All posts by Anika

Tomato Tasting Time: Planning a Fun Garden Party

By Ira Wallace
A perfectly ripe heirloom tomato is one of the great joys of summer, eagerly anticipated by gardeners all over the Southeast. I really like introducing folks to the many varieties we shepherd here at Southern Exposure.

Every year we host big tastings with 50-100 varieties of tomatoes, plus dozens of peppers and melons at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, and the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs PA.

Heirloom tomato tasting fredericksburg southern exposure seed exchange organic
But a tomato tasting need not be such a large affair! A group of friends can get together in someone’s backyard or garden. Put up some tables, spread out everyone’s heirloom tomatoes and enjoy the taste. If this sounds like fun, here are some tips for organizing your own heirloom tomato party.

1. Pick a date when lots of tomatoes will be at their peak in your location. Here in central Virginia, that period starts around August 1 and ends on mid-September. If the organizer is a new gardener or new to the area, ask lots of experienced local gardeners.

2. Next you need tomatoes – lots of different tomatoes. You can either grow them all yourself or have group of your gardening friends each bring different varieties. If you host alone you can augment with different exciting varieties from your local farmers market, where you can depend on trusted local farmers to tell you exactly which tomato you are buying. Here are a few of the varieties that are perennial favorites for my friends and gardening neighbors: Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter, Green Zebra, Garden Peach, Brandywine, Large Red, Amy’s Apricot, Matt’s Wild Cherry. Or you can see which varieties are favorites at the Monticello Tomato Tasting.

3. Make a plan and arrange the labeled tomatoes attractively. You will probably have a lot more than your guests can eat so only slice up one or two of each tomatoes of each variety.

Heirloom tomato tasting fredericksburg southern exposure seed exchange organic
4. Make sure you have enough of each variety for the crowd you expect. One very large tomato may do for a small tasting but your guests will love to see a whole beautiful intact example of the variety. So I try to have at least two fruits of large varieties, 3 or 4 of medium sized and a pint of pear or cherry tomatoes.

5. Make signs so everyone knows what they are trying. Labeling can be as simple as writing on white paper plates or index cards or, better yet, some recycled paper. I like to type up a little history and cultural info about each variety. You educate yourself and your gardening guests will love this bit of context as they taste.

Heirloom tomato tasting fredericksburg southern exposure seed exchange organic
6. Provide small plates, forks, napkins, and some plain crackers and water to “refresh the palate”.

7. You can make your tasting more of a meal with a fresh tomato salad with herbs, or by providing the fixings for fresh southern-style tomato sandwiches. If you are ambitious or have some friends helping, pull out the grill. And get someone to bring dessert.

8. To make your tasting all the more interesting, add some peppers or melons for people to taste. Or even some types of cucumbers. You don’t need a lot to make your party more fun. (These extras are especially helpful if some of the tomatoes you planned on aren’t available.)

9. Tomato Tastings are a great place to start seed saving with a new open pollinated variety you really liked. I usually use a wet seed fermentation technique when I’m saving tomato seeds (for higher germination rates). However, if you’re just getting started, you can just scoop out a few seeds onto a paper towel or into a small ziplock plastic bag. Don’t forget to label! As soon as you get home, spread out your seeds on a plate or screen to dry (skipping the fermentation step).

10. Other add-ons can enrich the event. Give tomato growing info if you and your guests are gardeners. Have guest share about seed saving techniques, if they have knowledge on the topic. (Saving your own seeds is an exciting part of growing heirlooms.) Where did you get your seeds? Which are your favorite catalogs? What was easy, or hard, about growing this or that variety this year?

Heirloom tomato tasting fredericksburg southern exposure seed exchange organic
If you have never been to a Tomato Tasting, stop by our booth at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs this year to say hi and taste some perfectly vine ripened tomatoes, peppers and melons. Or check our calendar for an event near you. Who knows, you may get inspired to host your own!

Harvesting Tips for 8 Summer Vegetables

Frequent rains and lots of sunshine makes for lots of produce. Here are a few hints for harvesting some of our most popular summer crops.


