Let the trumpets sound! It is the beginning of the cycle that will end in November (for us)- the sprouting of the nightshades. Yes, some of my favorite vegetables are cousins to the elegant Deadly Nightshade: Atropa Belladonna (Atropos is the third Fate; the crone that snips the thread of life, and Belladonna means pretty lady), one of many bad girls in the Solanaceae family. Tobacco, tomatoes, granadilla, chilies, ashwaghanda, potatoes, petunias- life as we know it would stop without them.
Peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants don’t cross-pollinate too easily because they have such short little flowers that self-pollinate right away. At least that’s what it looks like to me, since I have been saving seeds from these plants for years and they seem to come true (replicate their parent). I file my seeds according to groups, and right now I’m about to take out the tomato file. Therein lie all the little packets of tomato seeds I fill during the summer. Time to choose.
I love trying different types of tomatoes, and I am cheap and believe in sustainability so I sprout my own. It’s easy. I’ll write about that next. But here is a link to an Amazon search that looked fun: tomato seeds. Basically, in choosing I want early tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, paste tomatoes, -and exotic tomatoes that are just too cool not to grow. And of course I will try at least one new one. I personally choose indeterminate tomatoes, which means they just go on producing dribs and drabs of fruit until frost kills them, because that suits how I live, but you might want to consider determinate tomatoes, which produce all at once, if you do big batch canning and don’t have time to do smaller batches more frequently. I grow about 65 plants, and sell my extras at the farmer’s market if they are presentable. I have a ton of room. If I could only plant 5 plants I would choose differently.
For early tomatoes: well, Early Girl, the non-hybrid, is a classic. That would be one of my five because she starts early and keeps on producing all season. But lets try a new one. The Early Clear Pink in the link looked nice and only 58 days. Check out Baker Creek Seeds– my favorite bedtime reading! And cherry tomatoes are early. I love Sweet Million, pictured here, for its graceful strings of super sweet fruit. That would be one of my five as well. You can train it up and up. Visitors to my garden need something to snack on, there’s a bowl on the kitchen table, and I split them in the salad. It’s very rangy so give it space. If you really want feral tomatoes, try wild currant tomatoes. They are pearl-sized cute little wild things from Mexico and they volunteer. I have grown them in hanging baskets. Chocolate cherries were a bit if a yawn. Jelly Beans are so fun to dry for snacks. Isis Candy was pretty- a cool little star on each fruit. Sweet 100 is a good producer, but the flavor isn’t as intense as Sweet Million. This picture is from Country Gardens Farm. Everybody has to have one Yellow Pear. My grandmother used to make jam out of them. That is a distinctive looking plant- small, tough foliage.
Beefsteak tomatoes: The big Brandywines are a Pennsylvania Dutch heirloom everybody loves. They are my superstars- later in the season but worth the wait. Yellow Platfoot Strain BW is a monstrous dark green giant. I think that’s a hot contender for one of my five. They say that good-tasting tomatoes have a lower fruit:leaf area ratio, but with these guys, not so much. Lurking under the large, deep green, potato-like leaves (Most Brandywines have the distinctive “potato leaf”) hang the huge, glowing yellow tomatoes. You have to try this. One fully ripe Yellow Brandywine (Southern Exposure picture) can make a salad, and it is deep, sweet. apricot yellow, with a complex, meaty physical structure that you can slice into cubes if you want to. That with a chiffonade of fresh basil, a pinch of salt, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, is all I crave. Maybe a sliver of red onion, for color.…
But let me compose myself and continue. The Pink Brandywine is not the fine red color you were thinking of, but it is truly a delicious tomato. There is a Red Brandywine as well, and a very prolific variation without potato leaves. Delicious is the Guinness world record tomato- seven pounds, I understand. I grew it a few times. It is a nice flavored tomato, with good acid, and somewhat pleated in shape. But one you shouldn’t miss is Black Krim, another best pick for me. Krim as in Crimean- it is a Russian tomato. Last year I planted them in a ton of manure right by the water hose, and they outdid themselves. I always thought of them as a medium to large black tomato with a fabulous, complex flavor. Last year they were as big as the Brandywines, and they are more disease resistant. By black, of course, I mean a reddish brown that is darker on top. It has crimson streaks inside it which are very pretty on a sandwich or in a salad. My favorite is to pan sear fat slices with sliced elephant garlic, olive oil, and a garnish of basil. High heat and quick, and then slide it onto the plate, or onto some toast. Slurp.
