Almost tomatoes…tree tomatoes, husk tomatoes and golden berries
Sep 17, 2021
We can grow these too. They are almost as easy as cherry tomatoes, and a great deal easier than large tomatoes. These edibles are uncommon in the sense that we likely won’t be familiar with them via the supermarket. They each grow with ease and abundance and are worth getting to know.
All are in the Solanaceae family, along with tomato, eggplant, potato, capsicum, chilli and tobacco. This is important to know as all in this family share the same diseases and pests. For example, if you’ve had a problem with a tomato viruses in a spot in your garden, don’t try planting any of the rest of the solanaceae family in that spot for a few seasons as they are likely to succumb to the same bacteria.
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Tamarillo / Tree tomato
Well, did this turn out to be a sleeping favourite! When I asked in the local FB gardening groups about people’s experiences growing tamarillo, the response took me by surprise. So much fondness!
Tamarillo is a short and short lived tree who abundantly creates egg sized and shaped ‘tree tomatoes’ throughout the year in this climate, around 20-30kg of fruit per year! This plant is fast growing, easy to grow and look after, is considered to be quite pest resistant, and will fruit so prolifically over years that the branches may break from so much fruit. The fruit is tasty and versatile, does not ripen all at once on the tree, can be picked under ripe and will ripen off the tree, and the fruit will keep for ages. Such a terrific little tree!
This gem of a plant will only live for between three and ten years before dying off suddenly. Although Wikipedia says it lives for 12 years, the age it dies varies wildly, even within the Bellinger valley area, suggesting microclimate and care and luck are large factors. Peak fruit production is around 3-4 years of age. Commercially it is finished at 8 years, max. Once established it requires almost no work, just harvesting, and a feed of rotted manure at least once a year. Commercially they are fed 3 times a year with NPK 17-17-17. Although it often takes two years until first fruit, that can be much quicker under ideal conditions, as quick as 8 months. Once the tree begins making fruit, it’s a good idea to take cuttings or sow seeds for it’s replacement to have a continuous supply of tamarillo trees. Sometimes they only last 3 years and have taken 2 years to bear fruit….
The fruit comes in yellow, orange and red varieties, with some differences in flavour. It is possible, but not confirmed, that the red ones are less prone to fruit fly. There are currently no named cultivars (selectively bred varieties). People tend to prefer the flavour of one colour over another which can range from sweeter through to sharper / more acidic than tomato,. The flesh of a tamarillo is firmer than tomato. Tamarillos can be picked ripe or as soon as they develop some colour as they will ripen with ethylene (bananas). They will keep for up to 10 weeks in the fridge. Don’t eat the skin, just because it’s a bit tough and the flavour is … unpleasant. The insides are easy to scoop out of the skin for fresh eating. Or for cooking, the whole fruit can be blanched in boiled water for a few minutes and when slit, the skin will slide off. Be warned the seeds can be super hard, so don’t chomp down on them or you may have the situation of Tamarillo 1: Tooth 0.
Tamarillo can be used as a tomato substitute, fresh or cooked. It’s a different fruit so it’s not a perfect replacement, but it can be quite tangy good. Use it fresh in green or fruit salads. It makes great chutneys or puddings. It’s lovely eaten straight off the tree, warmed by the sun. Unlike tomato, tamarillo goes well with icecream! Tamarillo’s only failure is as a dehydrated fruit. Not recommended, apparently.
The tamarillo tree is small and beautiful. A lovely shape, naturally about three metres tall (up to 5m) with slightly furry and huge heart shaped leaves with an unfortunate smell. It is a VERY good idea to stake the tree. They do not cope with wind at all and will fall over. There were so many stories about mature trees being knocked over by strong wind! They also tend to lean under the weight of all their fruit. It’s a good idea to make harvesting easier by ‘topping’ the tree (chopping off it’s head) at around 1.5m so it stops growing upwards and instead starts growing outwards. Otherwise you often need a ladder as the tamarillos are juuust out of reach. The tree naturally starts sending out lateral branches at about 1.8 – 2m, which is just a bit too high.
