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See Part 1 of this topic here.

In the previous post, I went over how to cross reference seed catalogs with some great outside sources both paper and online. Now let’s pretend we’re on a hunt for a juicy slicing tomato that’ll be great in sandwiches for the summer. We’re going to stick to traditional types here and just look at pink or red tomatoes that look a lot like those at the grocery store, so globe shaped. Also, we’ll be growing in the ground so we can look at indeterminate varieties. And we don’t have any disease problems, so we don’t need to restrict the search to disease-resistant types.

We’ll start with Tomato Grower’s Supply catalog. Here are a couple that jump out at me and why:

Fireworks #6002 (30 seeds) $2.65
What makes this variety really special is that it is one of the largest, earliest red slicing tomatoes available, and it has excellent flavor. This combination of size, earliness, and good taste is truly uncommon, but Fireworks is an exceptional variety. Its bright red fruit are 6 to 8 ozs., round with a pointed tip, and borne quite heavily on vigorous plants. Indeterminate. 60 days.

Positive traits: indeterminate, early, still a decent size for slicing, and good taste.
The Skeptic in me says: early tomatoes, even if indeterminate usually have bland flavor. And the size listed is almost always the maximum size, not the average size, so I would guess you’d get tomatoes closer to 4 oz.
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s Tomato Base says: 4-8 oz and only “good” flavor, which isn’t great.
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 2 positive reviews, 2 negative and 1 neutral. In this case, even the positive reviews say the flavor is average.
Bottom Line Decision: keep on the list, but move from the “Grow” list to the “Maybe” list.

Costoluto Fiorentino #4974 (30 seeds) $2.75
This Italian heirloom variety from the Tuscany region produces loads of bright red tomatoes with terrific flavor. Tomatoes are typically about 8 ounces, but may be larger, with a smooth shape rather than the heavily ribbed shape typical of Costoluto Genovese. The flavor is high in sugar, but also high in acid, making for outstanding taste that’s wonderful fresh or made into sauces. Indeterminate. 80 days.

Positive traits: indeterminate, heirloom, 8 oz sounds like an average size, good flavor
The Skeptic in me says: is it consistently good or does it depend on growing conditions?
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s tomato base says: high yield and “excellent” flavor
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 1 negative and 1 neutral. Complaints that the tomatoes were undersized, mushy and bland.
Bottom Line Decision: keep on the list, but bear in mind flavor and output may be dependent on growing conditions more than variety genetics.

Let’s move on to the Baker Creek Catalog:

Arkansas Traveler Tomato
A medium-size pink tomato that is smooth and a beautiful rose color. An excellent heirloom from Arkansas, tolerant to heat and humidity; crack and disease resistant. Good flavor; an excellent Hillbilly favorite.

Positive traits: indeterminate, heirloom, tolerant of different growing conditions
The Skeptic in me says: how big is medium, and what is the days to maturity?
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s tomato base says: 80 days and “very good” flavor
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 12 positives and 2 neutrals, wow! Consensus says size is variable but overall a heavy producer of pretty good tasting tomatoes.
Bottom Line Decision: Baker Creek’s own reviewers were glowing about it being disease-tolerant. I’d keep this one on the “Grow” list for sure.

Depp’s Pink Firefly
An historical Kentucky heirloom that dates to 1890 in Glasgow, KY. One-pound fruit are deep pink, creamy and full-flavored: sweet and tangy. Named for the fruit’s iridescence that can sparkle in the light, reminiscent of fireflies on a summer night, and the Depp family who preserved the seed. Vigorous potato leaf vines produce well. Quite rare. $2.50

Positive traits: indeterminate, heirloom, full-flavored
The Skeptic in me says: Baker Creek is notorious for omitting the days to maturity in their descriptions, also this is a potato leaved plant famous for making great tasting tomatoes, but more susceptible to disease in my garden. I think it’s also a beefsteak more than a globe tomato.
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s tomato base says: 80-85 days, with excellent flavor, 12 to 16 oz each beefsteak shaped fruits.
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 1 positve, 1 neutral reviews, both complaining of slow ripening (late variety).
Bottom Line Decision: This is on my personal “Grow” list for the future, despite it being a later potato leaved variety. For the example here though, for wanting a summer slicing tomato I’d cross it off altogether as maturing too late in the season. How many people want to eat BLT sandwiches in September or later?

The Bottom Line:
Looks like we’ll be growing Arkansas Traveler for sure, and possibly getting Fireworks. If we really want an early variety, our best bet would be to get a determinate but with the knowledge that the flavor isn’t always up to par with other, later types. If I only wanted to order from one company to save on shipping, sorting through Baker Creek is a harder job as the tomatoes are sorted solely by color, forcing the gardener to read through each description to find the medium-sized globes and determinate varieties.

But that’s what all of winter is for, right? Studying up on the catalogs like you’re preparing for your final exam in tomatoes. And if you pick the “wrong” types this year, there’s plenty more to choose from for next year! And don’t forget that swapping varieties with other gardeners through online forums can really save on cash and shipping, plus you get the first-hand account of how the varieties grew in their gardens.

Have fun!

