When we sat down to work out what we were going to grow at Chantilly Farm, why did we choose to grow tomatoes? We had heard that the owners from 20 years ago had had great success with growing tomatoes. We couldn’t ignore that, so we went with what worked.
And let’s be honest, we knew we would enjoy picking them. Watching the little green gems turn to red jewels is magical and sharing that is even better. Children come to Chantilly farm to pick their own tomatoes straight from the vine. Filling their paper brown bag and eating them as they drive away.
The important principles we stick to in growing tomatoes are ‘no spray’ and the old-school tradition of letting fruit self-ripen on the vine. Whenever I’m in the tomato vines, I always imagine myself alongside traditional European tomato growers wishing I knew their secrets.
I want to share with you some of our secrets. How do we manage to grow our beautiful, juicy, flavoursome red tomatoes? Firstly, it’s not one magic secret; we do lots of little things during the growing period. But two of the most important and simplest things to remember are soil building and water.
Before we even thought about getting tomatoes into the soil, we had to feed the nutrients into the soil. Poo! Lots of poo! Turning it through, letting it ferment while doing its magic for the soil. We also chose to plant in places that were originally home to discarded old lettuce (piled 1 meter high) and food scraps. Once turned back into the soil, this provided a great natural fertiliser.
One of the easiest, yet most forgotten or overdone thing you can do when growing tomatoes is overwatering. Too little results in small fruit lacking in flavour. Too much, and your beautiful juicy tomatoes will start splitting. Trust me, you can basically love your tomatoes to death with overwatering. People can get extremely excited when fruit appears and think the plants need watering every day. Unfortunately, this normally results in fruit splitting on the vine or in your hand as you pick it. At Chantilly farm, we try and water every second day. This lets the plants dry out and helps to prevent root rot.
Beyond these basics, one of the most important strategies we use is companion planting. It’s basically growing plants that benefit each other together. Between each tomato plant, we plant a basil herb and between every five (six was too many, four was not enough) we plant marigolds. These companion plants deter pests from our tomatoes, giving them the time they need to grow delicious fruit.
As the plants become bigger, we have tried many ways to tie up, string up and stake out tomatoes. After many failures, the most successful way we have discovered here at Chantilly Farm is to string up our tomatoes. It’s as simple as it sounds; we use string (hot pink brickies string to be exact) tied from the roof, down to the plant. As the plant grows we gently wrap the string around the plant, encouraging the two main stems to grow. Gently!
At 1m, we start the electrolysing - the fancy word to describe taking leaves off the plant’s stems. This provides great airflow and also allows the plant to focus on growing fruit, worrying less about diverting energy into growing additional leaves.
And our favourite family meal with tomatoes as the hero? While I’d love to leave you with an amazing recipe here, the reality is that although we have approximately 1500 tomato plants at Chantilly Farm, I don’t think a single tomato has made it up to the house yet. With six kids who pick tomatoes straight from the vine, it’s more a case of Paddock to mouth than Paddock To Plate.