Wednesday, March 4, 2009

It's Tomato Time!

Spring is creeping in here, and tulips are pushing up through the soil. We have so far started 150 little tomatoes, hot peppers, and herb starts. Last year my dear old mother gave me a little grow light, and we rotate the flats through for 8 hours at a time. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

In 1863 seedsman Joseph Ellis Johnson offered more than a hundred varieties of seeds for sale to the Utah market. The same seeds were also sold in Denver as well, so the Utah market was not as isolated as one might think. On his seed list were a couple of varieties of tomatoes: the Fejee and the yellow pear. Johnson's tomato seeds were taken from Fejee and yellow pear tomatoes. They would grow Fejee and yellow pear tomatoes respectively.

Fearing Burr's Field & Garden Vegetables of America (1863) describes the Fejee tomato as follows: "Fruit quite large, red, often blushed or tinged with pinkish-crimson, flattened, sometimes ribbed, often smooth, well filled to the centre; flesh pink, or pale red, firm, and well flavored; plant hardy, healthy, and a strong grower."

We rely on this description because the Fejee tomato is believed to be extinct today. Most commercial tomato production (or most commercial agriculture in general) today relies on hybrid breeding. Where the old heirloom varieties produced plants and fruits which directly resembled the fruit from which the seeds were taken, today's hybrids are a crossing of two varieties. The crossing of these varieties produces seeds which will not reproduce a second time. The advantage for the grower is that the plants yield with greater abundance (known as hybrid vigor), but one crop is all the seed will produce. The same concept is illustrated in cross-bred pigs which grow bigger and faster than pure-bred pigs. Another familiar cross, donkeys with horses, produces mules: big and strong but usually sterile.

For you and me, the practical reality of all this is that as commercial markets move to hybrid varieties, older heirloom varieties go extinct. We no longer have access to many of the vegetables our ancestors ate, so we will never be able to recreate some of their foods. This is especially true of corn, wheat, apples, potatoes, tomatoes-- all the major food crops. Other crops which haven't found large scale commercial production still offer some of the older seeds.

The good news is that there is a growing body of gardeners (excuse the pun) dedicated to saving seeds from their crops, and sharing seeds with other gardeners. Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a non-profit organization, has helped gardeners connect to preserve older varieties for more than thirty years. With more than a million seed trades on record, we think that some varieties have been saved from extinction. SSE also offers organically-grown seeds of heirloom varieties for sale. You can order online or by telephone. Visit their site for more information.

Last year I grew the two varieties pictured here. The yellow pears were enormously prolific. It blew my mind how many of these little yellow gems we got. They were sweet! We ate them in salad after salad, and in fresh salsa. We got sick of them eventually. They were as prolific as zuchinni or summer squash. We didn't cage them at all, and the runners grew out 10 and 15 feet long, loaded with yellow 'maters.

The Sudduth's Brandywine was also incredible. Matching the Fejee in most respects, it was a delicious if somewhat thick-skinned tomato. They grew to enormous size, many close to two pounds. We didn't cage them either, so the extreme weight of the tomatoes weighed down the vines and we lost quite a few to rot from being on the ground. This year we're caging everything, and can't wait to eat our first fruits. The seeds have all sprouted, and it looks like we should be able to plant them out to the garden in early May.

I hope you all might post back to me with reports of how your heirloom gardens are coming along. I get so excited when I think I'm not alone in my insanity for old fashioned foods and flavors...


Cowboy Curtis said...

So glad you posted about Tomatoes. They are my favorite garden vegetable (actually fruit I guess) and it made me excited for summer. You'll have to get the fruit stand going and I'll come buy some.

I will also accept any tomatoes you grow sick of this year :)

Jane Ellis said...

Hi... do you let your tomato plants sprwal across the garden? What is your typical harvest per plant in growing this way, vs. staking them?

If you do stake, what do you use? I fell in love with The Tomato Stake last year... so easy, cheap, and better than cages or towers.

Good luck this year!

Brock said...

Last year I let them sprawl. This year I'm thinking perhaps a trellis. In the book, "Livingston and the Tomato" he shows some trellis designs that might be useful for row cropping, but the stake idea looks interesting too...

Mom said...

Thanks for the info. about heirloom tomatoes. I would really like to try growing some. Can I buy some starts from you?