Pruning ‘after fruiting’ is recommended. In areas with more distinct seasons tamarillo will fruit over winter, and pruning is recommended when fruiting has finished ie in spring. I couldn’t find any specific recommendation for pruning in climates where tamarillo continuously fruits, like here, aside from the generic spring recommendation when most new growth happens. Fruit is created on new growth. Pruning encourages more new growth. Remove old or dead wood and previously fruited branches. Branches that have already fruited will create smaller fruits next time. Pruning will result in shorter branches which is a good thing as tamarillo’s older branches are weaker. Older, weaker, long branches laden with fruit tend to break. You don’t have to prune, it just helps avoid this and gives you more fruit.
This is a self pollinated plant. Only one plant is required. A bit of assistance from insects or wind is needed though. Fruit take 3-4 months to grow from pollination.
Plant seeds or take cuttings in the warm, frost free season. Plants grown from seed tend to grow one tall straight stem to about 2m, then send out laterals. These are the ones that most need to be topped. Plants from cuttings tend to grow as a bush and need their lower branches cut off so the fruit and branches don’t hang on the ground. These ones should not be allowed to fruit in their first year. Grafted tamarillo tend to be hardier and more productive! I can barely believe that’s possible. I didn’t manage to discover what rootstock they are grafted onto.
To grow from seed, you can try what they do in Brazil and put cleaned seeds in the freezer for 24 hours. A short cold snap apparently helps them germinate quicker. The ideal soil temperature for germination is 24 – 29°C. Plant seedlings out at at least 5 – 7cm high if there is no danger of frost while they mature. Otherwise, keep them protected until they are about a metre tall. They grow about a metre in their first year.
To grow from cuttings, the best cuttings are either from basal or aerial shoots (waterspouts), or from 1 – 2-year-old wood 1 – 2.5cm thick and 45-75 cm long; the leaves are removed and the base cut square below a node. They can be planted directly in the field or in pots.
Frost will kill a young tamarillo. Once established, they can cope with a hard frost. Leaves and some branches will die off but the plant will reshoot.
Plant your tamarillo out in any soil with excellent drainage. They have a zero tolerance policy to wet feet and will simply die if waterlogged for just a few days. They will thrive best in loose fertile soil, but I have one doing just fine in hard clay on a slope in the chicken pen. Soils can have a pH of 5 to 8.5. Multiple trees need to be spaced about 3m apart.
Lots of sun is tamarillo’s preference, with a bit of protection from our intense afternoon summer sun appreciated. They will grow in semi shade though they will not fruit as prolifically and will lean desperately toward the sun.
Tamarillo are noted for their unusually shallow root system which has some important implications:
They need to be staked as they tend to develop quite a lean and can be knocked over by wind.
Do not contemplate planting in a windy spot.
They do not like competition. Without deep roots to feed from, other plants growing around their base in their feeding zone can out compete and kill them off. Mulch and weed.
They have no drought tolerance. Regular watering is necessary to keep them alive. Mulch also helps keep moisture in the soil around their roots.
Tomatillo / Mexican husk tomato
Also in the tomato family, but hardier and less prone to diseases than tomatoes. This is another edible that can be used similarly to tomatoes. It is famous as the main ingredient in authentic salsa verde. Although I did not manage to find anyone growing this locally, it grows as a weed in SE Queensland and all along eastern NSW in amongst warm season cultivated crops. So it should grow here and is probably worth a quick mention given the food resilience context.
Tomatillo grows as a 1m high and wide bush. The fruits are usually green but can be yellow or even purple and are encased in a papery covering that looks a lot like a chinese lantern. The fruits can be 2 – 10cm wide, depending on the growing conditions and variety. As a weed this plant is listed as only half a metre tall, so a bit of TLC obviously helps it along. People who have grown it (in other locations) remarked how prolificly it fruited.
