Friday, March 27, 2009
The Poetics of Heirloom Tomatoes
Now that I’ve put my winter quarter grades to bed, I finally had a chance this week to start my tomatoes, a week or two later than I’d prefer. I grow them from seed for two reasons. You can’t get most of these varieties from nurseries, and I am just endlessly fascinated by seeds. (In theory, I might also save money by starting my own, but I sort of doubt it, since I’m too obsessed with variety.)
Most of the ‘maters I grow are heirlooms, meaning they’re older varieties that will breed true without any human intervention. If I were more dedicated, and better organized, I could save the seeds, but I’m not, so I don’t. I do grow a couple of hybrids: Sweet Million cherries, Brandy Boy (which combines the flavor of Brandywine with much higher yields, but is annoyingly available only through the Burpee catalog. And of course – Sungold cherry tomatoes.
The names of tomatoes are ripe with color and flavor. I’ve got a whole series of purples: Pruden’s Purple. Marizol Purple. Eva Purple Ball. Purple Price. Cherokee Purple. They’re more pink than purple, except for Cherokee Purple, which is actually closer to the blacks, but I love the very idea of purple. I will say that the pictures of Purple Price look close to a real purple, but I managed to kill it last year in the Great Overfertilizing Disaster, so I can’t confirm its color.
I fell in love with black tomatoes last year: Black Cherry (which grows huge but wasn’t especially prolific, Chocolate Cherry (new this year), Black Krim, Carbon, and Black from Tula. They taste dusky and rich. Carbon was great for me last summer, which smacks mildly of irony, since I live at the edge of a dying coal region.
The tomato my family nearly fought over last year was Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomato. No corn flakes involved: it’s a big, juicy orange guy. I’m also planting a couple of bicolors, Big Rainbow and Isis Candy (cherry); they’re prettier than what the Tiger renamed “the Breskit Tomato” but not as flavorful. For the first time, I’m trying a bicolor version of Mortgage Lifter, so named because its original developer apparently got himself out of debt thanks to the variety’s huge fruit and prolific yield.
For some reason, tomatoes – like ships – are more likely to get feminine than masculine names. I’m planting Kimberly, Snow White, Marianna’s Peace, Aunt Gertie’s Gold, and the aforementioned Eva Purple Ball, but only two with dudely names, Andrew Rahart’s Jumbo Red and Matt’s Wild Cherry.
Then there are the names that are all over the map. Bulgarian #7 (no word on the whereabouts of 1 through 6), Galina’s (a tart yellow cherry from Siberia), Azoychka (a medium-sized yellow, also from Russia), Caspian Pink, Stupice (from then-Czechoslovakia), Nepal (from the Himalayas), and Stump of the World. I guess the Stump is where you land after all that traveling. Oh, and there’s Giant Belgium, which is apparently from … Ohio.
To round it off, I started Brandywine, Boxcar Willie, Great White, and Sioux. And did I mention Sungolds?
I do not have space for all these plants. I'll no doubt crowd too many too close, like I do every year. Today I finally finished what ought to have been the fall cleanup (and was grateful to finish the job without fatigue sideswiping me). All those dead vines reminded me that fungal disease is my enemy, air circulation is my friend. By the time I plant this year's babies out in six weeks or so, I will have forgotten that lesson.
I've still got oodles of seeds, so if you want some, let me know in comments! I would seriously send them to you. (You'd need to email me your address.) Or just show up in Athens around Mother's Day, when you'll find me disoriented, circling my garden, desperately plotting a way to squeeze in just one more plant.