Time to plant seeds: Choosing Tomatoes

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. sweet million tomatoI 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.yellow brandywine

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.

Beauty KingNow 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.

PeronBut 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.

Seed catalogs and watermelon dreams

Ok, the holiday season is DONE! But wait, I get a quick gripe in before we get down to business.

Winter is for reflection, for going deep. The surface is dead, and we move slowly, thinking of the roots of things. The Miles River is crystal clear; crabs are sleeping under the mud. Winter is for sorting and repairing; preparing for the rush of spring. Stack the washed planting pots according to size, throw out broken ones, tighten handles, sharpen blades. Prune now, reflecting on the perfect shape of the tree, the rose, the grape. Think about your life and your people. Think about your God.

Blam! No, you have to think about reassuring everyone that they are on your holiday list. Making presents, buying things, wrapping, mailing, giving parties, going to parties. Who has time to go deep?

Look, my tradition is Christmas, which is a pagan holiday dressed in Christian clothing to entice the heathen. My ancestors burned a yule log in the cold winter dark in faith that the sun would finally return. They decked the halls with evergreens to remind themselves that spring would eventually come, for some of them. It had nothing to do with Christ. Matter of fact, it can actually become Antichristmas, with the hideous commercialism today.

Well, things are what you make of them- the Devil can quote scripture to his purpose, and we can create moments of love and reverence in our families, even on a pagan feast day. But keep Christ close.

OK, I feel better. So now, whether you are buying seeds or not, is a great time to relax with a seed catalog. Everybody who ever bought a seed gets Gurney’s, Burpee’s, Henry Fields’, Park’s, etc. Then perhaps also White Flower Farm, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seeds of Change, Seed Savers Exchange,  Southern Exposure, etc. It blurs. Oh, I have my favorites- the wonderful Baker Creek Seeds, my pen pal Richo Cech’s Horizon Herb Farm. His daughters illustrate the catalog with line drawings and cartoons, and he peppers it with anecdotes and medicinal information. Great read.

But I feel bad about all the catalogs that get printed for me, to the extent that I sometimes take the time to ask them to stop sending catalogs I never buy from. And I buy less and less, as I save more and more. The internet is a smorgasbord of delightful, clickable seed catalogs. Tomato Grower’s Supply stocks a fantastic array of tomato and pepper seeds. Why even read a paper catalog? Save a tree! But it is delicious, lying comfortably on a sofa by the wood stove  imagining the idealized version of my garden, the delicious fruits and vegetables, the happy eaters all around. Go ahead, savor it. Fall asleep with  a seed catalog on your chest.

Well, ok now. Unfortunately most of those nice little catalogs have been bought up by one big evil company. Yup, Monsanto. I smell brimstone, as Chavez would say….( If you want some comprehensive information about Monsanto and its quest to own all the seeds, Organic Seed Alliance is a good place to start, thanks to my noble colleague John Navazio, breeder of the famous Purple Dragon carrot.) Seed catalogs are educational though. After a while you will recognize the old varieties, like Detroit Red beets, Silver Queen corn, Danvers Half-long carrots, Cherry Belle radishes, Wando peas, Roma tomatoes; open-pollinated varieties that haven’t been genetically modified, hybridized, etc. These can be bought cheaply everywhere and if you like them in most cases you can save seed from them without too much trouble. Hybrids are fine- often quite vigorous and productive, and a good choice for a beginning. Buying seeds from catalogs is fun, convenient, and allows you to experiment with which varieties you want to grow. It can bring great diversity into your seed collection. (Oh brother, you should see mine…)  It’s just that if you want to be self-sufficient, you will want to save seeds that will come true (reproduce the same plant) from your garden every year. This has the added bonus that your plants will adapt to your particular garden over the years, and you will have a larger number of seeds to trade or share. (We will discuss seed saving this summer.) There are great varieties you can try that great gardeners have been saving for hundreds of years just because they are delicious, hardy, productive, or even just odd. That’s the fuss about heirlooms. Take Yellow Brandywine; a huge Pennsylvania Dutch yellow heirloom tomato grown sparingly on a giant plant with potato-like leaves; a big blob of glowing yellow play-doh in the dark green forest. One huge tomato makes a salad; the seed cavities are small, and the color is more orangey inside, so that the bowl lights up with the firm orange-yellow pieces that have a sort of apricot/tomato sweetness. Not too acid, but never bland. I drool as I write. One fat slice with onion and basil, a drizzle of olive oil, a scratch of salt and pepper…Bob’s Big Boy Hybrid just can’t compete. Sorry.

What varieties should you set your heart on? Depends on where you live, what your garden is like, what you want to eat and whether you will can. What is your zone? Most catalogs explain zones. I am lucky to be in zone 7 because so much grows here, but then, so do weeds and bugs. Every zone has its ups and downs. It’s a great idea to contact your agricultural cooperative extension to get a list of varieties that grow well in your area. I have found a lot of information on the internet about frost dates and germination times as well. Some varieties need a longer growing season than I have, like my Peruvian Aji Rojo, which just means red spicy pepper. Such a cute little pepper, about the size of a sparrow’s beak, but powerful! I got it from a friend in Yarinacocha. The parent plant was 4 years old. If I plant them in February I am lucky to get a ripe pepper by November. Luckily I have a greenhouse, albeit wood heated. I have trouble with plants that grow well in cooler areas. Celery, for example. My garden gets hot and it is hard to keep the constant moisture celery likes. Broccoli does best in the fall for me, because in spring if the row covers aren’t perfect the heads are full of green caterpillars. In fall it’s the timing. I have to bring the seedlings to the garden after the harlequin beetles are gone, but I have to protect them from the heat as well, and since I have to seed them in August this can be tricky. But I really love broccoli, so I finally figured out that all I have to do is get about 8 good plants in the greenhouse and we will eat sweet green sideshoots of broccoli all winter and into early spring, lightly steamed and kissed with butter, as long as I keep them picked so they don’t go to flowering.

But there are some plants that just rock some years and other years you just have to be philosophical. For example, watermelon is a Kalahari plant, brought to this country by enslaved Africans. When my mother and I were in Botswana, I found a small, wild, watermelon-looking plant. The River bushman guide told me it was a Tsamma melon. These melons are not sweet but are full of water. In the rainy season, the rains pour down onto the Kalahari desert, which is a big sand deposit blown in from the Indian Ocean. The watermelons sprout and flourish. Then the rains stop, the water soaks away through the sand, and the place dries up to a crisp. But the bushmen know that if the rains were good, they can still cross the desert, because the Tsamma melons are out there, vines and leaves dried to dust, but fruits still full of water.  Our other guide told us he and his friends had found a domestic watermelon in the bushveldt, which is where the elephants hang out. Apparently an elephant had raided a village garden, and the seeds in his dung had grown happily in the peri-Kalahari bushveldt. So, why include this story? When our summers behave normally- wet spring, dry July and August, my heirloom Moon and Stars vines keep our refrigerators full to bursting with their cold, sweet, delicious, oddly speckled watermelons. Last year we had a dry spring and a wet August, and Moon and Stars petered out as the vines fell to a fungal blight. Orangeglo, which I was just trying for the first time, gave me 3 small deformed melons- so delicious I may try them again.

Yes, watermelon dreams are perfect for January.