I also tried something I thought was called Martina last year. It was a big pale yellow with a pink sunburst surprise when you cut it. The sizes varied a lot. I’ll grow it again from the seeds I saved next to one from the packet somebody sent me.
Now, paste, the tomato of pizzas. What you see for sale in the store is a Roma or Roma type, and likely a hybrid. Roma is what you call a determinate tomato, because it fruits prodigiously all at the same time. This makes sense for processing, because you get a ton of fruit, process it, and you’re done. Then you can rip out the plant and go on with your life. I suppose I could put some in between the Brandywines and the cherry tomatoes, and make space for the rambling giants when the determinates are done. Gardening is about experimentation. But no, I don’t do Romas. We can do better. For canning I like Opalka, a huge, dry, oblong red paste tomato, indeterminate, with a pointy tip and a tiny, dry seed cavity. That is one good producer. It starts out looking wimpy, because it has wispy looking foliage, but it keeps on trucking until hard freeze. The foliage gets really thick and you have to dig for the fruit, but it is dry and slow to rot. Definitely feed it well or you will get blossom end rot, which looks like they sat end-down on hot iron. I put Epsom Salts in when I transplanted them and that seemed to work well, one tablespoon worked in when I transplant. There was a little Italian paste I grew last year as well which is supposed to be great for sun-dried tomatoes. But I really didn’t do much with it.
Now for the coolicious category. Tomatoes come in every category of color. Great White is a white beefsteak. It ripens to ivory and tastes very sub acid and sweet. I can’t grow them; Maryland’s critters eat them before I can pick a ripe one. I once saw a picture of spinach fettucine with white tomato sauce. Great idea, but it looked kind of nasty. Green Zebra is a must. It is a nice healthy medium green on green striped tomato which ripens to green stripes on yellow when very ripe. It has a nice citrussy twang and I got a lot of flack last year for making green zebra sorbet. And you can’t beat it in a salad. Brown Boar is a brown, green and red variation, and Beauty King is a yellow and green on red striped tomato that is just so flashy you have to try it. This is a localharvest.org pic that doesn’t really show the green. Lemon Boy is a medium sized, dependable yellow tomato with sweet white flesh that I haven’t grown in a few years. It is pretty but not as zippy as I like. Persimmon is a yummy medium orange similar to Amana Orange, which I grow for my mother, who can’t take the more acid tomatoes. Amana is really a pretty tomato, medium to large and deep orange. Costoluto Genovese is a really neat-looking tomato, distinctively pleated or ruffled and flat. You can get a few horizontal slices out of it which look really nice on a plate or a bruschetta. Black Prince is a tender Russian plum, on a short, bushy but thin stemmed plant, bearing heavily with smoky bronze tomatoes. My father said they looked and tasted rotten, but I thought they had an interesting and delicious flavor, kind of earthy. Tomato Growers Supply, an excellent supplier with a huge online catalog, sells a variegated tomato. The foliage is actually green and white. It is a small plant and small, square fruits which aren’t very interesting. It’s very decorative though, for edible landscaping.
But when you get right down to it, you want tomatoes that will produce and taste good. Here’s the final word in tomatoes: Peron. If that was all I could grow, I’d pick this tomato. Dave’s Garden called it the “sprayless” tomato, although his forum gave it mixed reviews. But I’m saying what I have experienced for the past 4 years I’ve grown this and saved seed. It’s a medium sized, smooth, round, red Argentinian tomato that tolerates hot dry gardens, cold greenhouses, and Maryland’s pest and fungus-friendly climate. The bit about the cold greenhouse may be apocryphal, but I think the tomato that lived in my unheated greenhouse through 2 mild winters was a Peron. Seed cavity is average, flavor is definite tomato. As far as I’m concerned, Peron is the Toyota Corolla of tomatoes. Maybe even a Camry. Give it a test drive.