by Peter Heffelfinger
Posted April 27, 2021
One of the benefits of going through the freezer at the end of the stored food season is finding bits of the high summer harvest preserved in ice. I recently spent a day buying tomato plants at the various greenhouse sales in the Valley, and then carefully putting them in a protected spot to harden off. Later that evening I found two frozen containers, one of ratatouille prepared last year and the other an all-purpose blend of puréed roma and beefsteak tomatoes. Once the eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes were bubbling on the stove, it felt like a breath of August warmth, a fortuitous reminder and hopefully a foretaste of what this year’s starts will also become in a few month’s time. It was as if all the heady, descriptive prose of the seed catalogs was being brought to life, even before this year’s plants were in the ground. Home-grown tomatoes do that to gardeners.
This year I’m planting a mix of modern and heirloom tomato varieties; some are standards I grow each year and others I am trying out, looking for new tastes as well as successful plants. (Note: all my tomatoes and peppers are grown in a large hoop house for added heat.) The one tomato I was particularly searching for was the Italian heirloom, Cuore Di Bue (Oxheart), which I had grown once before, but have been unable to find for several years. A very large, slightly orange tomato shaped like a pouch with a gathered top, it is listed as a sauce type. I find it also delicious when served sliced, interleaved with thick slivers of fresh mozzarella, then drizzled with olive oil and topped with sprigs of basil. Aromatic Italy on an antipasto platter.
On my search I also found another heirloom beefsteak tomato, Chianti Rose (perhaps also Italian?), to try out and compare to the Cuore Di Bue. It will be my own, homegrown tomato-tasting research project.
Heirlooms are less disease-resistant and usually don’t produce as abundantly as modern types, so I also plant the standard Big Beef, which reliably produces lots of large fruit each year in our relatively cool growing season. In any case, I look forward to a summer of large, tasty slicers.
My favorite red cherry tomato is the grape type that grows its fruit on a multi-stemmed cluster, as if it were a vegetable version of a phasmid (an order of insects, like a walking stick, disguised as a botanical form). I have a mature arbor of Thompson Seedless grapes growing next to my tomato house, so the resemblance between the grape bunches and the grape tomatoes, particularly when they are both immature and green, is striking. Although ultimately the deception never fools the hungry birds that flock to the arbor when the greenish-yellow grapes are just starting to ripen, while inside the hoop house the grape tomato plants are covered with red clusters.
I’ve grown a German grape type tomato in the past, but this year I’m trying a new variety, Juliet. Grape cherry tomatoes have a slightly thicker skin that resists bursting when very ripe. Standard red cherry varieties such as Sweet 100 often crack open and start to mold if left too long on the vine, particularly if over-watered. In contrast, the grape types maintain their shape and flavor deep into the fall season.
For a round cherry tomato I rely on Sungold, always a welcome bright spot of yellow, ripening very early, usually before the first of the standard-sized tomatoes.
For pear-shaped sauce tomatoes I rely on the San Marzanos as well as Granadero, a modern roma type that is prolific. This year I’m also trying out Opalka, a 6-inch long, banana-shaped variety that resembles the red pepper Italian Thunderblot, a sweet type for roasting that I always plant. For another trial, I’m growing both the classic heirloom, Brandywine, as well as a modern hybrid, Croatian Brandywine, which is designed to be more productive, while maintaining the traditional deep flavor. Finally, I’m experimenting with the Russian variety Moskvich, a very early indeterminate, which I hope will do better and hold up longer than the usual Northwest standard Early Girl.
And of course I’ll also add a few of Joe’s Best, an unspecified, rebranded tomato variety from the nursery grower in Bellingham, and one that always lives up to its name. If you want to claim immortality, having a superior tomato named after you is a sure way of entering the home gardener’s idea of Heaven.
Peter, you have me wanting to add even more to the 20-some tomatoes I already have accumulated from the seeds I started (first time and success!) and perusing local sales. I’ve particularly loved having the Master Gardener tomato plants available at Azusa’s where we can go at our convenience and take our time looking them over without fighting the crowds. I would think it’s easier on the growers as well, in lieu of having all their tomatoes picture perfect and transported on one particular Saturday. I hope the Master Gardeners and Azusa consider continuing this method of sales. Anyone else like it this way? Let’s make our enthusiasm know to the powers that be.
Peter, do you consider our last frost date to have passed? Are you planting all those fascinating varieties? Thanks for a mouth-watering post!
And, for those interested in growing “Epic Tomatoes” (or maybe you’ve seen a book by that name by Craig LeHoullier), a brand new course is opening up on May 11 called “Growing Epic Tomatoes,” hosted by LeHoullier and Joe Lamp’l (aka Joe Gardener). Signup is open for only about 5-6 days and there is a charge. You can find out more at joegardener.com. I’m just finishing Joe’s seed starting course, which was awesome. It’s an online format you do on your own time, but can submit comments as you go and receive personal responses. Even though I’ve been gardening forever, I hadn’t done much with seeds. I learned a ton and was mostly quite successful.
Yes, I agree about the Master Gardener tomato sale being much easier to use at Azusa. I stopped going to the sale years ago because of the opening bell rush on the first day. This year I was able to calmly buy plants on two separate visits and find the varieties I was especially looking for, without being subjected to a stampede. I hope the use of a commercial outlet continues in the future.
The Skagit Men’s Garden Club tomato and pepper sale is being handled by Sebo’s Hardware store in Anacortes. The SMG sale has raised funds for over 30 years in support of projects at the WSU Extension.
As a longtime Master Gardener, I welcome the increase in home gardening. Fortunately there are other good sources of tomato and other starts at the SV Food Co-op and Christianson’s Nursery.
The last frost date has surely gone by at this point, especially at our maritime location. Most early spring crops are hardy enough to withstand any early morning nip, but I wouldn’t put any tomatoes or peppers outside yet. The heat-loving plants still need to be hardened off gradually, since they are emerging from the warmth of greenhouses. Given our cool nighttime temperatures, even in the heat of summer, I grow all my tomatoes and peppers in a hoop house to make sure they set fruit. Recent late spring snowfalls in Colorado and points East are likely due to their mid-continental location, subject to polar vortexes coming down from the northern land mass of Canada. We are protected by the Aleutian High weather system and the Japanese Current.