Posts Tagged ‘heirlooms’

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!

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!

Memories and Aspirations

20120510-013140.jpgMy earliest gardening memories are from about the age of four or five, following my grandfather around his backyard garden in the Bluegrass region of Central Kentucky. He would always grow a wide assortment of vegetables, almost all of which were heirlooms, most of which were quite common, more than a few not so well known. He always seemed to know what to plant, when to plant it, and where to plant it to get the best combination of water, sunshine, and synergy from other varieties planted nearby.

From whenever the ground would first thaw in the spring until a heavy frost would take down the last of the crops as winter moved in, he would work his garden day after day, bringing in all sorts of delicious delights that would make their way to the dinner table. I remember radishes, beets, and peas always being first in the ground and first on the table. Potatoes would be planted about the same time, but wouldn’t be harvested until much later. By midsummer, we would have tomatoes galore, corn and green beans every day, yellow squash running out our ears, and more okra than anyone could ever eat. Each fall, one of the last of the foods to be brought in was an enormous type of winter squash called a cushaw.

Granddaddy wasn’t just a vegetable gardener. I remember him having several ornamental plants as well as blooming perennials in various places around the yard, and I vividly recall the bright colors that would adorn his bed of annual flowers each spring and well into the summer. I can call to mind the texture and scent of a fresh mint sprig as it slipped into a glass of iced tea, and if I close my eyes, I can still feel the peach fuzz on my tongue and the peach juice dripping down my chin on a hot summer day. He could name every butterfly that wandered by and every weed that sprang up. He knew which insects would help him out and which would cause harm. He grew worms in a chest in his basement. He made bird houses by hand, and kept bird baths and bird feeders around, fully stocked and ready for the next wave of avian visitors. He would announce with uncanny accuracy when the hummingbirds would show up to feed on the nectar from his four o’clocks.

My grandfather has been gone for more than a quarter century now, and I have grandchildren of my own. I took up gardening again a little over a year ago. In that time, I have had a few gardening successes, and quite a few failures. What I wouldn’t give now to be able to roll back the clock long enough to reclaim some of the wealth of knowledge that he so willingly tried to impart to me! And oh, how I wish I had some seeds that he passed down!!

Instead, I’m left with a few imperfect fragments of memory, some pointers he gave me to help with my own gardens decades ago, and the boundless set of resources now available literally at my fingertips. To complicate matters, I now live in Central Florida, yet my gardening memories are from Kentucky. Though much is the same, even more is different. The seasons are completely different. The pests are different. The soil is different. Some things grow here that could never grow there, and others from my past stand little chance of making it here. I could go on. Suffice it to say, I’m learning, and will probably be in learning mode for some time yet to come.

With this blog, I hope to share my gardening adventures with you. I look forward to sharing what I have learned, to celebrating the excitement of each new harvest, and to learning whatever lessons my garden decides to dish out for me. This blog itself is a salad. I don’t have a recipe for it, but I do have a vision. In my mind’s eye, it is chock full of fresh ideas, with an assortment of tastes, colors, and textures. It is light, but filling, and very nutritious, with no two bites the same. There’s more than enough to go around, so pull up a chair and join me!