Saturday, September 22, 2012

Is this a heirloom tomato record?

In her last blog post Marg made us aware of the Royal Botanical Gardens spring plant sale held today.  Last week it was also mentioned in the Mercury and earlier today it was again discussed in the Weekends with Chris Wisbey radio show.  Following all this publicity I expected a large crowd to turn up, but I could not stop myself from finding out more.

I arrived right on 10.  The end of the queue was not far from the gate and stretched all the way to the hothouse area adjacent to the Parliament House grounds.  It took 3/4 hour to get in the door of the hothouse where the main attraction of this sale was located.

By then I had passed the steam-driven merry-go-round entertaining children and their parents, a band, a sausage sizzle, an orchid sale, an extensive display of outdoor plants, many for sale, and someone handing out leaflets on how to grow tomatoes.  Not that you could browse for a plant to buy because the queue of thousands made it impossible to move, and anyone lucky enough to find a purchase, had a major challenge to get back to the entrance of the horticultural area to pay.

I was beginning to wonder whether this event, which is a fantastic fund raiser for Botanical Gardens activities, had grown beyond a manageable size, when my part of the queue finally reached the hothouse where the main reason for the sale took place.  I was immediately amazed and realised that all the queuing had been worth it.

Never before have I seen 157 varieties of heirloom tomatoes for sale in one place.  Every variety was described with an extensive information sign, including photo, cultivation notes, early / mid or late season, culinary uses and so on.  Most varieties had not run out by the time I got there (on the radio it was said there were 6000 seedlings - $4 per seedling) and the choice was amazing.

I bought six varieties of tomatoes, five of them early cropping: Oregon Spring, Sweet William, Olomovic, Early Pixie, Stupice and Paul Robeson (this last one is not an early variety).  I had never heard of any of these varieties before except Stupice (thanks Marg).  And that is the big attraction of this sale.  You see tomato varieties you will never ever see at any commercial outlet.  If you like any of these heirloom varieties, save the seed and you will be able to grow them yourself next season, whereas many commercially available varieties are hybrids and don't allow you to do this.

Did the Botanical Gardens establish a record here for having the highest number of heirloom tomato varieties at one event ever?  I wondered.  Even if you believe it is far too early to plant tomatoes outside (I do ), the sale is worth visiting just to see all these varieties.

Like Marg said before, do not think it is time to plant tomatoes in your garden.  Tomatoes like a soil temperature of 21 degrees or higher and, given this spring's unimpressive start, soil temperatures will probably be about half that if you are lucky.

A hothouse or cold frame or plastic sleeves are a must if you insist on having your tomatoes outside right now.  Indoors, out of the sun but in a nice light and warm spot, is really the best way to go until the end of October.  Tomatoes planted outside too early do often not recover once the weather gets warmer and lead to disappointing results.  I wish this sale was held mid October, but maybe that is impossible because of the temperatures in the hothouses at the gardens.

Sorry, but I don't have a photo of this wonderful heirloom tomato sale because I never expected it to be worth a blog post.  Next year I hope to be better prepared with a hothouse and cold frames in my garden, and I will have my camera with me when I go to this sale.

I like to end with a 'thank you' to all the volunteers and staff involved in this massive Botanical Gardens fundraising event.  You have a unique sale here worth queuing for!