Archive for the ‘Tomatoes’ Category

Flood relief

Summer is the rainy season in Central Florida. Rain is frequent and heavy, and is often accompanied by gusty winds and lots of lightening. Anyone who has visited the region during the summer months can attest to the severity of our afternoon thunderstorms this time of year. They can also tell you how, once the storms clear out each evening, the sky will clear up again and we will have a warm and muggy, but otherwise pleasant evening.

This past week was different. One storm in particular had all the locals chattering on Facebook and comparing notes for several days afterward. Several things made this storm stand out. To begin with, it caught nearly everyone off guard by coming through the area at night. It also produced exceptionally heavy and frequent lightening. And thirdly, it dumped an incredible amount of water in a matter of just a few minutes. The rain gauge below shows what this storm dropped on my garden in under thirty minutes.


Under normal circumstances, if I have young plants out, I can see the storms coming well enough in advance to bring the plants in under a shelter. Not this time. My young seedlings caught the brunt of it. And by the time I was aware of the storm, there was far too much lightening for me to go outside safely. Thinking back on it afterward, I realized that I did hear the storm coming; however, since I live within earshot of the Magic Kingdom, I actually thought the thunder was just a somewhat louder than normal nightly fireworks display. Little did I know!

When I checked on the seedlings the next morning, the tray they were sitting in was filled to the rim, and it was obvious that the plants had taken a beating. I didn’t think to take a picture at the time, though. I just dumped the water, tidied up the plants and refilled their little peat pots with fresh Mel’s Mix.

Yesterday, we had yet another heavy storm. This one wasn’t quite so intense, but I did not see it coming, and once again my plants got hit pretty hard. Here’s what their tray looked like this morning. There was almost an inch in the rain gauge. As you can see, much of the soil was once again pounded out of the pots. Some of the pots themselves had even been ripped by the force of these storms!


Today, I provided them some relief. I repotted those in the worst shape, moving them to plastic pots, and placed the plastic pots in a tray with drainage. I am hoping that does the trick. While they are still vulnerable, I will try to pull them in out of harm’s way, but obviously I’m not always able to be there for them.


Here’s hoping they have seen the worst of it! In the meantime, happy gardening!

Awaiting Autumn

Florida gardeners look forward to fall with as much anticipation as gardeners farther north look forward to spring. With the exception of a few tropical species such as okra and cowpeas, not much grows in Florida gardens during the long, hot summer. By the time August rolls around, the limitations on what can be planted have begun to loosen up, and by September, we will be able to plant pretty much anything.

Although this region theoretically has a year-round growing season, fall is really the time of peak gardening. By way of comparison with northern gardens, August is akin to that period in late winter when the ground has thawed, but frosts are still frequent. September brings the first hint of cooler weather, with the kind of long warm days and mild nights that make garden vegetables thrive. One significant difference that remains, though, is that here the days start out long and then get shorter as the season comes to a close. Because of this, the growth slows down as the season progresses, rather than accelerate.

Against the backdrop of this calendar, I have spent these first few days of August clearing out old growth, preparing the ground where I have spaces available, tending to the young plants previously started, and planting more seeds. The first two pictures below show the oldest of my fall plants, an assortment of tomatoes and peppers as detailed in this post.

I would like to draw your attention to the two peppers on the far right of the tray in the foreground of the first picture below. Those are Black Hungarian peppers, which produce tasty, medium-to-hot peppers and can be used as ornamental plants. Notice the dark coloration? According to the description when I bought them, they are supposed to have deep purple veins and emerald green leaves. From what I’ve seen so far, it appears the reverse is true. Either way, as they mature, they should produce purple flowers, followed by pepper pods that start out green, turn solid black, and then ripen to red. This is my first time growing any, so I’m looking forward whatever colorful display they offer.


