Friday, March 27, 2009

The Poetics of Heirloom Tomatoes

My Sungolds, August 2008.

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.


Carla said...

Do you have or have you ever heard of Granny Cantrell's German Red? I tasted some at an heirloom tomato-tasting event here called Tomatopalooza. And I met a guy who knew her son. They were from Kentucky. I wrote to the woman, Lettie Cantrell, who was in her late eighties, and she sent me some of her seeds. She died a few months later.

I still have a few of the seeds that MAY be viable if you'd like to try them. I gave up on the big maters and stick with the cherries/grapes now. Granny Cantrell is similar to a German Johnson.

Carla said...

correction: I just looked back at my notes. Mrs. Cantrell was 96 when I interviewed her. It was 2005.

ThePoliticalCat said...

Oh, my! I'm shamelessly jealous. If I could plant, I'd ask for seeds, but we're a bit wobbly on the old shanks yet, so if you'll save some for next year ...

I shouldn't whine. We're putting in ours tomorrow, that is to say the SigOt is putting in and I am glowering jealously from behind the kitchen window. My irises are blooming but I can't go down the million stairs to see them. Lucky you, to have the soil on your hands and the sweet fragrance of garden all about.

Sungold said...

Oh, Carla, that is such a nice offer! I don't know anything about Granny Cantrell. I do know German Johnsons and they are yummy. I've heard of the Tomatopalooza, too - maybe I need to make the trip some year!

I don't think I'll take you up on the seeds, just because I've already overcommitted myself this year. But you know what - if they're good now, they will probably be fine next year, too. I've had lots of luck with five-year-old seeds germinating. Since I usually grow only one or two of a given variety, a pack of 20 or 30 seeds lasts me a long time. I've heard 8 to 10 years is not unusual for tomato seeds to stay viable, though if yours are the last of a line, I wouldn't wait that long!

TPC: Due to the aforementioned hoarding, I am sure to have seeds next year. So holler early in the year and I would send you whatever your heart and tastebuds desire.

You are absolutely allowed to whine. I was sick enough this winter that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to garden this season. I'm finding the fatigue is manageable if I don't do too much at once. Anyway, I am not taking any of it for granted this year.

I'm glad your SigOt is doing the necessary maintenance until you can begin cautiously puttering. And I *really* hope that you heal so well that puttering will be a painless pleasure. It's high time - you've been laid up for so many months.