Totally Terrific Tomatoes

August 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

 Basket of tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

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.

Tomato 'Latah' © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Latah’   © Jane Powers

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.

Tomato 'Persimmon', grown by MIchael Connolly at Rolestown Garden Centre © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Persimmon’, grown by MIchael Connolly
© Jane Powers

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.

Tomato 'Black Sea Man', grown by Michael Connolly at Rolestown Garden Centre © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Black Sea Man’, grown by Michael Connolly
© Jane Powers

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.”

Heirloom tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

Heirloom tomatoes, grown by Nicky Kyle
© Jane Powers

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

Tomato 'Ananas Noire' grown by Nicky Kyle © Jane Powers

Tomato ‘Ananas Noire’ grown by Nicky Kyle
© Jane Powers

 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

Other People’s Gardens

September 27, 2010 § 6 Comments

In my last (and first) post here, I mentioned that I gardened, not for other people, but for myself and the various creatures that live outside the front and back doors. In just a few hundred words I managed to sound holier-than-thou in a lonesome communing-with-nature way, while also giving the impression that I am dismissive of those who garden for other people. What a great start to a blog.

The truth is that I am constantly and hugely grateful to gardeners who welcome other people onto their plots. They are benign and brave souls. It takes courage to open your garden to scrutiny — and to the inevitable criticism that pours merrily out of visitors’ mouths. Or is that just Irish visitors? Are garden visitors in other countries less bent on picking holes, and more interested in immersing themselves in the experience, and in trying to understand what the gardener is doing? (Having said that, there are a few owners who open their properties with the sole intention of securing tax relief, which is a little mean-spirited. But more on that another time.)

In the main, people who open their gardens are generous humans, giving freely of information, and often of plants or cuttings. Some of my favourite plants were gifts from other gardeners, or were purchases at their sales tables. These are often varieties that are not seen at garden centres, because they might be difficult to transport, or tricky to propagate on a commercial scale, or they may be ugly ducklings while in the pot (turning into beauteous swans only when they get into the ground). Or — best of all — they might be strains that are local to that particular garden or locale, carrying a unique and historic set of genes in their green fabric.

The Bay Garden, Camolin, Co Wexford: a lovely place to visit

For me, life would be flat without other people’s gardens. They are a place to meet other gardeners, to talk about plants and growing, to unwind, to be amazed, and to learn something new. I’m perennially curious, as are most gardeners. You can ask ten gardeners how they propagate penstemons, or whether they put dandelion roots in their compost, and you’ll get ten, opinionated answers. I find this exhilarating — which probably seems a bit sad to non-gardeners.

Ornamental potager at Ballymaloe Cookery School


At the end of August I visited Ballymaloe Cookery School gardens in east Cork, and Tanguy de Toulgoët’s Dunmore Country School garden in Durrow, Co Laois on the same day. Both gardens are doing the same thing: growing good food, using organic systems. But the methods are quite different. At Ballymaloe, for instance, seedlings are started in modules, under artificial lights; and in Tanguy’s Laois garden, seeds are germinated in seed beds in the polytunnel. At Ballymaloe there is an acre of greenhouses (lucky them!), and in Laois, an acre is the size of the entire garden. The greatest difference I noticed, however, was the climate. The two places are only 130km (80 miles) apart as the crow flies, yet it was like stepping from early autumn in Ballymaloe to mid-summer in Durrow. The first has a coastal temperate climate, whereas the second is much more continental.

Good things to eat in Tanguy de Toulgoët's garden

Our small island of Ireland has hundreds of gardens that are open to the public — where an overwhelming amount of growing goes on. When I’m not being lonely and mawkish in my own garden, I’m usually snooping around someone else’s.

SNAP DU JOUR

The garden photographer's job demands a certain amount of versatility

You should have been here last week

August 25, 2010 § 14 Comments

“You should have been here last week.”

If you’re a gardener, you’ve said this a hundred times to visitors, even though — after the twentieth time — you know how clichéed and ridiculous it sounds. When you’ve been saying it for a few years, you’ve got to the point where you’ve tried it out in so many modes, from self-deprecatory to funny-voice, that you’re right back to being sincere again. Because, really, the garden is always better in retrospect, or in the future.

Or rather, it is when you find yourself looking at it through other people’s eyes. All the holes in the planting, the weeds and the other horrors rise up and spoil the view. But the gratifying thing — in my patch, anyway — is that when the visitors leave, the garden settles down again and stops being inadequate. When there’s no-one around to judge, when it’s just me and the garden, I’m content. And I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are gardeners who garden so that other people can see their efforts, and there are those who don’t. I’m one of the latter: one of those who like their space best when there is no-one else in it. For us, tending a plot of ground is a solitary pastime.

Except that it is not. We are never alone in a garden. There are birds and bees, and sometimes butterflies, and other interesting things such as worms and woodlice. For me, these creatures are as important as the plants that grow here. I try to garden as much for them as I do to make a pretty picture or a productive patch for myself. The longer I garden, the more I feel that the space outside my door doesn’t really belong to me, but to the gazillion other beings that inhabit it. I know that I’m the one in charge, but if the garden were the territory of only me and the other people who live in this house, it would be a pretty dull place. If there were no opportunistic robin following me around, or no surprise frogs in the long grass, or no fat worms pulling the mulch underground, I wouldn’t have half as good a time out here.

It’s not that I don’t like visitors: I do, but they sometimes make me feel a little on edge and over-protective of my garden. And I start babbling the “you should have been here last week” excuse. But, to tell the truth, I’m quite glad that they weren’t.

SNAP DU JOUR

He-She lives here too (they’re hermaphrodites, you know)

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