I’m somewhat concerned with the discoloration on several of the tomato plants. I have compared them with tomato disease pictures found in databases, and as best I can tell, these leaves do not match any of the leaves illustrating identified diseases. As such, I will not panic just yet. What I will do is trim them up and move them out of the screened enclosure to expose them to full strength sunlight on a full time basis. I will also be transplanting them to their permanent homes within the next couple weeks. I am hopeful that this will address the problem.


The next picture shows the second and third waves of tomato and pepper plants. The second wave is discussed in detail here, and the third in this post. Careful readers or keen observers might notice that there are a couple extra pots in the right-hand picture. Those are both a type of ornamental tree known as a Jerusalem Thorn. Only one of them has sprouted thus far, and it has been almost long enough to conclude that the second one failed to germinate. Needless to say, these are not intended for the vegetable garden!


The next picture marks this fall’s first departure from the Solenacea family, more commonly known as nightshade. The plants in this tray are members of the Brassicacea family, more commonly known as the cabbage family. In fact, they are all members of a single species, Brassica oleracea. This species has a surprisingly diverse array of cultivars, one of which is cabbage, and within those cultivars, one finds an assortment of varieties.

In is tray I have planted one variety each of two cultivars, neither of which happens to be cabbage. Instead, I have broccoli (the DiCiccio variety) and collard greens (the Georgia variety). The nine on the left are broccoli and the six on the right are collard greens. If you look closely, you will notice that they are indistinguishable from one another at this stage.


Last, but not least, I have planted a whole lot of herbs. Many of these will end up in containers that we keep within easy reach of the kitchen; others will find their way into the butterfly garden, either because of their nectar-producing flowers or their use as caterpillar food. Others still will be tucked away in various niches in the yard to add a particular ornamental characteristic or two, and some will be used as companion plants where beneficial relationships exist. Most of them are the types of herb commonly used in cooking, but some are used for other purposes. Here’s the full list:

  • Basil
  • Chives (Common)
  • Chives (Garlic)
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Fennel (Bronze)
  • Fennel (Florence)
  • German Chamomile
  • Hyssop
  • Marjoram
  • Mustard
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Rue
  • Sage
  • Summer Savory
  • Thyme


Odds and Ends

This past week was one of those weeks. I’m sure you’re familiar with the kind of week that happens now and then when some of life’s other priorities demand time and attention that you much would rather spend gardening. It was one of those. As such, my gardening activities dropped off to a minimum over the last few days. Fortunately, this weekend has provided the opportunity to finally get back into the garden, so I spent some time on odds and ends — literally.

But first, an update on the status of my fall garden starts …

The first wave tomatoes and peppers, detailed here, are doing quite nicely as you can see in the picture below. All of them are looking strong and healthy, with one exception. At the time I transplanted them recently, I noticed that one of the large red cherry tomato plants was nearly severed close to the base of the stem. I do not know how this happened. Because of this, I buried it pretty deeply when I transplanted it, so that the damaged part of the stem was below ground. It lay weakly on the soil at first, but now it is beginning to stand up on its own. I wouldn’t say it’s in the clear yet, but it does look promising. The rest are doing as I would expect at this stage. I’ve been taking them outside the screened enclosure for a few hours a day to help them get accustomed to the full, unfiltered sun.


My second wave plants, detailed here, are also coming along nicely. Nearly all of them have sprouted, as you can see below, so it’s about time to start putting them in more direct sunlight. Although the sun looks bright in this picture, the place where they’re sitting is shady most of the day. This picture was taken in the late afternoon, during a period of maybe half an hour a day when the sun shines on them directly.


The odds.

Now, on to the odds and ends, starting with the odds. In this week’s mail, I received my last set of tomato seeds (for now, anyway). I only got three varieties this time, but each one is a bit of an oddball. I planted two of each yesterday.

