Nelson, the former taxonomist at the National Botanic Gardens. Their working relationship, he says, was “a very amicable partnership”.
She was a good teacher, too, and continued to take students into her nineties. One former student recalls how she gave careful attention to each class participant. When a piece was so wrong that it was impossible to correct, she would say kindly, but pointedly: “That is rather a mistake.”
Many of those in the newly formed Irish Society of Botanical Artists have been inspired by this talented, generous and modest woman. It is fitting that on the morning of the society’s foundation on March 1st, just two days before her death, she was nominated its first member.
Wendy Walsh: April 9th 1915 – March 3rd 2014
The Wild and Garden Plants of Ireland, paintings by Wendy F. Walsh, with text by E. Charles Nelson, was published by Thames & Hudson in 2009. All the 99 illustrations from the 2-volume Irish Florilegium are gathered into this book: a perfect introduction to the work of Wendy Walsh.
This blog post is an a version of my column, which appeared in the Sunday Times on March 16th 2014
February 13, 2014 § 25 Comments
Ask any gardener their favourite plant, and they pause . . . think . . . pause . . . and then come out with something indefinite or general. They like “what’s in flower now”, or “plants that do well in my soil”, or “old roses”. But, ask them what plants they hate, and there is no hesitation. They get right down to it, in detail and with enthusiasm. In other words, we gardeners are devoted to hating certain plants. So, in honour of St Valentine’s Day and its theme of love, I thought that it might be fun to consider plants that gardeners love to hate.
I was going to start with my own pet abominations, but I’ve found a man whose list of dislikes is one that I might have written myself, so I’ll let him speak for both of us. Andrew Wilson is the head of the judging panel for show gardens at Bloom, Ireland’s annual horticultural event in the Phoenix Park. Based in London, he is also a lecturer, designer and writer — and detester of variegated plants. They look ill, he says: “spattered, mottled or simply just a disgusting and fading yellow. I remember finding a golden-leaved Weigela tucked at the back of Denmans Garden in glorious pink flower, and wanting to vomit. I still use it in colour lectures to say ‘why would anyone do this?’ ”
Wilson also hates lilac and privet, and is not too keen on hybrid tea roses either. Photinia ‘Red Robin’, rhododendrons and Hydrangea macrophylla are also on his roster of disliked shrubs. Potential designers of show gardens at Bloom, take note.
Helen Dillon, whose patch in Ranelagh is one of the best town gardens in the world, can’t stand purple plum trees and Acer ‘Crimson King’.
“I particularly hate the purple plum,” she says. “I can see why people will fall for it. It looks pretty for a couple of weeks in early spring, with its pale-pink blossom. But when you get to August, it is positively vile: it gets darker and darker and darker. If you screw your eyes up, it looks black. Black and dead. A heavy, sulky, horrid thing.”
Acer ‘Crimson King’, a dark-leaved Norway maple, is even worse, she says, because of its larger leaves. “It is poisonous, because its does more killing, more shading out. It’s so unfair on its neighbours.”
Frances MacDonald of the Bay Garden, Camolin, Co Wexford, and garden tour manager for the Travel Department has a special hostility towards orchids. “Can’t bear them. Hate getting them. There is nothing worse than seeing them stringing along on a grey windowsill in Ireland. They should be seen in a jungle setting or, at a push, in Madeira or Jersey where they are properly displayed and impeccably grown.” MacDonald sits on many question-and-answer panels at garden shows, and nothing irritates her more than the inevitable: “I got a present of an orchid, and can you tell me how to make it flower again?” What she doesn’t reply, but would love to, is: “Why not just stick to the good old spider plant? It used to be good enough for us.”
In Dunmore East in Co Waterford, Michael Kelly, founder of GIY, an international movement of home growers, is at odds with the globe artichoke. “It’s very decorative, not a bad-looking piece of kit — but it contributes the least for the most space. You get all this palaver about growing it, and then at the end, you get this tiny disc of food after all the ridiculousness of peeling back those scaly things — are they petals? — and dipping them in butter, and pretending that they taste good. You know, everything tastes good if you dip it in butter. I’d much prefer to root it out and put sixty beetroot in the same space.”
Bedding begonias are top of Geoff Stebbings’s bugaboo list. The show judge and former editor of the British Garden Answers magazine is restoring a large garden in Co Wexford. “They do have lots of good points: they grow in shade, they flower for ever, they don’t get any pests or diseases. They tick lots of boxes, but they’re like a plant designed by committee. They are boring and completely without any characer. They’re like little blobs of colour. There is something about the smug, dumpiness of them.You almost feel like you want to stamp on them to put them out of their misery.”
I agree. I wouldn’t mind consigning them to the compost heap — along with most of the plants above. And, can we add those ghastly orange, pink, wine and lime-green heucheras to the pile, as well?
How about you? What plant do you love to hate?
A version of this blog post appeared in the Sunday Times.
