By: PAUL McKAY
January may seem a little premature to be thinking about tomatoes, but here in the Algarve and other warm spots up and down the country, it is a good time to start off tomato seedlings.
A warm window ledge or outside under some plastic make an ideal spot to do this. One of my neighbours regularly squashes one of last year’s tomatoes into the ground at this time of year, covers it loosely with soil, lays a sheet of plastic over the top, weighed down with stones then hopes for the best. More often than not this produces a good crop of leggy plants ready for transplanting in March or April.
The shrewd gardener will repeat the above operation every two weeks or so, thereby ensuring at least one lot do well. Early sowing does depend upon the weather being compliant, but can reward you with an early crop. One year with well timed successive sowing, I was able to pick fresh tomatoes from May through to November. From March onwards growing tomatoes from seeds is virtually risk-free (forest fires/hurricanes notwithstanding).
• Plant seeds in moist, fertile soil under plastic anytime in January or February, from March onwards you do not need the plastic. Keep the soil moist, the seedlings should emerge within a couple of weeks.
• Open up the plastic during the daytime to avoid the seedlings damping off, but cover again at night.
• If the seeds emerge close together, thin out leaving about eight centimetres between plants.
• When the plants reach about 20cm, they are ready for transplanting. This transplanting should ideally be carried out on a warm, cloudy day and actually increases the vigour of the plant.
• Carefully dig the roots out and move them to a sunny site with rich fertile soil – the more fertile the soil the tastier the tomatoes. Plant them a little deeper than they were, each plant about 40cm from its neighbour. It is a good idea to stake the plants to prevent them from toppling over under the weight of the fruit.
• Keep the plants moist and within a month or so they will produce flowers that will, in turn produce tomatoes.
• Most varieties sold in Portugal are indeterminate varieties, producing tomatoes for a long period of time. Determinate varieties are usually more compact and produce fruit for a more limited period of time.
Tomato gluts are the stuff of summer. They can be eaten in salads, fried with bacon, made into sauces, soups, pickles or even jams. For me though, the best use of excess tomatoes is to sun-dry them.
Sun-dried tomatoes taste even tangier than fresh tomatoes and can be used throughout the winter in casseroles, stews and so on. They taste delicious in winter salads with beans or fresh cheeses.
To dry tomatoes, cut them thinly, lightly sprinkle with sea salt and lay out on a clean cloth on a very hot sunny day. Halfway through the day, turn them over. In midsummer the tomatoes will dry in one day. It is advisable to cover them with netting to keep insects off, however on very hot days insects don’t seem to be a problem.
Once they are dried, put them into a sterile jar and cover in olive oil. You may want to add some dried oregano to the oil. The tomatoes will store well through until next year’s fresh ones are ready to be harvested.
When you have used the tomatoes use the oil for cooking or on salads. It has the most delicious tangy flavour and gives food a beautiful rich red colour.
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