  • Carbon — Heirloom aficionados often rave about the taste of black tomatoes, yet many people have never heard of them and would very likely pass them up if offered. If you expect tomatoes to be red or if you tolerate the occasional well-maybe-okay-I-guess-so-yellow, then a black tomato will look just plain wrong to you. It will be largely red, but will also have dark splotches here and there on the surface and on the inside. To the aficionado, a black tomato represents the kind of rich, complex, subtle combinations of flavor you just can’t find in ordinary reds. By way of analogy, the black tomato is a bottle of red wine from the reserve list, whereas a red tomato is the house red. Grocery store tomatoes are more like a cheap white Zinfandel. The Carbon tomato, as the name suggests, is a black tomato that produces well, yields uniformly round, mid-sized fruits, and often wins taste awards. I have never grown a black tomato before, so I figured I would start with this one.
  • Kewalo — There is nothing odd looking about this tomato, which produces a medium sized, round, red fruit. What is unusual, though, is that it is one of the few open pollinated (i.e., non-hybrid) varieties developed specifically to do well in hot climates. Not only does it tolerate heat, it is resistant to several tomato diseases common to this area. It was developed at the University of Hawaii. I decided to try this one to see how well it does for me in Central Florida.
  • White Beauty — This tomato is probably the most unusual of the three. White tomatoes are fairly rare, and this one even more so. The White Beauty is said to be the whitest of the white tomatoes (which are typically more of an ivory color). White tomatoes are not well known for their taste, and this is no exception. They tend to be high in sugars and low in acid, giving them a sweet taste, quite unlike the taste we generally associate with tomatoes. I’m growing this one more out of curiosity than anything else.


The ends.

As for the “ends,” I started rooting the top ends of two edible bromeliads, more commonly known as pineapples. There is a vendor at our local farmers market who sells fresh pineapples. He cuts the top off with a knife and then uses a nifty little gadget to core and slice a whole pineapple with just a few twists of his wrist. I bought one yesterday morning and then asked him if I could have the top. He said, “Sure! How many would you like?” So, I took two.

From what I have read, it’s really easy to take a fresh top and turn it into a new plant. You place it in a pan of water about half way up to the bottom of the leaves, and you leave it there for three days. After that (whether you see roots or not) you plant it in good soil. It does the rest. It takes anywhere from 24 to 36 months to produce another pineapple, but in the meantime, you have a nice tropical plant. The picture below shows these two sitting in a tray lid with about an inch of water. Perhaps I should name them Mutt and Jeff. Better yet, maybe I’ll call them Odd and End.


Happy Gardening!

Impulse Gardening

Regular readers of this blog have undoubtedly discovered by now that I tend to be somewhat methodical when it comes to my garden. But that’s not always the case. Over the course of the last few days, I brought home a total of six plants (five different kinds) on occasions when I had gone out specifically to get something else.

On the first occasion, I had gone out to buy nursery pots so that I could transplant the first wave of fall plant starts, as detailed in the blog post, Seasons in the Sunshine State. Now, you would think that in a town the size of Orlando, there would be plenty of stores at which to buy plain old, ordinary, plastic, cheap plant pots. But, no. So far, I have found a grand total of one place where I can buy them. Had I planned ahead, I could have ordered some online, but I didn’t, so I made the trip across town to Urban Sunshine, a retailer that specializes in organics and hydroponics. It just so happens that they also carry nursery pots. The size I wanted was a whopping 50 cents apiece, so I was happy.

But, wouldn’t it be silly to drive all the way across town and come home with nothing but fifty-cent plastic pots? Of course it would. It would also be silly to pass up the gorgeous zucchini plants that were only $1.95 apiece, right? It would be even sillier, given that I had the organics experts right there to tell me how to address my squash vine borer problem! Right? I thought you’d agree. Never mind that at $9.95, the bottle of Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew with Spinosad, which is what they recommended, cost more than the zucchini plants and the pots put together.