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When I was first starting out selecting tomato varieties, I was overwhelmed by the catalogs glowing descriptions. How could every tomato be this good? How is someone supposed to choose honestly amidst all the positive descriptions and pick something that is the best for them? How do you narrow it down when the seed company’s job is to sell you seed packets?

After a few years pouring over glossy seed catalogs, I think I’ve discovered a non-biased way of reading between the adjectives and picking the very best tomato varieties for me.

Important information:

  • determinate or indeterminate (or growth habit)
  • hybrid or heirloom
  • best use (paste or cooking, salad, or slicing)
  • color
  • taste (subjective but key words to look for are: balanced, sweet or tart, fruity, old fashioned–see this post)

Cross references:
These are my secret weapons in the search for non-biased information about varieties. I try to check as many as I can, usually sticking with online resources as they are only a few clicks away and can be looked up quickly. The books are more limited in their selection, but can be quite detailed. Some seed catalogs have online reviews by customers, but those are really hit or miss.
Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato
Carolyn Male’s 100 Heirloom Tomatoes
Tatiana’s Tomato Base
Dave’s Garden Plant Files: Tomatoes
Baker Creek Customer Reviews (very limited)

First Steps before diving into the Seed Catalogs:

  1. What is your intended use for the tomato? If you mainly just want to make marinara sauce to last through a delicious Italian-themed winter, you shouldn’t waste your time reading about beefsteak varieties. Stick to the Paste section. If you think you want to have a couple BLT sandwiches over summer as well, then you should plant more than one variety, a paste (or a couple of paste types) and either a beefsteak or a globe tomato.
  2. How will you grow the tomato? If you are planting in the ground, space isn’t as much of an issue and you can try and get the biggest tomato plants you want. But if you are limited to containers, you’ll want to stick to determinate varieties or short indeterminates.
  3. How long is your growing season? If you live in zone 7 and have a long season, you can afford to look at varieties with maturity dates of 90 days. But if you are like me and live in zone 5, you’ll want to stick to tomatoes that mature in 80 days or less. This will assure you’ll actually get some tomatoes (and possibly a second flush of tomatoes) before frost.
  4. Are you open to non-traditional types like fun colors or potato-leaved foliage?Then have fun exploring the tomato descriptions for white, yellow, orange, and green fleshed varieties as well as striped, spotted, and ones with variegated leaves.  Otherwise, you could just stick with red or pink globes.To be Continued in Part 2!

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I made the switch to all heirloom or open-pollinated seed varieties in 2009. My main concern in doing this was saving my own seed in order to reduce future seed costs and to have the ability to trade seed with other gardening friends. Saving seed for me is a great connection to the earth, and completes the life cycle. The whole point of a fruit, after all, is seed dispersal.

Some home gardeners swear by hybrids and love to buy them. And they do. Every year. I have no problem with people planting hybrids. The companies develop them to have disease resistance, grow in less than favorable conditions, such as less water or maybe less sunlight. Some also have more herbicide resistance as well. Almost all commercial varieties of crops are hybrids.

A modern seed company will make most or all of its monies from the sale of hybrid seeds. I have no problem with this at all. Hybrids can be a great option for beginning gardeners who want to grow successful produce without extra work. Hybrid seeds often come with a large markup because the company must make new hybrid seed every year. They hand-pollinate Proprietary Parent #1 with Proprietary Parent #2 and harvest all the seed from the fruits grown. This is an F1 Hybrid and the seeds from those fruits (now called F2) will not grow “true” if planted, but will show various traits of each or both parents.

The problem comes in when I was reading my 2011 large seed company catalog yesterday. I ordered from this company in the past and haven’t had a problem with them before.

Here’s the problem:

This is an "Heirloom" tomato collection. Notice anything?

Look closely at the 2nd tomato variety. It is called “Burpee’s Supersteak Hybrid.” But wait–I thought this was an heirloom tomato collection? My first impression of this listing: [laughing] “Hey babe, they’re including a hybrid in this heirloom collection!” Eyebrows go up all around. A closer reading of the collection is that it is an heirloom taste collection. So they admit that they’re including a hybrid, but swear that it tastes just like an heirloom. Still, it’s misleading.

I continue reading the catalog (hey, I’m a gardener, to me this is a magazine). Then I come to this listing:

Hmmm, this listing of a Hybrid is tagged as an Heirloom. What gives?

My first impression is that this company made a mistake in their catalog. They accidentally identified this hybrid variety as an heirloom. It’s possible that this variety is actually an heirloom, but I only know of one heirloom that retained the name “hybrid” and that’s the squash “Essex Hybrid.” It means it was a hybrid at one point but has since been grown out and stabilized to be true to type and open pollinated. But the key word in the listing above is “our.” Possessing a variety indicates ownership. You can’t own a variety technically, unless it’s a proprietary hybrid.

These two pieces of evidence could be dismissed as mistakes or harmless mislabeling. Until the third piece of evidence was discovered:

This most famous of hybrid tomatoes is labelled as an Heirloom. Cause it's old, right?

Okay, the secret’s out. This is the Burpee catalog. This hybrid tomato variety is probably the most famous and most well known and possibly the most recognized variety of tomato out there. But it’s still a hybrid. So why is it labelled an heirloom?

