Too many Tomatoes?
I have occasionally been asked “why tomatoes?” As a self proclaimed professional gardener, soil worker, and once upon a time retail nursery manager and owner, I can attest that there are three things all gardeners are passionate about: Their lawns, their roses and their tomatoes. Ninety percent of all people who attempt to grow their own “veggies” start with tomatoes. There is no other family of fruit which can be so fairly easy to grow or which offers such a diverse array of sizes, colors, shapes and flavors.
Many years ago when my adventures in horticulture where just beginning to sprout I made the decision that if I were going to offer my friends and customers tomato plants they were going to be A) varieties you couldn't get at other nurseries and B) extremely flavorful! It didn't take long for me to find a class of tomatoes affectionately called the Heirlooms. Like there counterparts ‘Antique’ Roses, ‘Heirloom’ tomatoes were varieties that had been chosen based on their individual abilities to produce consistently high quality fruit for generation after generation. The seeds of these treasured varieties would be collected from season to season, Mother Nature genetically modifying and adapting each to the individual growing conditions, soil and climate of the particular geographic area. These proven seeds would then be passed down and circulated by family members who, by planting the seeds in new lands, would introduce and again strengthen the variety to a new geographic area. These cherished seeds would accompany many new immigrant families from Europe. At this time we are seeing many “new” varieties from Russia and the surrounding territories. But by far most originated right here in the Americas.
There are far too many reasons why it just isn't possible to get the same flavor of a sun ripened tomato from fruit purchased at a grocery store. Believe me when I say that if you've never tasted a ripe fruit from the vine, you have never tasted a REAL tomato! I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked “Which ONE is the best?” or “Which is the SWEETEST?” O.K. Make that ten dollars!!! Then I’d be happy to answer so often; a variety is best. Even though a specific tomato will indeed acclimate to your specific growing conditions, weather factors may work against it from time to time. By planting a variety of tomatoes you assure success regardless of what Mother Nature may offer. As far as for flavor; everybody has there individual taste and preferences. Let me offer this: Red fruits tend to be more pronounced in their acidity, Yellow and Orange fruits still have the acidity but mask it with a higher sugar content, Greens can be citrusy, Black fruit are rich and smokey, and the Bi-colors blend the acidity of Reds with the sugars of the Yellows to create what many believe to be some of the best. I myself am partial to the Black fruit; if I wanted “sweet” I’d snack on a sugar cube. One of my favorite cherry varieties “Sun Gold” was ‘improved’ and made sweeter, sold as “Sun Sugar”…when I taste tested these with my customers we all agreed that the new “Sun Sugar” was indeed sweeter, but the original “Sun Gold” was still far, far better.
I find the combination of complexities in flavors coupled with the kaleidoscope of colors, shapes and sizes offered in these old-fashioned tomatoes utterly fascinating. During the winter of 2003 while searching for ‘new’ Heirloom Tomato varieties I stumbled across the Carmel Tomatofest® and the seed bank by the same name, so off to California I went. Over three hundred tomato varieties were offered for tasting…I don’t remember how many wines. There were some interesting new finds and some of my old tried and true favorites held there own in this head to head competition. I ran into an old customer recently who told me about how none of her friends and neighbors would even accept a specific variety of tomato because it didn't look right. She invited a group for a blindfolded taste test of all the varieties from her garden and, of course, everyone selected the Purple Calabash as the best tasting. Sadly for her friends she kept the rest of the crop to herself the rest of the year! I guess I have become so brainwashed by the substandard flavor of the generic red orb fruits from the local grocers that I begrudgingly give up any of my garden space to red tomatoes at all. I would like to compare my excursions through my gardens to a summer Easter-egg hunt, as I like to mix tomato colors and sizes so that along every four feet of garden bed is a new surprise. Unfortunately last year was a poor joke that started like “How many deer does it take to eat 132 tomato plants?”…I don’t know how many there were, but I salute there dogged determination. Despite this depressing set-back, the cost of three miles of electrified razor wire and governments petty “rules” about civilians possessing land mines I am determined to try again. Wish me luck!