So, I came home that day with two brand new zucchini plants, a bottle of organic insecticide, and of course, my nursery pots. I didn’t really have good places available in my garden for the zucchini, but I did have some unused 7-gallon containers, so that is where the new plants ended up. I didn’t think to take a picture of the zucchini up close, but you can see them in the picture below. They are in the second and fourth pots along the fence.


After making enough Mel’s Mix to fill the two 7-gallon containers and enough to fill 32 small pots, I realized I was getting low on vermiculite. Since I buy it in 4 cubit foot bags, such as the one Emma is inspecting below, I don’t have to buy it very often. Fortunately, I have found a local supplier who always seems to have that size bag in stock, and they sell it at a good price. Unfortunately, that supplier is the one I had just come from, Urban Sunshine. Alas, back I headed across town.


As expected, they had the 4 cubit foot bags in stock, so I got one. I was so pleased with the zucchini, I just had to look around again. What caught my eye was the cayenne pepper plant shown below. At only $1.95, I thought that was hard to beat. Before sundown, it was nestled into its new home in one of my raised beds.


This time, rather than plan a trip across town for just one thing, I decided to stop by Home Depot on my way home to get that other raised bed kit I’ve been thinking about. After finding exactly what I was looking for, I thought I would look at the tomato plants to see if they had any interesting heirlooms that I wasn’t already growing. Not only did they have 1-gallon pots of two different varieties that I was interested in, their 1-gallon plants were on sale at 3 for $10. So, I came home with two heirlooms and a hybrid developed specifically to perform well in the hot Florida summer. The heirlooms are a Mr. Stripey and a Yellow Pear. The hybrid is a Solar Fire.

I planted the heirlooms in my remaining two 7-gallon containers (first and third containers along the fence row above). The Solar Fire ended up in the raised bed near the Cayenne. Here’s a picture of the Mr. Stripey:


Here’s a picture of the Yellow Pear:

And here’s a close-up of the Yellow Pear’s tomatoes, already on the vine:


Happy gardening!

Sixty-Four Promises


This morning I planted the second wave of tomatoes and peppers for my fall garden. The first wave was planted in early June, and those plants have all been moved from their starter tray into medium-sized pots filled with nutritious Mel’s Mix. They’re spending all day in the filtered sunlight of our screened-in pool enclosure now. They’re still small enough to where I pull them in under a shelter if it looks like we’ll get a heavy downpour. Soon, I will start exposing them a few hours at a time to full-strength sunlight in the yard. Before you know it, they will be out there full time.


This morning’s planting is part of my continuing quest to find the best time of year to start fall plantings. As I reported previously, last year I started my tomatoes and peppers in early August, but didn’t see the first ripe fruits until New Year’s Day. Is it asking too much to harvest my fall garden during the fall?

Logic suggests that the first wave should be ready around the October/November timeframe, and that today’s plants should start to yield fruit in the November/December range. But then, I have been gardening long enough to know that gardens follow their own logic and do not always conform themselves to the human perspective. The bottom line is that these plants will be ready when they’re ready, assuming I do my part and Mother Nature doesn’t come up with any unwelcome surprises.

Today’s planting very nearly duplicates the first wave planting, as described in my earlier blog post, Seasons in the Sunshine State. In that wave, I planted two each of six varieties of pepper and 10 varieties of tomato, each of which is described in detail in that earlier post. Today I changed up the mixture a bit (three of some varieties, two of others, and some with only one), plus I added an eleventh tomato variety:

  • Virginia’s Yellow Tommy Toe — Although most written accounts credit their origin to the Ozarks, Tommy Toe tomatoes are frequently found growing as volunteers along the periphery or even outside of gardens throughout southern Appalachia. Given the patterns of human migration in recent centuries, I can’t help but give more credence to the oral history version that places the origin farther east. Unlike their more refined cherry and grape tomato cousins, Tommy Toes have not been selected for their sweetness. Instead, they tend to have more of the tangy flavor characteristic of full sized tomato varieties. They also tend to be disease resistant and to continue yielding fruit late into the fall, both of which are attractive qualities to me here in Central Florida. Tommy Toes are also commonly saved as heirlooms and passed down from one generation to the next. This particular variety is from Lee County, Virginia, which is the westernmost county in the state, bordering on both Kentucky and Tennessee where the three states meet at the Cumberland Gap. Although I don’t have any childhood memories of that region, many of my ancestors just a few generations back either lived in or near Lee County or passed through the region while migrating to Kentucky. I purchased these seeds from the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center.

