Home-groan Tomatoes: A Labour of Love

January 31, 2015

As a tomato grower, I’m a great root vegetable producer. More on that later.

I’d never bothered growing tomatoes, but after last year’s Sydney Tomato Festival I changed my mind. It was taste-testing the Russian Black Krim and other unusual varieties that got me interested.

I started small, buying three cherry tomato plants (Lady Bug or Sweet Bite?) as I’d heard they don’t attract as many pests or diseases as larger varieties.

I planted them in my mother’s garden bed and watched them grow. On recent visits two-three times per week, I’d touch the parched soil that had gone un-watered for days. “Have you been watering the tomatoes?” “Oh yes of course” she’d answer. Unconvinced, I’d give them a good soaking anyway. 

The first harvest produced seven tiny tomatoes – four with split skins. What could I do with them? Make a sauce for three strands of spaghetti? Chop them up for one small piece of bruschetta? Wizz them into a thimble-full of Bloody Mary?

red cherry tomatoes

I decided on a lunch salad, cutting them in half and dressing them with oil, vinegar, salt and basil and tumbling them into the smallest bowl available.

On the next visit, my mother had already picked seven tiny tomatoes – five with split skins. Just as well then, that I’d bought a punnet of bigger, more attractive-looking relatives that I added to the bowl to plump up the lunch.

I reflected on the growing regime: bringing them home from the markets, making space in the garden bed, preparing the soil, planting and then feeding, watering and staking them. And checking for pests. I calculated that each meal from the crop has cost about $95.

But all’s not lost. I found a recipe I’d archived from the Italian Notes site for pickled green tomatoes (pomodorini verdi sott’aceto). Picking them unripened solves the problem of eating ugly, split fruit with the seeds erupting from the flesh like unwanted intestines.

However, I think my future as a vegetable grower rests with the sweet potato. Not very Italian, I know, but we have a mystery plant that has grown on its own, without love, and produces a bumper crop of sweet potatoes each year. No work required. Last year’s harvest included a potato so big I had to share half with the neighbours. The other half went to a friend who made a sweet potato pie for a dinner party.

biggest sweet potato

I’m really quite happy to let other people be tomato growers. I think La Gina has the right idea.



  1. Yes let’s hear it for La Gina and The whistle Stop Cafe. Bernice

    Sent from my iPad


    • Ah yes, the Whistle Stop Cafe. Those green tomatoes were fried but. Always wanted to try and make them. Maybe one day.

  2. Ah, just as this post of yours arrived in my IN box, my man and I were discussing the 10cm tall Noosa Reds growing in a pot in the courtyard off the kitchen. Grown from seeds and nurtured, they looked to promise a magnificent (small) bounty of fruit. Sadly, the weather in the Berra has turned to almost Winter and I was just saying to Peter that we were going to have to finish them off indoors. To hear that you’d celebrated your harvest of seven made my heart sing.

    • Hope you have success with yours, Liz. To be fair, there are more tomatoes on the vine, but I think I’ll pick them while they’re green, as mentioned in the post.

  3. They split because not enough water and then too much water, try Thai Pink Egg,they dont split after heavy tropical downpour.

    • Ah, good to know. Thanks for the advice Kevin. Must be the 2-3 days of no watering that’s causing the problem. I’ll look out for your suggestion.

  4. Well, I certainly know how you feel — we no longer have space for our huge garden since we downsized. But we do plant herbs and tomatoes. We put our cherry tomatoes in two large pots on the patio. The four plants of larger tomatoes we put in a raised bed. Around the raised bed we had to buy netting because the deer are voracious. We live in the heart of town and we have herds of deer. Yep! I said herds. There are seven- male and female- who have no fear of humans and we can’t get rid of them. They just keep multiplying like rabbits. I suppose we spend more on growing them than buying but oh we do like our fried green tomatoes. Have you ever tried them? They are delicious!! When we get too many ripe ones I make salsa — Italian variety. The cherry tomatoes make excellent salsa too. Hope you have better luck next time.

    • Hey Marisa, I love the sound of deer attacking your tomatoes – so much more exciting than ordinary old snails or slugs. No, I’ve never tried fried green tomatoes, but am well overdue as I’ve wanted to try them since that film from about 20 years ago: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

  5. I am with you here Ambra. I will buy my tomatoes from the farmers’ market. they are so good and so much less work. I never had luck growing good tomatoes since I moved to the south – it the weather wasn’t a problem the caterpillars were.

    • Yes, let’s join the ‘too hard club’. Think I’ll put my energies into herbs or salads and chilies that are difficult to find at the markets.

  6. Feel so sorry for the folk not able to have luck with growing tomatoes, I’m overloaded with them busily making bottles of Relish and preserving for use later in the year.Trouble with insects?, then try using exclusion netting ,keeps everything out and you will never have to spray again .

