Tag Archives: heirloom tomatoes

How to Choose the Right Tomato Varieties for Your Garden

Radiator-Charlie's-Mortgage-Lifter-tomato-SESE-web

By Ira Wallace, with Lisa Dermer

Mention summer gardens and the first thing to come up is which tomatoes are you growing? Year after year tomatoes are one of the most popular vegetables grown by our customers.  In our 2017 catalog we offer more than 100 different tomato varieties. There are currant tomatoes as small as a dime and big beefsteaks like Mortgage Lifter and Brandywine that can weigh well over a pound (plus every size in between and more shapes than most gardeners can imagine). In addition to the ever popular red and pink varieties there are orange, yellow, black, bi-color and even green varieties. We offer something for every gardener, but how to decide which to grow this year?

There are many criteria that could be used but these four are basic for me:

1. Flavor and texture – the first thing I consider is fruit qualities like flavor and texture for the sandwiches, sauces, and salads we like to eat. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato (photo top) is a large heirloom slicer with superb flavor, but be prepared for its long season and indeterminate growth habit (read on).

2. Days to maturity – is not just important for those with a short growing season. In many areas of the Southeast there are two seasons for tomatoes and other summer vegetables. The period in late July and August when it is too hot for tomatoes and sweet peppers to set fruit well, means we grow two crops: one to mature before the hottest spell, and one after. Fast-maturing early and medium days to maturity varieties are really important in such areas. Stupice is a favorite early variety: the small-to-medium size fruits have excellent heirloom-type flavor. We also list several Extra-Early tomatoes.

matts wild cherry tomato SESE

3. Growth style– there are two main growth habits for tomatoes:

-Determinate varieties that grow to a certain height (usually 2-3ft) then stop growing and mature all of the fruit in a short period of time.  Many paste tomatoes are determinate. These varieties are great for canning and well suited to growing in short or split season areas

-Indeterminate tomatoes keep growing, flowering and setting fruit until stopped by frost, disease, or really bad weather. Most Cherry and large beefsteak tomatoes are indeterminate, They need to be caged or staked with a really sturdy support.  Most really large heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate. These varieties are great if you have plenty of space, warm summer temperatures, and a long enough growing season. Delicious and super productive Matt’s Wild Cherry (photo) is a very small cherry tomato with tall, determinate plants.

-The Dwarf Tomato Project has given gardeners a new set of options, with short (2-4 feet tall) plants bred from heirlooms, and retaining heirloom flavor quality, that are easier to trellis and to grow in containers. We offer Rosella Purple, for diminutive plants with fantastic fruits similar to Cherokee Purple.

4. Disease resistance-Find out which diseases are common in your area and select resistant varieties whenever possible. As organic gardeners our first line of defense is prevention. When reading a seed catalog or looking at the back of a seed packet, disease resistances are often shown with an abbreviation after the name. For example verticilium (V) and frusarium (F) wilts are common soil-borne tomato diseases. Look for the V or F after the variety name. Nematodes (N) are  another common disease with resistant varieties available. Roma VF and Tropic VFN are excellent disease resistant varieties and show how the disease resistance is sometimes incorporated in the name.

More resources on www.SouthernExposure.com for tomato growers:

Breeding Peppers and Tomatoes

Continuing our summer road trip adventures!   We visited two individuals doing exciting vegetable breeding work.  While lots of universities and other institutions do great work with agricultural research and breeding, valuable information and great new varieties can also come from individual farmers and backyard gardeners.  If you’re thinking about doing your own breeding, you might be interested in our books Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe or Breeding Organic Vegetables: A Step-by-Step Guide for Growers by Rowen White and Bryan Connolly.

Craig LeHoullier is well known to tomato fans.  Starting in the ‘90s, he introduced many heirloom tomatoes through SESE, including Cherokee Purple.  A more recent project that Craig and tomato breeders from all over the world have been involved with is the Dwarf Tomato Project – using great-tasting heirlooms in breeding new, shorter tomatoes (2-4 feet tall) that are easier to trellis and to grow in containers.

We stopped by Craig’s house in Raleigh, NC to see Craig’s garden.  This year Craig is growing out all 36 dwarf tomatoes that have been released so far.  Craig cautioned us before we visited that with the heat and rain and all, his tomatoes were starting to get some diseases, but we thought that was great – a nice chance to see how the different varieties handle disease!  We already carry one of the dwarf varieties, Rosella Purple, and as we tasted our way through the dwarf tomatoes, we were taking notes for our wish list of more dwarfs to grow for seed crops.

