Vol 7, Num 3 :: 2008.02.08 — 2008.02.22
I wish everyone could have the incredibly satisfying experience of eating a luscious, sun-warmed, juicy tomato that they grew from a seed. I envision the proliferation of backyard gardens in this country, the epitome of local-grown, as when you walk out your kitchen door and harvest your dinner—greens, beans, herbs and best of all, tomatoes!
Many people believe that the best tomatoes are heirloom tomatoes, which have been handed down from generation to generation, and which can be grown true-to-type just by saving seeds each year. We should treasure the ability to save seeds and plant them; many people are concerned that growing our own seeds might become illegal in various countries.
Modern seed company giants are working toward control of worldwide seed production. Hybrid seeds and genetically modified seeds are only available by purchase; they do not produce true offspring, even if they produce viable seeds. By forcing farmers to purchase seeds each year, the companies ensure ongoing profits for themselves.
However, the home gardener can circumvent this commercial pressure by saving seeds from his or her favorite plants and planting them year after year, selecting for the best traits.
The variations in size, shape, color and flavor between different heirloom tomatoes are fantastic, ranging from a red tomato the size of a pencil eraser (spoon tomato which grows in great clusters on delicate foliage) to a 1 1/2 pound green, pink and yellow behemoth called Aunt Ruby's German Green, with the characteristic sweet spicy taste of tomatoes that are green when ripe. Have you ever tasted a Green Zebra? This ripe-when-green tomato tastes best when the background turns to a greenish-gold color. It has had a fancy vegetarian restaurant in Chicago named after it.
At the farmer’s market in Goshen, Indiana where my family sells many varieties of heirloom tomatoes, customers try samples and say, "Wow—that tastes like the tomatoes my grandmother used to raise!" And indeed, the flavors are the real reason to grow heirloom tomatoes—endless variations on a wonderful theme. Flavors will vary from season to season, and even within a season on the same plant, as weather and rainfall change. Even today, when many people only know the tomato as the pasty, low-flavor supermarket fruit available all year and developed for shipping and a long shelf life, the genetically modified "Flavr-Savr" tomato (which had a gene from a flounder inserted to confer hardiness in very cold weather) was soon abandoned due to tastelessness.
It takes very little earth to grow a few tomato plants; they do prefer full sun and rich soil (add some compost when transplanting). If you mulch heavily with straw or rotted leaves, you will reduce weeding, conserve water and lessen diseases spread by dirt splashing on the plant when it rains. And your harvest is easily preserved by freezing, canning or drying.
Happy heirloom planning with your 2008 seed catalogs!