August 27, 2013 § 2 Comments
We’re looking at a very strange tomato. Reassuringly, it is red, but after that it departs from the modern standards of tomatokind. It is rumpled and bloated, erupting disconcertingly into small, globular lobes. It reminds me of a virus enlarged under an electron microscope. Organic gardener, Nicky Kyle, says “It’s the most difficult tomato you could ever grow: it splits as soon as you look at it, it only produces one flush of fruit, and the plant looks as if it’s been sprayed with weedkiller, because it’s all twigs and no leaves!”
So why on earth is she growing it, and why am I carefully saving the seed from the unlovely individuals she gave me to bring home? Because, as she points out, when you taste it, “you forgive it everything”. It is sweet, full and ketchuppy — and early too. Those nearly leafless stems allow the sun to ripen the fruit much faster than other tomato varieties.
The tomato in question, ‘Latah’, is just one of over 100 cultivars that will be on show at the 2nd annual Totally Terrific Tomato Festival next Sunday at Rolestown Garden Centre, outside Swords. Nicky Kyle, an avid tomato grower for the last three-and-a-half decades, conceived the idea of the event, while Michael Connolly and his son, John, supply the venue. The festival, which attracted hundreds of visitors last year, is a celebration of all things tomato. There will be competitions for best quality, heaviest and ugliest tomatoes, best tomato-based recipe, best tomato grown by an under-12, and best vegetable basket. There will also be tomato-based foods, a farmers’ market, and other wholesome delights. Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens, will be talking tomatoes, as will Tanguy de Toulgoët of Dunmore Country School in Durrow, Co Laois.
Home-grown tomatoes, as well as being good to eat and not too difficult to grow, give an almost cartoon-like demonstration of genetic diversity. There are hundreds of varieties available to the home gardener, from the little red ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and orange ‘Sungold’ to the great beefy beefsteaks ‘Black from Tula’ and ‘White Queen’. There are tomatoes that look like other fruits: ‘Orange Banana’, ‘Yellow Pear’, ‘Persimmon’, ‘Orange Strawberry’, and ‘Yellow Currant’ and tomatoes that appear to be made of glossy mahogany (‘Cherokee Chocolate’) and polished, black ebony (‘Indigo Rose’). Tomatoes, in short, are some of the most intriguing and appealing fruits known to man. The fact, that they are fruits, but are often thought of as vegetables only adds to their fascination.
The most immediate reason to grow them, though, is flavour. Supermarket tomatoes are getting better all the time, but they still cannot compete with the sun-warmed explosion of squelchy deliciousness that is the just-picked tomato.
When I visit Rolestown Garden Centre to look at Michael’s twenty varieties of tom, coming along nicely in their pots, Nicky Kyle has brought a huge basket of her own, grown in her north county Dublin polytunnels, for us to try. We work our way through about a dozen kinds, but the more subtly-flavoured varieties are drowned out by the big guns such as ‘Black Sea Man’ — which is deep and resonant, like a good Chateauneuf de Pape. We have only water to cleanse our palates, and we should have had bread or cream crackers. Or, as Michael suggests: “You could do it like cheese, and have the mild ones first.”
Nonetheless, we have a whale of a time. The different colours, textures, smells and — of course — tastes are a treat to so many of the senses. These are tomatoes that you will never find for sale, except occasionally at gourmet shops and farmers’ markets. Factors such as their odd shapes, irregular sizes, soft skins and uncertain yields make them impractical for commercial growers and supply chains.
“Genetic diversity is being dangerously eroded all the time by industrial food production,” says Nicky. “It’s important to preserve old varieties and good new ones too, in case those genes are needed in future breeding programmes for some unknown pest or disease which may hit us with climate change or other threat.”
Tomatoes also have human stories attached. The heavy beefsteak ‘Mortgage Lifter’, for example, was bred by M.C. Byles in West Virginia in the 1930s. The proceeds from his sales of tomato plants paid off his $6,000 mortgage. ‘Amish Paste’, which makes ambrosial sauces, is an heirloom variety from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. Europe has its share of heritage toms too: with eastern countries being particularly fertile. ‘Black Krim’, ‘Black from Tula’ and (surprisingly), ‘Paul Robeson’ are all from Russia.
As Nicky Kyle says, growing your own tomatoes is “in some way preserving our social history too. In the past so many people took the trouble to save these old varieties and pass them down to us. I feel we owe it to them to keep them going.”
The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival: 11am–5pm is Sunday, September 1st at Rolestown Garden Centre, Swords, Co Dublin. Satnav: 53.48268, -6.29783
Let’s talk tomatoes
Nicky Kyle’s website is a generous compendium of information on organic growing. Her “Tomato Report 2012” includes a review of the best varieties for Irish home-growers.
Let’s go to Laois
Tanguy de Toulgoët’s half-day course on autumn in the garden takes place on September 28th at Dunmore Country School, just outside Durrow. Subjects include planning, compost, rose care and rotation. Eur 50. Booking essential. Tanguy also gives individual gardening lessons in your own garden. See dunmorecountryschool.ie for details.
An edited version of this blog entry appeared in my gardening column in The Sunday Times