We are now in High Summer in Melbourne. February brings warm weather, windy skies, very little rain but if we are lucky a glut of tomatoes for Valentine’s Day.
This week I am continuing my quest to find out how Australians gardened during the Victorian Era. Did we grow and eat tomatoes?
Turning to the esteemed Mrs Beeton it is clear that tomatoes were grown in Victorian England but were not as popular as she felt they should be.
Tomato, or Love Apple an admirable sauce by itself, it enters largely into a great number of our best and most wholesome sauces. It also may be cooked and brought to the table like other vegetables, in several different ways; or eaten raw cut into slices like cucumber, but much thicker, and dressed with salt and pepper, oil and vinegar in the same way. When prepared in this manner, as a salad, a few slices of onion will be found an improvement. Further, it is extremely palatable when eaten as a fruit, dipped in sugar. Those who have analysed its properties say that the tomato is singularly wholesome, and very useful, especially in cases of bad digestion; still, it is not appreciated or cultivated as it ought to be. Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management.
Inspired I prepared tomatoes with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper as Mrs B suggests. The tomatoes were still warm from the garden; served with crusty bread this simple salad suggestion was simply fabulous.
Mrs Beeton’s advice for growing tomatoes follows the steps that would be very familiar to any modern gardener. Tomato seeds are planted in late winter keeping the pots in a glasshouse or on the window sill in the sun. The seedlings are then planted out once the soil begins to warm up in spring in a hot and sunny spot in the garden.
In the reading that I have done so far one of the things that sings out loudly about Victorian Head Gardeners is how clever they were, if successful, at using and creating micro-climates within their gardens. If you have good soil and water in Melbourne it is easy to grow tomatoes. In colder British gardens large estates built walled gardens which allowed gardeners to take advantage of the reflected heat off the sun facing walls to grow crops such as tomatoes. It seems that really successful Head Gardeners needed to cultivate a strong connection to the seasons and the particular conditions and opportunities of their garden – I take my hat off to them!
The plants should be well watered with liquid manure to keep up a rapid growth. As soon as the blossom buds appear, watering should cease. Stop shoots by nipping off the tops, and throw out all those sprays that show little signs of fruit, exposing the young fruit as much as possible to the sun and air, only watering to prevent check in case of very severe drought, of which the state of the plant will be the best index. Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management
When I first learnt about growing tomatoes from my Father nipping or pinching out the lateral tomato shoots was still the preferred practice. It means that the tomato plant can grow neatly straight up a tall stake. The theory behind this practice was that you would get fewer but larger tomatoes than a bush that was allowed to sprawl unchecked. The Victorians were very interested in precision and efficiency and their estate gardens needed to be as beautiful and orderly as they were productive. I can see that neat stakes of tomatoes would appeal to their aesthetic tastes. Interestingly research by the Digger’s Club shows that un-pruned tomato plants produce more (and a greater weight) of tomatoes than their pinched out cousins.
So did Australians grow tomatoes during the Victorian Era and what other vegetables were grown in colonial Melbourne gardens? In order to answer this question I visited the library of the National Herbarium of Victoria which has a small collection of seed catalogues from the mid 1800s. I have a thing for seed catalogues I love reading them so this was a great treat.
The selection of vegetable seeds available in each catalogue was surprising small and didn’t list varieties. There were artichoke, cabbage, carrot, turnip, onion and other basics but no tomatoes! In a present day Australian seed catalogue produced by Eden Seeds there are 162 varieties of tomato listed from Black Russians, Green Zebras to the delicious Tigerallas.
I’m finding it difficult to believe that this meagre list of seeds represents the only vegetables that were grown in the mid-1800s. It could be that settlers were still purchasing seeds from England. If they were free settlers rather than convicts it is very likely that they brought their favorite varieties with them on the voyage to Australia. I’m reading a really interesting book called Green Pens by Katie Holmes, Susan Martin and Kylie Mirmohamdi. In this book a reproduction of a letter from a land agent Henry Widowson in 1829 to prospective settlers of Tasmania encourages them to bring seeds “I should recommend every one to purchase a quantity of the best kinds of seed previous to leaving England.”
I’m still dipping in and out of Green Pens but it seems clear from the letters reproduced that settlers were sending seeds back home as they found native plants that they liked and requesting seeds in return from home. Plants, cuttings, seedlings and seed were also swapped between settlers as a means of making friends or establishing status. It isn’t difficult to imagine that creating a garden as a way of establishing a sense of home and belonging let alone growing food would have been a priority for settlers. Interestingly gardening seems to have become the province of women very early on in Australian settlement. It isn’t until the late Victorian / Edwardian era that gardening is exhorted as a suitable occupation for women in Britain.
While the seed catalogues in the Herbarium have very few vegetable seeds they are full to overflowing with fruit trees, roses, azaleas, fuchsias, geraniums and pelargoniums. Roses don’t seem to have ever gone out of fashion here in Melbourne; they are just as popular today as they were in the Victorian era.
Roses and Chocolate
On the weekend I visited Ballam Park Homestead a local property maintained for public display by a volunteer historical society. Ballam Park was built in 1855 and where I live now in suburban Melbourne was once a field in this 8000 acre estate.
The great thing about Ballam Park is that much of the 1855 ornamental garden, gravel paths and orchard are still intact. I took this photo standing in the recreated rose garden. To the left of the house is an Oak tree which would be one of the oldest oaks in Melbourne to the right is a Carob tree – the only Carob I’ve ever seen. The pods of this plant were used by the family who built this house to create a chocolate substitute – good to see they had their priorities straight – get settled grow chocolate!
The orchard follows the main road way to the house and was planted with apples, fig and olives. There isn’t any trace of a kitchen garden and the guide book to the house doesn’t talk about a location for a kitchen garden. Apparently the President of the society is a font of knowledge and I have been invited to call in again to talk to her at the tea-rooms now run next to the homestead. It maybe that the archive has records of the kitchen garden. So I will report back on our meeting.
Again not possible to take photos in the house. One of the interesting things about the house is that the dairy is attached directly to the kitchen with a stable door for bringing the cows into be milked. It looks a lot like a cow garage.
Ballam Park was in the middle of nowhere when it was first built and was accessed by boat across the bay from Melbourne and then a long walk along the beach, through swamp and then scrub. The house has a small lantern room at the front of the top storey of the house. It is believed that a whale oil lamp was hung in this top window, which faces the bay. This was to provide a guiding light at night to people trying to find the homestead. This seems a risky strategy during the days of bushrangers.
I still haven’t tracked down a copy of the Colonial Gardener but I have found that their is a copy on fiche at the Victorian State Library. Once we get some cool weather I will make time to visit the VSL and to sit and read it in the great Victorian domed reading room – sounds like fun.
A Button-hole for Valentine’s Day
I think the Victorian’s would approve of this button-hole with a dusky red rose for love on Valentine’s Day. This variety of rose is called Tradescant and is named for one of the most famous Head Gardeners of all time John Tradescant the Elder born in 1570. Not a Victorian obviously but his work was tremendously admired by Victorian Head Gardeners so it seems an appropriate choice. The rest of the button-hole is purple Plectranthus flowers called Mona-lisa (because the Mistress is a big fan of purple), Yellow Lomandra flowers a sweet scented Australian native plant and a Rose Geranium leaf. This button-hole has a very fragrant rose perfume. Happy Valentine’s Day for this coming 14th February 2010!