Craig grew these plants in straw bales in his driveway!  A great gardening technique is to add some compost to the top of a straw bale and plant into the compost; as the plants grow, they’ll reach their roots into the straw, and since straw bales hold a lot of moisture, the plants won’t need much watering in between rains.  It’s a great way of growing tomatoes in containers without actual containers – Craig’s writing a book about it, look for it sometime this next year!

Craig’s book Epic Tomatoes came out last December, and he’s been busy giving talks and doing book signings for it.  He’ll be at this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, giving a special pre-festival talk on Thursday, September 9th as well as giving talks on Friday and Saturday.  Many of the tomatoes featured in Craig’s book will be featured in this year’s tomato tasting at the festival, so expect to see Craig hanging out there as well!

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Pittsboro, NC farmer Doug Jones is an passionate about pepper breeding.  If you’ve ever been to the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference, you’ve probably seen him at the Seed Swap table, sorting through his peppers, checking each for taste before he takes the seed out to save.

The photo below shows pepper seed from different fruits spread out for drying.  Doug bred Sweet Jemison, a long yellow pepper, which we now carry; he’s a big fan of long Italian bell peppers!

Doug farmed for many years at Piedmont Biofarm in Pittsboro.  Here’s a photo from November 2011 of Irena with 10 foot tall peppers in their high tunnel!

This year Doug is dividing his time between The Farm at Penny Lane and Paz Farm, where he’s also doing pepper trials for Johnny’s Selected Seeds and continuing his pepper breeding work.  Hot, wet weather had him going along the rows to prune off infected pepper leaves to keep Bacterial Leaf Spot at bay; as Doug himself described it, wet weather had him despairing that the disease would get out of hand, while a few days letter dry weather had him optimistic that the peppers would pull through…

Seeking input: what are your top five heirloom tomatoes?

Overwhelmed by heirlooms? We sell seeds for over 100 tomato varieties, and we feel that all those varieties have special value to be preserved. So we understand that choosing which to grow in your home garden can be daunting, especially if you’re limited to just a few plants.

Here’s my personal top five list. My experience growing and eating these tomatoes over the years is why they’re my favorites. We’d love to hear from you about your favorite tomato varieties, and why.

granny cantrell tomato1. Granny Cantrell’s

Granny Cantrell’s is my absolute favorite VERY LARGE heirloom. These red-pink beauties are similar in size to the Brandywines and Cherokee Purple, but I think the flavor of Granny Cantrell’s is even better. I also find the plants to be hardier and the fruits keep better off the vine, even when picked fully ripe.

Very large tomatoes like Granny Cantrell’s may not be the best choice for beginners: they need even moisture, a long frost-free season, and soil high in organic content.

dr. carolyn tomato2. Dr. Carolyn

Dr. Carolyn tastes sweet and complex, more like one of the larger heirlooms than a cherry tomato. This variety is a strain selected from the yellow-gold Siberian heirloom Galinas, but the two cannot be confused: Dr. Carolyn tomatoes are such a pale yellow, they’re almost translucent. Unique and very beautiful.

stupice tomato3. Stupice

As early as the most popular early hybrids, these classic orange-red globes blow me away every year: how can an early tomato taste so good? And by choosing an open-pollinated variety, you can save your own seed and select for your micro-climate.

black prince tomato4. Black Prince

I grew Black Prince the first year I had my own large garden, and their flavor was so fruity, they were unlike anything I’d ever tasted. A Siberian heirloom with a chocolatey-red appearance, Black Prince produces well for me even those years when I don’t give my plants optimal fertility or watering. Plus they’re early and tolerant of cool springs.

white wonder tomato5. White Wonder

Take care to mark the location of your White Wonder plants well, or you may have a few dropping off the vine over-ripe before you stop waiting for the fruits to turn red. White tomatoes are fun in the kitchen, for white tomato sauces or pale ketchup. But my favorite way to eat these is to bite into them like an apple, straight off the vine (perhaps it’s not surprising then that these would be derived from the heirloom White Apple!). (Ira Wallace comments that White Wonder’s flavor can be a less flavorful years when the weather is very wet — but this tomato still makes my top 5 list, I’ll keep growing it and hoping that the weather cooperates.)