By SHELLEY TOPP
When Angela Clifford insisted on giving me four rare heritage tomato plants last spring, I asked her not to.
Angela is chief executive of Eat New Zealand and is also a Waipara food grower, farmer, wine company director, and wild food forager.
She was looking to find someone to establish what she called Cheviot field tomatoes, in Rangiora.
I assured her I was not that person, for although there are many green thumbs in my family, I am not among them. My record for tomato-growing is abysmal.
However, she insisted I take the plants and, despite looking close to death at times, after overheating in their pots in our conservatory, they survived my neglect and remain covered in fruit and flowers even now, at the end of the tomato season.
I am now hoping to take seeds from some of the best remaining tomatoes to establish plants of my own – some to keep and some to give away to extend the line as Angela intended.
Angela was given her plants by former South Australian Michael Voumard, owner of the Little Owl Biodynamic Farm at Gore Bay, near Cheviot.
Michael came by his plants when he was establishing his garden at the farm a few months after arriving in New Zealand in 2011.
Three locals each gave him two plants, all labelled SA Dwarf
This tomato plant variety is also sometimes referred to as a bush tomato. It needs a lot of water and is not ideally suited to growing in pots.
Michael thought it was a lovely coincidence that he had been given plants with a South Australia name to establish his first garden in New Zealand, and was curious to know how the SA Dwarftomatoes became established in the Cheviot area.
He now understands that the three people who gave him the plants, whose names he has forgotten, had a connection to a commercial tomato farm that used to exist in the area up until late last century.
That farm was Jed Vale which was bought by Edmund Wilkinson during the early 1900s.
His grand-daughter, Judy Grigor, known as “the tomato lady” in the Cheviot area, still lives on half of the property.
She says her grandfather was a lecturer at Lincoln College, as it was then known, and had an orchard in Heathcote Valley, Christchurch, before moving to Jed Vale and establishing a market garden there.
“I am not sure whether he brought those tomatoes with him from Heathcote Valley to Jed Vale,” she says.
She suspects it was her father, Edmund Athelstane, who started the South Australian dwarf tomato story in the Cheviot area.
He began running the farm as a young teen when his father died of influenza in 1915.
“He grew those tomatoes, which are a dwarf bush but grow large fruit. It was very suitable for outdoor growing because you didn’t need to stake them and they were good in windy conditions,” she says.
“He imported the seed from Australia for a number of years and then I don’t know what happened, but Australia lost the seed. They were no longer available so he started saving seed,” she says.
“For about 50 years he saved seed every summer and taught my sister and I how to do that.”
Eventually, at the age of 75, Edmund retired from market gardening but he and his daughters kept saving the SA Dwarf tomato seeds.
“I grow about 30 tomato plants each year just to give me a broad spectrum of choice for saving seed,” Judy says.