    • Thanks again for the advice Kevin, I’ll certainly consider exclusion netting next time.

  7. In Puglia tomatoes grow like weeds, if they get enough water, but otherwise I’ve given up growing tomatoes for the very reasons you mention. I’m still happy to pickle the green ones, though, and appreciate you sharing the recipe:)

    • You lucky Puglian, you! Happy to share the recipe, glad I remembered I’d archived it.

  8. Hi Ambra, growing tomatoes is hard I agree! The curious thing is I also have a mystery plant that popped up in my vegie patch and turns out it is a sweet potato too!!
    Re: the tinned tomatoes – have you tried the San Marzano? They are purported to have aphrodisiac qualities!

    • That’s great Zoe. Our sweet potato plant is incredible: after it’s cropped, the leaves die back and the following year it happens all over again. Magic. Will check out the San Marzano toms – I’ve also started buying the ‘Mutti’ brand, and not sure what variety of toms they are. cheers

      • Love this post on tomatoes – and sweet potato. I planted one in my garden, and await its rampant growth to cover weeds etc, and hopefully yield a big spud like yours.

        Amber, I have a question I hope you might help me with please?
        In my draft novel set in 1961 with reference to an Italian family who came to Australia from Naples after WW II, I want the mother to create an ‘Australian Christmas dinner’ with additions by her own mother who lives with them – the family have a “farm” on a small piece of land in a country town (described in the published novel The Midnight Pianist).

        Please can you help with suggestions for a menu … I have thought of roast chicken (a fattened rooster or a couple of ducks?) and picciddati cake, perhaps struffoli too? But it doesn’t seem sufficient – the daughter is describing it in a letter, with a little bit on what’s in the cake, so it can’t be too long.

        Later for Easter I have nonna cook bocconotti biscuits – something else, and better? Again it’s in a letter. Also what is the name of a good meat pie for nonna to make, or is ‘meat pie’ sufficient?

        I do hope you can help … I have to get the details right, so no one jumps on me when its published!
        ciao ciao, Julia

  9. What is it about elderly mothers? Mine also tells porky-pies about watering the garder (amongst other things). Reminds me – I have to lend you my book Killer Tomatoes – Fifteen Tough Film Dames.

    • Oooh yes, I’d love the Killer Tomatoes book. I expect she’s not in it, but I’ll always Ms Monroe being referred to as “the tomayto upstairs” by the bloke downstairs in ‘The Seven Year Itch”.

  10. Home-groan is the perfect title! I’d stick with sweet potatoes, too. So much vegetable for so little effort. But I did have a grape tomato seed itself between the stones of my patio that was loaded with tomatoes. It was a huge viney thing that took over and suffocated everything in my container garden but the tomatoes were mighty tasty.

    • I guess that’s the best kind of tomato plant: the mystery one. Sounds like it actually wanted to be there rather than having its presence imposed on it by you, the gardener! Thanks for dropping by.

  11. Apologies, Ambra, I addressed you as Amber … but we had talked about the novel Forever Amber, so it just slipped out of my head.

    • Hi Julia, no problems about the name mixup. Re your query about recipes, I’m probably not the best person to ask as Italian food varies considerably from region to region and I’m from the far north (near Venice). Probably best to speak to someone from Naples, you could contacting the Neapolitan Assoc. in Sydney, I’m sure they could help. Or the Italian Cultural Institute – they could point you in the right direction. Good luck!

      • Thank you Ambra, yes, it’s regional – and you have probably told me you’re from the north … I will follow your advice re contacts.

  12. Team thimble of bloody Mary! We are growing toms and carrots at the moment but it is so much blood, sweat and tears.

    • Yes, it really is a labour of love. Don’t know if I have THAT much love for home-grown cherry tomatoes though.

  13. Ciao Ambra, have just read your blog on cherry tomatoes and I’m so with you on it being a labour of love not made for me. And thanks for providing the calculation on the cost of each each one. Ouch!
    That said, as I contemplated my barren, unloved little patch this morning, I thought how nice it would be to grow something. Would never have thought of sweet potatoes, but why not? Where do I start?
    Also, got the book, ‘Why Can’t we Talk about Something more Pleasant?’. Not something I would have contemplated but fun and easy to read. Yes, a few laugh-out-loud bits. Grazie e in bocca al lupo.

    • Ciao Adriana. Re the sweet potato plant – mine appeared mysteriously, well, I certainly didn’t plant it. I suspect my mother chopped off an end and planted it a few years ago and forgot to tell me. Anyway, we get a lovely vine every year, late summer, and when the leaves dry out, it’s time to harvest the potatoes underground. I’ve also just read that you can eat/cook the vine’s leaves like spinach. Double whammy! So, try that method of sowing. Good luck. Glad you enjoyed the book. salve A

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