The full list of varieties for today is as follows:

  • Peppers
    • Black Hungarian (2)
    • California Wonder Sweet (2)
    • Fish (2)
    • Jalapeño M (1)
    • Jalapeño Traveler (1)
    • Long Red Cayenne (1)
  • Tomatoes
    • Amish Paste (3)
    • Brandywine (1)
    • Brandywine Suddath’s Strain (1)
    • Cherokee Purple (3)
    • Large Red Cherry (2)
    • Lemon Drop (2)
    • Riesentraube (2)
    • Super Sioux 2011 (2)
    • Super Sioux 2012 (2)
    • Vinson Watts (2)
    • Virginia’s Tommy Toe (3)

Taken together, this adds up to 32 starter tray compartments. Each compartment holds the promise of a season’s worth of growth, leading to whatever yield is within that plant’s potential. In turn, as I dropped the seeds into each compartment, I made a promise to nurture the tender seedlings and to tend to the plants as best I can throughout their lives in my garden. This seasonal ritual represents an interspecies pact as old as civilization itself. Yet, for me it’s as fresh as this morning’s planting.

Happy gardening!


Tomatoes – Our Love-Hate Relationship

A few weeks ago, in my blog post called “There’s Something About Tomatoes,” I pondered what it is about tomatoes that attracts gardeners so much, while the commercial varieties seem to repel us almost universally. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who has been thinking about this.

Just last week, on the National Public Radio show, “All Things Considered,” journalist Dan Charles pondered the same topic. In case you missed it, here’s a link to the segment entitled “How The Taste of Tomatoes Went Bad (And Kept On Going).” If you are able to listen to the audio, it is well worth the five and half minutes it will take you. If not, you can read the transcript at the same link.

Interestingly, I have been reading a book on the same subject. The book, written by Arthur Allen, is entitled Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I’m not ready to post a review of it, but I’m curious: have any of you read it? If so, what were your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you!

Meanwhile, I have lots of beautiful tomato vines in my garden, but only two lonely fruits waiting to ripen. Although I hate to wish time away, I’m anxious for the hot days and warm, muggy nights of summer to fade into the past so I can get my fall garden in the ground with a whole assortment of heirloom varieties!

Seasons in the Sunshine State

The calendar still says “Spring” for a few more hours, but that hasn’t stopped me from starting my fall garden. In fact, I started it a couple weeks ago by planting some tomato seeds and pepper seeds in a starter tray. All of them have sprouted now, with the exception of one variety which I ordered later than the others and only planted this morning. Assuming they do well, the tomato and pepper section of my garden will resemble a sampler platter this fall; I have two plants each of ten tomato varieties and six pepper varieties, each of which has its own story. To be precise, I might only have nine varieties of tomatoes, in which case I will have four plants of one kind, as you will understand shortly.

I describe each of these varieties below, and indicate where I got each one. To assist any interested readers in obtaining the same varieties, where links are available, I link the respective organization names below to the pages where these seeds can be ordered.