Like tamarillos above, tomatillo can be used as a fruit or a vegetable. Eat it fresh, roast the fruits to have with icecream. Make cake, or soup or salsa. Add them to curries and casseroles.
Tomatillos are ready to pick when the fruit almost fills the paper lantern or starts to split this. Ripe fruits will pull easily from the plant. Once the papery husks are removed and the skins are washed of their bitter stickyness, the tomatillos do not need to be peeled or seeded to be used.
This is a frost-sensitive, warm season crop, with very similar growing requirements to tomato except that you will need at least 2 so they can cross pollinate. 5 is said to be better. Plant and stake as a large bush tomato. Good drainage (raised mound), compost, mulch, and regular watering are key. Established tomatillos are drought tolerant. They take 1 – 2 weeks to germinate and need the temperature to be 20 to 27°C. The plants grow best at 25 to 32°C. High temperatures and humidity cause the pollen to stick to the side of the flower, lowering pollination and therefore how much fruit you will get. They are unlikely to love the high heat and humidity of our summer. Florida growers give them a bit of cover or shade, again as recommended for tomato. It’s probably best to grow them for spring / early summer or late summer / autumn harvest.
Below 16°C, plant growth is very poor. For this reason, they are usually grown as an annual even though they are actually a perennial plant. Depending on the variety, plants will fruit in 60 to 85 days, a bit quicker than tomato.
Cape gooseberry / Golden berry
With a long reputation of being very easy to grow and quite tasty, it’s a little surprising these aren’t more common and popular. They are grown commercially in some countries. I’ve seen this fruiting wild in the bush above Hill St in Bellingen, so it definitely grows just fine here. It’s also popped up in my chicken pen from unknown sources, probably of the wild winged variety. Like many plants great for food resilience it is weedy, but in this case, not in a dominant way.
Treat these as a fruit as they are nicely sweet. They are delicious fresh or dried and they make a jam that is said to be terrific! As a fruit they keep for some time. Like tomatillo, cape gooseberry is encased inside a paper lantern that dries from green to whitish brown when ready to eat. The fruit are yellow-orange and about the size of a cherry tomato.
The plant is a big bush up to 1m high by 1.5m wide. It’s actually a short lived perennial of 3-4 years that should be cut back hard at the end of the fruiting season, before winter, and it will reshoot in spring if it is located in a spot protected from hard frosts (-2°C). Once established it can cope with light frost. Or, commonly, it is grown as an annual. From seed is best though it will grow from cuttings. Follow the timing for growing tomatoes. They’re in the same family. Sow in late winter/early spring in places with frost. On the seaboard, in frost free places, you should be able to grow these all year round and it’s possible they fruit better over the cooler months. They are self pollinating.
Full sun, any well drained soil, a bit of water especially when it’s hot, some light mulch to cover the shallow feeding roots, and very little fertiliser. That’s all cape gooseberry needs. Drainage is essential. Even a moderate amount of fertiliser results in lots of leaves instead of fruit and lots of fertiliser actually results in the fruit not ripening! This plant will go dormant to survive drought, so keep giving it water when the weather gets hot and dry to keep it actively growing and creating fruit. Cape gooseberry tolerate a pH range from 4.5 to 8.2 and is not a fan of strong wind.
Big thanks to everyone who contributed their experiences especially:
Cath Eaglesham, Ian Thomas (The Gourmet Garden School) and John Vernon.
And also, in no particular order: Donnella Bryce, Tim Hill, Lori Wilson, Alison Pope, Jeff Holmes, Adrian Betts, Beth Edwards, Adam Jones, Julie Hutchinson, Katie Crane, Pete Bufo, Bruce Naylor, Alicia Ballard, Corinne Sanford, Joel Orchard, Carla Allen, Rachel Gray, Arne Nelson, Shekhinah Morgan.
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
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