Growing Tomatoes, Part One: Seeds

Year after year, surveys invariably discover that the Number 24676480One Favorite Veg of America’s backyard gardeners is the tomato, in any of its diverse forms – and often as not, in more than one of them. Why? It’s not just the pleasure (or even the economy) of being able to “do it yourself.” The reason is quality of flavor.

You don’t have to be an epicure to tell, in a single bite, the difference between a store-bought tom and a home-grown one. It’s hardly surprising why. Your typical commercial tomato begins life many hundreds of miles away from you –sometimes thousands of miles!— and has to endure picking, cleaning, grading, inspecting, packing, shipping, unpacking, and then being displayed…before it ever gets to your shopping cart, let alone your dinner table. The goal of the commercial tomato grower is to produce a fruit that looks good after the above ordeal, one that looks so good you’ll want to pay money for it. What it tastes like isn’t an issue, at the produce stand.

A home-grown tomato is picked at its very peak of ripeness, not rock-hard to be gassed with ethylene in the stygian darkness of some truck trailer. It rarely has to travel more than a hundred feet. And we won’t even go into the issue of commercial chemical vs. backyard organic…

So, which tomato do you think will taste better? As a wise philosopher once observed, there are only two things you can’t buy for money in America: true love, and the taste of a fresh home-grown tomato.

OK, you say, but I don’t eat tomatoes every day. Is it really worth growing your own, especially if you’ve never done it before? You bet it is. And now, in the tail end of winter, you can get started on the project. Before plantation comes planning, after all.

Now, if you’ve never grown a tomato plant in your vegetable garden, or if –yoiks!— you’ve never had a vegetable garden, you should launch your tomato odyssey by using “starts” (juvenile plants) from your local nursery.It’s easier. They ought to be available at the right time of year in your area to set them out, if your local nurseryman has anything on the ball, and a few seed catalogues even offer tomato starts by mail order, again with consideration to the right planting date for your locality.

All you will have to do is prepare the garden bed –weeding, fertilizing, that sort of stuff—a week or so before you intend to plant. The one week “lag time” is to give any weed seeds a chance to sprout just before you put your tomato plants in the ground; weeds are much easier to pluck out, then.

But relying on starts often means you’re stuck with a limited selection of varieties, and this is just too bad when you consider there are not just dozens but hundreds of tomatoes available out there, all the way from “Gold Currants” (each one smaller than a marble) to “Big Zac” (typically a plate-breaking six or seven pounds per). These can only be had from seed! It’s a bit trickier than using starts, but the rewards can be very special.

So let’s say, for this article, that we’re going to grow some tomatoes from seed. In this bewildering diversity of cultivars, how to choose?tomatosprouts1

The most obvious notion is to go with your personal favorite, if you have one; many people do. If you don’t, then choose a tomato variety for its intended use. Is it for snack munching?Pick a small one. For slicing, say, in a sandwich or a salad?Medium size is best, but big can also be good for this. Knife and fork dining? Try the ‘beefsteak’ class. For spaghetti sauce? For salsa? Juice? Canning? Drying? There are plenty of unique tomato varieties bred for each of these particular needs. Just figure out your need, or needs, and do the reading.

I personally endorse perusing your seed catalogues while sitting in a hot bath. During the winter this is especially pleasurable, and I believe stimulates vital blood flow to the brain to aid with the all important decision-making process. This procedure is not recommended, however, for on-line catalogue consultation.

If you’ve had no experience in growing tomatoes, remember that in the wild, a tomato rarely gets much bigger than your thumbnail so the larger the fruit, the more trouble that variety will probably be to grow. Start small, if you have doubts of your capability.

Your seed catalogue will tell you if their tomato variety is Open Pollinated (“OP”), or a Hybrid (usually termed “F1,” meaning “filial 1” or “first generation”).

Open Pollinated means the seed produced by the tomatoes you’ll grow will be true to type; that is, seeds from your ripe OP “Bonny Best” fruits will yield more OP “Bonny Best” plants next year. Tomato flowers are built so they’re self-pollinating, if left to themselves. This is essential if you intend to collect your own tomato seed and plant it again, or distribute it among other gardeners.tomatosprouts2

A Hybrid is what results from deliberately crossing two different OP strains, to (hopefully) combine the best qualities of each parent in the resultant offspring. This can yield terrific fruits and/or plenty of ’em, but any seeds saved from a hybrid fruit will not yield more of the same. If they sprout at all, they will produce one of the parent varieties.

Tomato plants are further divided into two types: “Determinate,” and “Indeterminate.”