Pepper Varieties:

    • Black Hungarian — I have not yet found a good source of history for this pepper, but I have found lots of descriptive information. It seems this variety is planted as much for its ornamental characteristics as for its flavor, which has a wide range of Scoville (hotness) ratings — anywhere from 2500 at the low end to about 50,000. The plant is supposed to be very pretty, with emerald leaves accented by purple veins. The flowers are a deep purple, and the peppers, which are shaped like a jalapeño, start out green, turn black, and then ripen to red. This is my first time growing this variety. I bought the seeds from
      Seed Savers Exchange.
    • Fish — This variety has a very interesting heritage involving fish houses, bee stings, and African American history. The fish pepper carries the same recessive gene that causes albinism in other species, and produces an assortment of red, white, and red and white striped pods. The seeds for this variety were donated to Seed Savers Exchange by William Woys Weaver, who got the seeds from his grandfather. His grandfather had received them from a black folk painter by the name of Horace Pippin. According to Mr. Pippin, these peppers were a secret heirloom variety used by the black caterers in Baltimore fish houses, where the white pods were used to make white paprika that went into cream sauces and soups. A good article by Mr. Weaver about the fish pepper can be found at this link in the Mother Earth News. This article also includes a recipe for White Hot Fish Pepper Salsa. I bought mine from Seed Savers Exchange.
    • Jalapeño M — Jalapeño peppers are well known and widely grown, though the history is somewhat obscure. They are a moderate to hot type of pepper, with Scoville ratings anywhere from 5,000 to about 30,000 units. The Jalapeño M variety is on the hotter side, and are often used in making nachos. I purchased mine from a farmers cooperative called Southern States.
    • Jalapeño Traveler’s Strain — This variety of jalapeño was donated to Seed Savers Exchange by an SSE member by the name of Larry Pierce. He called them a traveler’s strain because he carried the seeds with him on several moves around the country, including Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Missouri.
    • Long Red Cayenne — Cayenne is another well-known hot pepper. This variety has long, slender pods (about 5 inches long and a quarter inch across). Their Scoville rating is in the 30K to 50K range. I obtained these from Southern States.
    • Sweet California Wonder — This is a classic heirloom bell pepper, introduced in 1928. It can be eaten green or allowed to ripen to red. The peppers are typically 3 to 4 inches each. I also have some growing in my spring/summer garden; they are days away from being ready to pick. I purchased them from Burpee.


Tomato Varieties:

