Two Greens, an Orange and a Blonde: It’s Tomato Time


Principe Borghese TomatoesThe first tomatoes into the ground this year were the ‘Principe Borghese’ drying tomatoes, four of them started from Bountiful Gardens seed, four from Victory seed. Six of the plants are doing very well, flowering and just beginning to set fruit. Two, one from each seed company but both planted in the same section of the bed, are smaller and less robust. They don’t appear diseased or I would pull them out rather than risk the other plants. If you have a guess as to why they are so much slower than their buddies, I’d love to hear it!Lag-Behind-Borghese

Our second tomato trial is four different sources of ‘Cherokee Purple’ seed; High Mowing, J.L. Hudson, D. Landreth and Seeds of Change.  Cherokee Purple Seed Source TrialThis crew was seeded in mid-March and the best plant from each source was planted in the garden May 1st, with compost, egg shells, bone meal and salmon heads. The tomatoes are approximately 3′ apart with some heirloom basil  planted nearby.  A second batch of strong, healthy seedlings, one from each source, are planted in a friend’s garden a few miles away. So far three of the four plants in the Dirt to Dinner garden are relatively uniform. The Landreth seedling has the largest diameter and the ‘Seeds of Change’ plant is slower growing than the other three, but they all look strong and healthy. The High Mowing ‘Cherokee Purple’ is my bet for the first to flower. Planted close to this trial is a ‘Cherokee Chocolate’ from Sustainable Seed as another point of comparison. It has already opened it’s first flowers, and they are huge!

The next tomato trial is a side-by-side comparison of ‘Orange Heirloom’ against ‘Persimmon’. Both are new varieties to us and the garden. We’re looking forward to trying them and hope to choose one to trial more fully next year. We are also comparing ‘Black Sea Man’ to ‘Black Krim’ and ‘Rosso Sicilian’ to ‘Costaluto Genovese’, which did very well for us in 2009. The ‘Costaluto Genovese’ makes deeply lobed fruit with an acidic, somewhat tart, robust tomato flavor. They were my top choice for slicing tomatoes until I met the ‘Cherokee Purple’.

Search for the Blue Zebra TomatoesWe are also growing out five seedlings from Tom Wagner’s ‘Search for the Blue Zebra’ which we will compare with his ‘Green Zebra’ and ‘Black Zebra’ grown from Boondockers seed. These seedlings, just planted yesterday, are covered with 30% shade cloth for the first few days as they acclimate to the new garden bed. I have no idea what the Blue Zebra’s will be like. They may not be blue and they may not have stripes, but it’ll still be fun to see what we will get.

Pruden's Purple Tomato with BasilThe other tomatoes in the garden are one each of  ‘Pineapple’, ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’, ‘Old Kentucky’, ‘Pruden’s Purple’, ‘German Pink’ and, my eating-out-of-the-garden favorite, ‘Blondkofchen’ which does not seem any too happy about the cool weather we are having this spring.

That feels like a lot of tomatoes all of a sudden, but it’s really only two dozen plants, or so.  OK, thirty, in this first batch. We’ll talk about the sauce tomatoes another day. It’ll be weeks before we have to find room for all of those seedlings.

How Much Do Seeds Really Matter?


When I grab a ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato seedling from the nursery, I look to see if it’s been grown organically but I have no idea where the seed used to grow that seedling came from. And I never gave it a thought—until this year. This year, seeds and where they come from has felt a lot more urgent. And I’ve tried to make sure that all the Dirt to Dinner seeds came from companies not involved with GMOs, the more local and more independent the better. In order to support the Safe Seed growers I have found, I bought seed of my favorite varieties from more than one source. I have ‘Cherokee Purple’ seeds from four different companies growing. I think I ended up with ‘Lemon’ cucumbers from at least five different places.

Which got me thinking, “How much does it really matter where my seeds come from?” Of course it matters in terms of voting with your seed dollars for the kind of practices you want to see in the seed industry, supporting local economies where possible and to the folks who grow and distribute safe seed. But does it matter in my garden? Does it matter on my table?