Pay attention to your pods. Fresh, juicy, bright green pods indicate tasty broad, lima, and green shell beans. Snap beans should snap easily and have crisp pods with pliable tips. Harvest full-size snap bean pods before the beans begin to bulge.
For Edamame and Greasy Beans pods should be green and bulging with seeds.
Pick daily for a continuous supply.

Fresh tastes best—harvest beans right before you use them.

heirloom cucumber southern exposure seed organic growing tips

Frequent harvesting of cucumbers helps the vines produce new fruit.
Pick bright green, firm slicing cucumbers when they reach 6 to 9 inches long.
Detach cucumbers from the vine with a quick, upward snap.

heirloom eggplant southern exposure seed organic growing tips

Select glossy eggplants that spring back when pressed. Use shears to remove eggplants from the vine.


Harvest lettuce in the morning.
Immerse lettuce immediately into cold water after cutting; then rinse and refrigerate.
Cut leaf lettuce when outer leaves are 4 to 6 inches long; harvest “juvenile lettuce” when heads are moderately firm and only half size to avoid bitterness during hot weather.

heirloom watermelon southern exposure seed organic growing tips


Harvest most muskmelons when the stem separates easily from the fruit. The skin between the netting turns from green to yellow at full ripeness.
The belly of a watermelon turns from greenish white to buttery yellow at maturity; the curly tendrils where the stem meets the melon to turn brown and dry; the melon sounds more like your chest than your head when thumped.
heirloom Pepper southern exposure seed organic growing tips

Personal preference dictates when you pick peppers.
Take care when picking—pepper plants damage easily.
Pick pimiento peppers when they’re fully red.

heirloom squash southern exposure seed organic growing tips
Summer Squash

Pick frequently: small zucchini and yellow squash (6 to 10 inches long) and scalloped squash (3 to 6 inches in diameter) have the best flavor.
Tasty fruits have tender rinds (they should puncture easily with a fingernail) and soft seeds.

heirloom cucumber southern exposure seed organic growing tips


Pick fully ripe, but firm, tomatoes for juicing or canning.
Harvest green tomatoes before a killing frost and ripen indoors.
Store unbruised tomatoes out of the fridge for the best flavor.

Act Now! SESE Supports the March Against Monsanto

Many of you have already read about our membership with OSGATA and the current lawsuit local farmers are filing against Monsanto. It is an inarguable fact that the people, especially local organic farmers, deserve the right to choose between GMO & non-GMO products. We are proud to be a part of the movement to support transparent labeling.

“March against Monsanto” protests were held in 52 countries and 436 cities on May 25th, and many of us from Southern Exposure were very happy to attend the local protest in Richmond, VA. (Many members took the trip down to DC, too!)

Richmond virginia monsanto protests gmo labeling sese southern exposure organic farming heirloom seed business
Protesting in Richmond, VA. 2013

We were surprised at the turnout for the event. The crowd grew and grew as the protest wore on. We handed out certified organic dark green zucchini to passersby and protesters, and received many thanks from local gardeners & farmers for our efforts to maintain the quality of our seed.

Richmond virginia monsanto protests gmo labeling sese southern exposure organic farming heirloom seed business

There was not an “average” protester during the Richmond march– organic farmers, local gardeners, families and children all attended. This is a movement people from all areas of life can fight for. No one is exempt from the right to healthy, organic food.

Richmond virginia monsanto protests gmo labeling sese southern exposure organic farming heirloom seed business
Families during March Against Monsanto Protests, 2013.

Anyone can help in the continuing battle against Monsanto and unlabeled genetically modified products. Here are some ways how:

1. Sign the Food Democracy Now! Petition in Support of Family Farmers Against Monsanto.
2. Read about the OSGATA V. Monsanto Case to stay informed & encourage others to do the same.
3. Donate, if possible, to the cause.
4. Spread awareness about the dangers of GMO products through blogs, pamphlets & literature, and peaceful protests.

Richmond virginia monsanto protests gmo labeling sese southern exposure organic farming heirloom seed business
Supporters of the March Against Monsanto protests.

Photography courtesy of Anika Kyronseppa Edrei.