  • Amish Paste — This variety was first obtained from the Amish near Lancaster, Pennsylvania and was then commercialized by Tom Hauch. I obtained mine from Seed Savers Exchange. The fruits are good for eating or making sauce. The bright red fruits weigh in at 8 to 12 ounces and can be oxheart-shaped or more like a rounded plum. This tomato is included in Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.
  • Brandywine — Yet another Seed Savers Exchange purchase for me, this variety is the one that SSE calls a Brandywine or Red Brandywine. There seem to be as many varieties called Brandywine as there are purported histories. A common theme is that they came from the general region of Ohio or Pennsylvania. Regardless which might be the “real” Brandywine, the Brandywines are very popular and highly regarded for their flavor. This one, according to SSE, produces 1 pound red beefsteak fruits. I have some of these in my spring/summer garden as well.
  • Brandywine (Suddath’s Strain) — This strain, also from Seed Savers Exchange, produces 1 to 2 pound pink beefsteaks. According to SSE, this variety was grown for over 100 years as a Brandywine by a family named Suddath, hence the name. This variety is currently growing in my spring/summer garden and is also included in the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.
  • Cherokee Purple — This variety has only been available to the general public for about twenty years, but it has quickly gained in popularity because of its exceptional taste. It is believed to have been grown by the Cherokee people over a hundred years ago. The fruits average about a pound and have the typical shape of a beefsteak. Their color pattern sets them apart; they have red skin with green shoulders and a deep purple hue to the meat. When sliced, the purple is emphasized by the green gel that usually surrounds the seeds. I bought mine from the Victory Seed Company.
  • Large Red Cherry — The name pretty much says it all. This is an old variety that produces a prolific harvest of red fruits measuring 1-1/2 to 2 inches each. I obtained mine as a “thank you” gift from Seed Savers Exchange when I became a member of the organization.
  • Lemon Drop — This variety was discovered by J. T. Sessions of Florida, when he found it growing among a crop of white cherry plants. It produces a lot of 1/2 to 3/4 inch translucent yellow-green tomatoes, and is said to keep producing even in cold, wet weather. It won the 2010 SSE Tomato Tasting award. I obtained mine from Seed Savers Exchange.
  • Riesentraube — The name of this German variety translates roughly as “giant bunches of grapes.” The fruits are red and about an inch each. I have some of these growing in my spring/summer garden as well. As with many others, I got them from Seed Savers Exchange.
  • Super Sioux — The Sioux tomato was released by the University of Nebraska in 1944. The Super Sioux was developed from that strain to increase the size of the fruits and to improve disease resistance. It is known for its ability to produce in a wide range of weather conditions, including hot and dry weather. Once it starts producing, it continues until the first frost. This was my best producer last season. The fruits were red and very tasty, although highly variable in size. I obtained these seeds by saving the seeds from some tomatoes grown by my stepson in Tallahassee, who was growing this variety exclusively last summer.
  • Super Sioux 2012 — Because I had such a good harvest last season, I decided to save some of the seeds from that harvest. However, since I did not take any precautions to isolate them from the other two varieties I grew at that time, I cannot be sure that the seeds are pure until I see how they produce. For ow, I’m referring to these seeds as Super Sioux 2012, just to keep them apart from the previous year’s seeds, which I know to be true representatives of that variety.
  • Vinson Watts — The last variety in this alphabetical list was also the last variety that I planted for this round, but is at the top of my “I can hardly wait” list. Vinson Watts, an Associate Dean at Berea College, was known to his friends and neighbors as the “Mater Man” because of his expertise and tirelessness at growing tomatoes. In 1956, his supervisor at Berea gave him some tomato seeds from some stock originally from Lee County, Virginia, the westernmost county in Virginia, wedged in between Kentucky and Tennessee. For the next 52 years, Watts selected the best tomatoes from this strain and saved the seeds. Over the years, a new variety emerged, which now bears his name. In 2007, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for Sustainable Agriculture from the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, also of Berea. He passed away in 2008. The seeds I have are from a special order stock available from the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center. These seeds are from plants grown from original seeds grown and gathered by Mr. Watts himself before his death.
    Note: for those who are interested, this is the same organization from which I bought my Nickell Beans, as discussed in my recent blog posting, Carrying Moonbeans Home in a Jar.

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, I am still learning how best to garden in Zone 9. I find it quite remarkable how little information there is regarding when to start fall plantings in this region. Last year I started my tomatoes and peppers the first week of August and found that to be somewhat late. My first tomatoes ripened around New Year’s Day, and my peppers did not make it at all. If we had had an early frost, I probably would not have gotten tomatoes either. On the other hand, we enjoyed a steady supply of tomatoes well into spring. For this year, my reasoning is that an early June start should yield tomatoes in the October/November timeframe.

Here’s hoping!20120620-090111.jpg

There’s something about tomatoes

I‘m sure it’s safe to say that no one has ever mistaken a tomato for Cameron Diaz. Nevertheless, it seems that gardeners are drawn to tomatoes the way all the male characters in the movie were drawn to Mary when Ms. Diaz starred in the title role. So, what is it about tomatoes, anyway?

Perhaps it’s the endless selection of tomato varieties available to the home gardener. Just thumb through any seed catalog, and you’ll see an assortment of reds, pinks, oranges, yellows, greens, and purples, not to mention the multi-color varieties. You will also find varieties that produce fruits ranging from grape-sized to softball-sized, with everything in between, and you will see that they come in different shapes — round, oblong, squat, irregular, plum shaped, tear-drop, and so on. Or perhaps it’s the taste we all recognize, but that none of us can quite describe. What is it, after all, that makes one tomato taste more “tomatoey” than the next? Or perhaps it’s the way tomatoes from the garden always seem to have more of that whatever-it-is than tomatoes from the store. Or perhaps it’s the myriad ways they can be consumed. They can be eaten raw — as slices, wedges, or whole. They can be made into a salsa, a sauce, or a paste. They can be stewed, roasted, or sautéed. They can be put in a salad, on a salad, or under a salad, or they can even be the salad. They can also be a key ingredient in soup, chili, stew, gumbo, cioppino, paella, bread, bruschetta, sandwiches, pasta dishes, and of course, tomato aspic.