Turns out, I think it matters a whole lot more than I ever imagined. In late February, I started seeds of ‘Principe Borghese’ tomatoes for drying from Tomato FlowerBountiful Gardens and Victory Seeds. I planted them under the same conditions in the same flat. All the BG seed was sprouted a week later, with less than half the VS seeds up. Final germination was BG 100% and VS 75%. I eventually thinned to the best four plants from each seed house and on April 16th I planted them in the same warm and cozy growing bed. The tallest, strongest, plant, which is already flowering, is one of the Victory seeds. And the only seedling that didn’t do well in the transplant process? It’s also from Victory. Though maybe I should have more thoroughly thawed the salmon heads before I stuffed them in the bottom of the tomato holes. If that poor seedlings roots were scrunched up against frozen salmon eyeballs the first day or two, that’s hardly the seed’s fault! I plan to measure the amount and weight of tomatoes produced and to dry each batch separately in case there is a difference in taste. If it doesn’t eventually taste good, who cares which day it germinates?

The day after I started the tomatoes, I planted ‘Scarlet Ohno’ turnips from High Mowing and Bountiful Gardens. The BG tops are taller and earlier, Scarlet Ohno Turnipswhich, if you are growing for turnip greens, could make a big difference. But the roots are different as well. The Bountiful Gardens ‘Scarlet Ohno’ is a vibrant, almost-beet red. The High Mowing root, though the same size, is clearly more pink even though the two turnip rows are growing in the same bed, with the same soil, water, everything.

I’ve been surprised by the amount of variation in some of the varieties. I tried ‘Canellini’ beans from three different sources and one variety didn’t even come up at all!

I don’t actually understand enough about the seed industry or plant genetics to fully get why this would be. I’m heading back to Carol Deppe’s Breeding Your Own Vegetable Varieties to see what I can figure out. And I’m going to keep experimenting with side-by-side trials like these to see what else I can learn with the kids in the garden this summer.

56 Is the New 64: Tomato Germination Tests

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Tomato Germination Test‘Cherokee Chocolate’ 88%
‘Orange Heirloom’ 88%
‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ 100%
‘Green Zebra’ 100%
‘Pruden’s Purple’ 100%
‘Black Sea Man’ 100%
‘Pineapple’ 100%
‘Old Kentucky’ 25%

It didn’t matter that the ‘Orange Heirloom’, ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ and ‘Pruden’s Purple’ seed was from 2009. Or that the ‘Green Zebra’ seed was from 2010. OK, it might have mattered a little bit that the ‘Orange Heirloom’ seed wasn’t as fresh as it could have been, but I’d be willing to bet that tray position had every bit as much to do with slightly lower germination rates in both the varieties on that side. Was that the problem with the ‘Old Kentucky’ seed? Maybe not, since the two cells that did sprout seeds were the ones on the very outside. I’ll probably try to sprout another four seeds in a flat as a test just to see.

Sprouting Pepper SeedsPeppers are another thing entirely. They do not leap out of the potting soil the way the tomatoes did. The tomatoes were planted 3/6 and by 3/11 all of them that were going to sprout were sprouted, except the ‘Old Kentucky’ twins who didn’t show their heads until the 13th. Peppers dawdle. One comes up over here, the next day maybe another one over there. Or not, maybe they wait a week or two.

I started the pepper seeds on March 1st. The first pepper out of the ground, more than a week later, was a lone ‘Golden CalWonder’. When it was still alone the next day, I re-potted it to go under the lights and returned the rest of the cell packs to the incubator where they would stay warm and moist.

If you enlarge the photo I hope you’ll be able to see that two weeks after planting, several of the seeds are just now emerging, and there is no sign yet of some of the varieties.

Golden Purslane SeedlingsOne thing we do have germinating is ‘Golden Purslane.’ I thought I winter sowed a patch but when they didn’t come up where I expected them, I started a small pot of seeds to be sure. Right now all you can see are the tiny seed leaves with red stems and red around the edges of the leaves. But in another week or two I’ll be pricking them all out of the pot and wishing I had been more careful with my winter sowing!

Tomato Math: How Many Seedlings Does 64 Tomato Seeds Make?

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Heirloom Tomato SeedsIt nearly killed me, but I have managed to wait until March 6th to start my main season tomato plants. The early drying tomatoes, Principe Borgheses, are out in the garage under lights already. But this year I am following the planting schedule recommendations from the Common Ground Ecology Action Planting and Gardening Guide and it really does say to start tomatoes in flats in March. If truth be told, the printed version actually says, “Tomatoes, Early” under the Start in Flats column for March, but I am gardening to the south of their location in Palo Alto, so I am taking this gardening license.

