Jeff Lowenfels: January warms with tomato fantasies

ask amyJeff LowenfelsJanuary 21, 2014 

I always point out that an Alaskan gardener never really needs to buy stuff from Outside sources. One of the exceptions to that general rule would be heirloom tomato seeds. Sure, we have them available locally (along with a whole host of perfectly fine hybrid plants and seeds), but the variety of choices on the Web and in catalog-world is huge, probably greater than for any other plant. Why not go for something completely different than what your neighbor grows? (Well, maybe not your neighbor, as you share seedlings with neighbors).

Let's start with everyone's favorite tomato folks, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. (www.rareseeds.com). This group is known for its snail mail tomato catalog, described by one of my garden writer friends as "Porn for Tomato Growers." If that's true, then don't get caught pursing the online catalog. While these folks sell other heirlooms, it's their tomatoes that catch the eye. Looking at the pictures you can see droplets of water, juice around the seeds and color details you never knew existed on tomatoes.

This is a "wish site" if I ever saw one, as in, "I wish I could grow them all." My favs are the tomatoes listed under "Wild Boar Farms," one of Baker Creek's arbitrary groupings, along with eight other broad categories ranging from red, yellow and purple tomatoes to white, striped, green and pink. The Wild Boar tomatoes are described as "weird, non-red" tomatoes and they sure are just that.

Next, take a look at Gary Ibesen's Tomato Fest (store.tomatofest.com). Here is another great collection of heirloom tomato seeds from around the world. Gary asserts that they are chosen from the best-tasting tomatoes he could find.

Tomato Fest's "store" is divided into useful categories such as determinate, by color, Gary's favorite and, the key one for us, cooler climate varieties. This last category has lots and lots of choices, each with great history regarding origins. I love the black heirlooms, variegated types with black, green and red stripes and blotches. There are pages and pages of season varieties that would do all do well here in the 49th.

I have always liked Seeds of Change (seedsofchange.com). You can download a hard copy of their catalog or just go to their tomato section and check out the 20 new heirlooms listed this year. I have my eye on one called Oregon Spring Bush, a determinate plant that's "first to ripen."

The nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org) has quite a good selection of tomatoes, as one would expect. While I am not generally a fan of plum-shaped tomatoes, I have my eye on a "Ukrainian Purple," a plum tomato with subtle, dark shading that only needs 80 days. I grew Riesentraube last summer and can tell you these tiny, grape-size fruits very rarely made it to the salad, having sustained me during my toils in the greenhouse where they grew. They had plenty of fruit, enough to really need some support.

Over at Planet Natural (planetnatural.com), check out Black Icicle, a very unusual tomato that sure sounds appropriate to Alaska. Many of Planet Natural's tomato seeds are from the Seed Saver's Exchange. They do have several articles on growing tomatoes worth pursuing. They also ship free, though I didn't check to see if that includes Alaska.

I once got to eat my way though a Burpee (burpee.com) greenhouse full of test heirlooms. I remember the Brandywine being my favorite, but there were others. Try out Persimmon, a Russian variety that grows orange yellow fruits, which look exactly like their namesake.

Then there is Tomato Bob (tomatobob.com). There is Oregon Spring again (not a heirloom), along with Gregori's Altai Tomato, which originates near the Chinese border with Siberia and produces "slightly flattened" beefsteak tomatoes in 65 days.

There are so many tomatoes out there. Where to start? Well, if you are an Alaskan, look for seed that is billed as "short season." You will note that most web and garden catalogs list "days to maturity" or "days to harvest." It's easy to get real excited when you come across a tomato that is ready in 60 days. Remember, however, that the day you start counting from is the day the seed or plant goes outside. (They really should say "days from transplant" as all the indoor growing days generally are not part of the equation).

Jeff Lowenfels is co-author of "Teaming With Microbes" and author of "Teaming With Nutrients."

Jeff's Garden Calendar

• Alaska Peony Grower's Association Conference, Jan. 31-Feb. 1: You don't have to be a professional to grow like one. (I know; I am one of the speakers!). See alaskapeonies.org for more.

• Alaska Botanical Garden, "Managing your Houseplants," 2-4 p.m. Saturday: Join the staff at Green Connections, 804 E. 15th Avenue, to learn how to take care of your houseplants.

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