Tag Archives: tomatoes

Underdog Tomatoes

At Southern Exposure we carry a lot of tomatoes  — 110 as of this year’s catalog!  We carry ones that we like and that grow well.  It’s always gratifying to see varieties that we’ve helped introduce, such as Cherokee Purple, OTV Brandywine, and Amy’s Apricot, go on to sell well and find their way to many other gardens.

Aug2014 (806) tomato assortment prcsd

But there are also some personal favorites of ours that never get as much appreciation as we’d like; this blog post spotlights a couple of them.

Green Grape is a cherry tomato that never gets as much attention as its more famous cousin, Green Zebra.  I’ve got more of a sweet tooth, so when it comes to tomatoes, one like Green Zebra is a bit too tart for me to really enjoy.  Green Grape is a sweeter variety and has an interesting flavor that’s described as being like muscatel.  (I don’t drink alcohol, so one of these days I’ll have to get around to sipping some muscatel to see if it reminds me of Green Grape!)  It’s got big, plump cherry fruits that ripen from green to green-yellow.  Since that’s an unusual color it’s hard to know when they’re ripe. To figure out when they’re ready to eat, feel the first fruits as they ripen. When they’re softening and plumping up, try a few.  Once you’ve figured it out, you’re good to go for the rest of the season.

Oct 2012 (59) Green Grape prcsd

Another great thing about Green Grape is that it’s a semi-determinate (bush type) plant.  Almost all the tomatoes we carry are indeterminates, so it’s a rare treat to find such a short plant with great tasting fruits.  (The Dwarf Tomato Project is working to improve this situation, and besides Rosella Purple, we hope to grow a few more dwarf varieties for seed this year.)

Folks often think Green Grape and Green Zebra are heirlooms because of their unusual color, but both of these are more recent; they were bred by Tom Wagner in the ’80s.  Tom is a passionate tomato breeder, and continues to this day working on all kinds of unusual new varieties. Besides being great for eating fresh, a great way to serve these is to serve sliced fruits with pesto pasta.

Yellow Bell is a Tennessee family heirloom.  It’s a sauce tomato — more juicy than a Roma tomato, so it needs more cooking to get a thick sauce.  But its juiciness means it has great flavor as a slicing tomato as well.

090507 615 prcsd

I first grew Yellow Bell when I was in southern Missouri, and was always super impressed with how well the plants held up.  By late September when most other tomatoes had given up, Yellow Bell was still chugging along — all the way up ‘til frost I’d be getting big handfuls of fruit off the plants.

090507 617 croppedYellow tomatoes like Yellow Bell make for really pretty salsa – wish we had a photo handy I could show off here! – and yellow tomato sauce with chunks of green and red pepper is gorgeous as well!

And to end this on a humorous note – a woman from southwest Virginia recently sent us seed for a tomato that sounds similar to Yellow Bell, but which their family called Bag tomato.   As she wrote, her mother-in-law “called it Bag tomato because its shape reminded her of a man’s scrotum. (No vulgarity intended.)”  We really liked her mother-in-law’s reassurance!  We haven’t had the chance yet, but hope to soon grow out both Bag and Yellow Bell next to each other to see if they’re similar.

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…

Summer Sowings: Continuous Harvests all Summer and into Fall

With summer’s intense heat in full swing, it can be hard to remember to sow cool season crops, but some fall crops need to be started as early as June, and many need to be started in July.

On our farm in central Virginia our average first fall frost falls in late October, but even where frosts come later or not at all you should start fall crops during the summer. Later plantings will struggle with fall’s low light levels, and won’t produce before growth slows to a near standstill in early winter (the “Persephone Days,” November 21-January 21).

To make sense of all the seeds we’re sowing during the summer months, I divide our summer plantings into three types:

1. Warm-season, slow growing summer successions: these are the bonus crops that many gardeners forget. A second round of tomatoes, summer squash, sweet corn, or cucumbers can keep you harvesting all summer long without interruption.

2. Fast growing summer successions: these crops require frequent, regular sowing all through summer. Because we’re sowing so often, these can be easier to remember. We sow beans, carrots, salad greens, beets, and radish seeds weekly. Be ready to baby your summer sowings: we water daily to keep them from drying out before sprouting. Lettuce needs the soil temperature to be below 80 degrees F, so you may need to sow in flats indoors, or even in the refrigerator, or sow in the evening and cool the soil with crushed ice.

3. Cool season, slow growing crops for fall harvest. We sow the Brassicas first: Brussels sprouts in June, and then broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower in July. By mid-July we’re sowing fall greens: collards, Swiss chard, leaf beet, and kale, plus winter radishes. We sow Chinese cabbage in late July. Sow thickly in nursery beds and keep up with your watering; we protect these young plants from summer’s insects with spun polyester row cover or the new more durable and temperature neutral “proteknet.”

For further resources on planning your summer sowings, check out: Brett Grohsgal’s article Simple Winter Gardening, our article on Summer Succession Plantings, and our Fall and Winter Planting Guide.

Successions can be overwhelming, so we have some tricks that help extend harvests with fewer plantings:

1. Plant indeterminate varieties of tomatoes and cucumbers, and pole-type beans and peas. We still find we need a late tomato planting, because our earliest plantings taper down toward the end of summer (and our Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello needs lots of tomatoes for the Tasting Tent).

2. Select heirlooms bred to provide extended harvests: many modern farms want concentrated harvests that can be harvested with one or two passes; but for more traditional growers an extended harvest was the ideal way to manage the bounty. Look for roots that hold well in the ground. Lutz beets are one of our favorites: they can be spring planted and will hold all summer without turning woody. However, they will be very large, so this only works if you’re happy cooking with multi-pound beets (try slicing cross-wise for beet burgers). Open-pollinated broccoli provides extended side-shoot harvests. Choose bolt-resistant greens and harvest by the leaf before before taking whole plants.

3. Choose seasonally appropriate salad greens: we want salads all year-round, but this can be tricky both when it’s hot and when it’s cold! Mustards and brassicas are more mild in cold weather, so get adventurous by adding young kale and tatsoi to winter and early spring salads. Choose cold-tolerant lettuce: red varieties tend to hold up better in frost. For hot weather, choose fast-growing summer crisphead lettuce like Sierra, or heat-ready greens like Red Malabar spinach or Golden purslane.

4. Set up a root cellar or similar storage system. Ultimately, some of your crops will ripen all at once, or you’ll be faced with a glut of produce when frosts threaten. Be prepared: have a proper storage area ready to go for your carrots, parsnips, turnips, cabbages, winter squash, and more. Be ready to finish ripening the last fresh tomatoes indoors. For fresh produce through till spring, we need good systems for storing and slowly working through the harvest. Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellaring is an invaluable resource if you’re looking to improve your winter storage system, and has lots of low-cost and little-time options, if you haven’t blocked off your whole summer to dig a cellar.