The first batch consists of ‘Cherokee Chocolate’, ‘Pruden’s Purple’, ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’, ‘Green Zebra’, ‘Pineapple’, ‘Old Kentucky’, ‘Black Sea Man’ and ‘Orange Heirloom’. Eight varieties in all. Because I’m only starting a few of each type I chose not to use flats but to start the seeds in Fiber Grow Coir 8-packs I picked up at Common Ground. I planted eight seeds of each variety, two to a cell. Because the seed is from different years, germination may not be consistent, but I am hoping for at least two nice looking plants of each type. One for the Dirt to Dinner garden, and one for a friend we are starting tomatoes for this year.

Seedling IncubatorThe soil in the planted coir 8-packs was well misted, then I set the tray of all 64 seeds onto a covered heating mat, which I am hoping will keep them between 72 and 78 degrees. The temperature of the area was 68.8 degrees when I covered the heat mat. Then I covered the whole thing with a plastic storage bin to keep in the heat and moisture. An hour later the center section registered 74.7 degrees. Now, I just have to remember to keep the moisture right and wait for yet another week. When this group of tomatoes moves into the garage or cold frame, depending on the weather we get, it’ll be time to start the paste tomato varieties and the ‘Cherokee Purple’ trial. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

First Sighting of Tomato Land

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First P. Borghese Tomatoes

Principe Borghese Does It Again

We have tasted the first tomatoes of the season. Briefly, because they were small, but enough to whet our appetites for more. The first tomatoes ripe were Principe Borghese tomatoes again this year. From a plant who has been none too happy about the wet, cold spring and honestly doesn’t look very good. There are five P. Borghese plants in the garden right now and only one of them looks as robust as the ones we grew last year. I also have six more of them started in pots because last year I was wishing I had done a second planting of these guys. They are packaged as determinant plants, but some of them produced a second crop of tomatoes after we had picked the first batch. I’ll have to look up how a semi-determinant plant behaves. Maybe that’s what they really are. I grow them to make sun-dried tomatoes with them but they are delicious in salads or marinated with mozzarella and basil.

Grandma Jill's Ugly Tomato plants

Ugly? Maybe. Delicious? Absolutely!

I was sure this year’s first tomato was going to be a Grandma Jill’s Ugly. And it would have been, but the top contender was rat-napped. It was beautiful, with deep creases like many of the varieties we are trialling this year. It was almost ready, it was blushing beautifully. It needed just one more day on the vine. But the next morning all I found was a small sliver of tomato skin in the mulch beneath the plant! I was heart-broken, as you can imagine, but it looks like the plant is happy enough to try to make up for it in volume. These plants look very close to the Costoluto Genovese variety that won our fresh eating taste tests last year. The Grandma Jill’s Ugly are certainly earlier, and the plant looks sturdier, but I hope the taste will be close to what we get with the Costoluto.

Blondkopfchen Tomato Flowers

Sucker for Blondes

I’m also looking forward to trying a new (for us) yellow cherry tomato called Blonkopfchen. There are three or four of these plants in the garden, well-spaced and not, and they are easy to find because they are making multiple wide sprays of flowers as they set fruit. I’m concerned that some of the fruiting branches may break off if every bud on those sprays produces a tomato, even a small one.

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes

Not Purple Yet

Cherokee Purple Tomatoes are also doing well this year. There are only two plants in our test and they are in similar conditions except one of the plants is crowded (it’s in the Square-Foot bed) and the other has lots of space. We are also hoping to enjoy Speckled Romans and Big Rainbow Striped tomatoes. And my mother-in-law just sent over a Green Zebra which I have read wonderful things about. I’m not sure I quite understand a tomato that is still green when it’s ripe. How will I know when to pick it?  Today I’ll give it a choice spot in one of the raised beds where I can keep an eye on it. If a rat starts nibbling them, I’ll know they are ready for eating!

Square Foot Bed with Tomatoes, Peppers, Celery, Basil and Nasturtiums

"And the little one said, 'Roll over!'"