But what is it about tomatoes that compels us to grow them? They are not the most challenging plants to grow, but they’re not particularly easy, either. They can be killed by a light frost, and if it gets too hot, they quit producing. They don’t like to be overwatered, but don’t do well in a drought, either. They can also be heavy feeders, as long as you don’t over-fertilize them. On the other hand, they are relatively easy to start from seed. They also transplant rather easily. And for those of us who like to save seeds, that part is pretty easy, too. In fact, it is the ease of seed saving that has helped people develop so many varieties over the years.

Whatever it is about tomatoes, like so many other gardeners, I too, have been drawn to them. In my small patch of earth, I am currently growing six varieties. I also have three more varieties on hand as seeds, ready to grow when it comes time to start my fall garden. Here is what I have:

  • Red Beefsteak – this is a type of tomato that I remember from my childhood. It fairly reliably produces a steady stream of large, round, red fruit with a little bit of ribbing here and there to give them a slightly irregular shape. I bought one plant last summer at one of the big box store garden centers, transplanted it right away, and then nursed it all the way through the winter. I also have one of these that I started from a cutting a few weeks ago.
  • Super Sioux – this is a relatively new heirloom variety developed as a strain of Sioux tomatoes. It is a very prolific producer of red, round fruits, but they vary widely in size, ranging from cherry-sized up to about 3-1/2 inches across. My stepson has been growing these for a few years. Last year, he gave us some tomatoes from his garden, and I decided to save some of the seeds. I have several Super Sioux vines, all of which originated from those seeds. One of the plants survived the winter and is still producing.
  • Better Bush – this is the only hybrid I have, and I only have one specimen. I bought it when I bought the red beefsteak, largely because it is supposed to do okay in Florida’s hot weather. As with the two varieties above, the Better Bush that I have survived the winter. It has produced some fruits, but there’s really nothing remarkable about them. The taste is mediocre, and they’re of rather ordinary size and appearance. I am not trying to propagate it, and I won’t be getting another whenever this one dies off.
  • Brandywine, a.k.a. Red Brandywine – this is my first time growing the Brandywine, which is said to be one of the best tasting tomatoes around. The variety was commercialized in 1889 and was named for the Brandywine Creek in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The fruits are red and should average 8 to 12 ounces.
  • Brandywine (Suddath’s Strain), a.k.a. Pink Brandywine – another first for me, this variety was commercialized in 1980 after being grown by a family named Suddath for about 100 years. The fruits for this one are pink and weigh in at a hefty 2 pounds each.
  • Riesentraube – yet another first for me, this is a variety of grape tomatoes imported from Germany. In fact, the name translates as something like “giant bunches of grapes.” The variety was first introduced commercially in 1994.

For my fall garden, I will be adding three more new (to me) varieties for which I already have the seeds: Amish Paste, Large Red Cherry, and Lemon Drop. You can probably guess which one is yellow. Well, actually, it is described as “translucent yellow-green.” Well, enough about those; all I have so far are the seed packets.

I obtained the seeds for each of these new varieties (as well as the background information on each one) from a non-profit organization by the name of Seed Savers Exchange. This is a really great organization dedicated to preserving the genetic diversity of heirloom and open pollinated seeds. They are involved in seed production and sales, research, and education, and they coordinate a very large seed exchange network among members. At latest count, there are about 13,000 different varieties available through this network! As for the ones I obtained, they were purchased through their retail catalog, and all the seeds had good germination rates. Here’s hoping the plants produce just as well!