Determinate tomato vines are typically thicker and sturdier, tending not to flop over so easily, but more important is that they only set fruit on a single node (the place where a leaf stem pokes out from the branch) after which they stop growing. This means all your determinate tomato plants will be roughly the same size, set fruit at roughly the same time, and if you’re lucky, the tomatoes will all ripen at the same time. This is very convenient for big-batch canning, but unfortunately with tomatoes just as elsewhere in life, convenience comes only at a price. In this case, the compromise is flavor.Determinate tomatoes don’t have it.

Maybe 80% or more of the tomatoes at your supermarket are from determinate plants, simply because they are cheaper and easier to grow on a huge commercial scale. When you have to pay your pickers, you save money when you hire them only once in the season.

Indeterminate tomato vines continue to grow until they are killed by cold temperatures, and as such they need to be staked or held off the ground in some fashion. They set fruit on nearly every node, yielding continuously until first frost and even a little after that. This might make canning inconvenient because you’re limited to what’s ripe at that time, however –and this is a big however– indeterminate tomatoes taste better. Period. It’s that simple. So-called “heirloom” tomatoes, saved and handed down for generations because of their outstanding flavor, are all indeterminate varieties.tomatosprouts31

Still can’t decide what tomatoes to grow? Here are a few suggestions from cultivars I’ve tried through the years. All the tomatoes listed here are Indeterminate.

SMALL:

Red (or Gold) Currant (OP), possibly the oldest surviving relative to the original 15th century Aztec “xitomatl,” which apparently means “small plump thing with a belly-button.” Cherry (OP) is the gardener’s standard, always robust and a great producer, sometimes seen as Yellow Cherry or even Chocolate Cherry which I don’t think are as good as the original. They started as Sweet 100, then they went to Sweet 1000, but now they’re known as Sweet Million (F1), a wildly productive and very popular strain that has seen much development over the decades. Principe Borghese (OP) is the favored Italian variety for sun-dried (or dehydrator-dried) tomatoes, a very meaty little item for its size with almost no liquid cavity.

MEDIUM:

Fourth of July (F1), and Stupice (OP) hold the records for producing the first ripe fruits of the season, year after year. Matchless (OP) is a Burpee introduction from the 1890s, still a worthy contender along with Abraham Lincoln (OP) from R.H. Shumway. Momotaro (F1) is an almost spherical item from Japan with a very bright flavor, a bit “wet” for my tastes. Early Girl (F1), Celebrity (F1), and Taxi (OP) are reliable producers, the latter a bright yellow fruit instead of red.

BIG:

Brandywine (OP), is the superbly flavorsome heirloom to which all big tomatoes seem to be compared, and has many spinoffs such as Red (the original Brandywine is considered pink) Black, or Yellow Brandywine (OP). Beefsteak (OP) pretty much says it all with its name, and has been the base variety for any number of improved strains such as Beefmaster (F1) or Big Beef (F1). Cherokee Purple (OP) turns, as you’d expect from the name, a dark mottled violet-brown color when ripe and really catches the eye, and it’s a very reliable producer for a big tom.

SAUCE:

Amish Paste (OP) lets you know right up front what it’s for, and who brought it to you; they are a fair producer with a very rich flavor that makes the best ketchup you will ever sample. San Marzano (OP) is seen in many regional varieties such as ‘Super’ San Marzano (F1), S/M Lampadino (OP), S/M ‘Type 2’ (OP) or S/M Redorta (OP); all of them are utterly delicious. Roma (OP, and F1) is very common –in fact too common— and I recommend against it unless you find an indeterminate strain, which is almost impossible; determinate Roma tomatoes taste like mush and ought to be avoided by decent people.

LOOPY-SOUNDING:

One of the fringe pleasures in tomato gardening is trying a variety with a really wacky name. There are plenty! Boxcar Willie (OP) and Omar’s Lebanese are two fat, wildly red varieties that both have a bit too much juice for my liking, much like Oxheart (OP), which is pinkish and lumpy-shaped but with a truly unique flavor; Cuore de Toro (OP) is an Italian version of same. Marmande (OP) is a French “oblate”, which means it’s rather flat and lobed, but delicious and nearly solid with almost no liquid cavity. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter (OP) may have a cool name but it was a terrible disappointment, being too big, too fussy to grow, with only a few fruits after a long season. Mister Stripey (OP) sounds like a retired circus clown but it’s actually a mottled ‘beefsteak’ type from a century ago, very mild tasting, unique at being striped on the inside. Aunt Ruby’s Old German (OP) hails from Pennsylvania’s 19th century Mennonites, another mottled ‘beefsteak’, pretty but not as eye-catching as Black Zebra which I’ve also seen listed as Green Zebra (OP); neither are red, which makes determining ripeness a real challenge, but for fresh Mexican style “salsa” I’ve never tasted better.

NEXT MONTH: Germination, and dealing with your new sprouts…