Let’s go back to basics and define what an heirloom is. Unfortunately, there is a matter of debate among gardeners about the particulars. But it is generally agreed upon that an heirloom seed will:

  • be open pollinated. This means that seed saved from the vegetable/fruit will make fruit exactly resembling the parent. Assuming it is not cross pollinated.
  • be at least 50 years old. This point is debated because some newer open-pollinated varieties have become fast favorites but aren’t yet 50. An example is Green Zebra, which wasn’t widely distributed until the 1980s, even though it existed back to the early 60s as a stable variety.
  • Should have a history attached. This means that a variety called Aunt Gertie’s Gold should have some relation to a woman named Gertie (and it would help if she was an Aunt) who grew the variety in the family for a bunch of years, etc. This part of the definition is optional, but a great inclusion.

So an heirloom is above all an open-pollinated variety. It may or may not be at least 50 years old and/or have a known history.

So what is the big deal about calling “Big Boy” tomato a heirloom? Does it meet the definition:

  • is it 50+ years old? Hmmm, the catalog says it is from 1949. That’s 61 years, so yes.
  • does it have a history? Well it was probably developed by Burpee to be sold (and patented) by Burpee. Probably developed with certain traits in mind, mainly for size and color. Possibly production and disease resistance. But we may never know for sure. The parents of this hybrid remain proprietary.
  • is it open pollinated? No.

I could have skipped the first two questions. A hybrid will never (ever) be an heirloom even if it meets 2 out of the 3 requirements unless it is open pollinated. So a hybrid can’t be anything other than a hybrid. Period, end of story.

So why does this matter so much? Words have meaning. If this company says, well this hybrid is over 50 years old, (even though they have to physically make the seed with the two secret parents each year), so why can’t we call it an heirloom? It is owned by Burpee and will always be owned by Burpee, so it is an heirloom we’ll pass on to the next Burpee employees on a need-to-know basis. In this sentence, “it” refers not to the tomato, but the genetic recipe for the tomato plant.

Stretching the definition of words to suit your own views is dangerous. It is misleading. Growers can look at this catalog and get excited because they have now been given the license by Burpee to call a hybrid an “heirloom.” They can take this seed and grow it out. Then take the fruit to their farmer’s market and tell all their patrons that they are buying “heirloom” tomatoes. It’s a lie. If by chance a patron decided this was the best tomato ever and saved the seed, they’d grow wild card plants that don’t look anything like the “Big Boy” tomato they’d eaten. They could then get fed up with “heirlooms” that don’t grow true and feel negative to them forevermore.

That is a long-shot. But it’s in the catalog not once but 3 times. If we start to erode even this simple distinction, what’s the gain and what’s the loss? Burpee may gain a few more seed packet sales. Gardeners will lose space for genuine heirlooms in their gardens. And farmer market gardeners can gain a fake label for their fruits and possibly make more sales.

Burpee must have caught on that heirloom seeds are getting to be a real trend (read market share) in gardening today. They want to get in more on this heirloom market so they just call their hybrids “heirlooms” and hope gardeners won’t  notice long enough to shell out their money. What other reason is there?

Of course, they could try selling more actual heirloom varieties. But there is one glaring exception: the Burpee company developed the first yellow zucchini. It was an open pollinated variety from the start and has a great history attached to it. It is probably over 50 years old by now so it is an heirloom variety in every sense of the definition. But it is not being sold by Burpee for 2011. It’s a mind bender. . .

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After pouring over my 2010 catalogs for months on end, and making a long list of ‘maybes’ I finally finalized and narrowed down my seed list and placed the orders last night. Whew!

I ordered from two places and will be getting:

  • 1 beet, a new vegetable for us
  • 1 bean, maybe just maybe I’ll be successful at beans this year
  • 1 watermelon, an orange one
  • 1 huckleberry, new fruit
  • 1 flower (gasp, I know), calendula which for my credit is edible
  • 1 herb, cinnamon basil
  • 1 kale
  • 6 new tomatoes
  • 5 new peppers

Plus I have 2 new tomatoes I got in a trade; and 3 new peppers from a trade. My main problem now becomes finding room for everything. . .

After my seedlings are growing then I’ll add the specifics to my Seed List page for quick reference.

2011 Seed Cost: just over $50
Ordered from: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Tomato Growers Supply Co.

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There seem to be lots of articles out there about how to save seed once you get fruits, but a lot is lacking about the more important (to me) subject of keeping the seed pure. While not entirely necessary, especially if you don’t grow a lot of varieties that will cross-pollinate, using this technique will insure the seed you save will be true-to-type.

This easiest and least costly technique is called “bagging.” This is simply putting a cloth bag over the flower truss to keep insects from cross-pollinating your tomatoes or peppers. Tomatoes are self-pollinating. That means that the flower is constructed so cross-pollinating by wind is very difficult. But insects can still reach in to the flower and carry foreign pollen around. So the bag simply keeps those insects out!

If you don’t bag your flower trusses, there will always be a chance of impure seed, anywhere from 5 to 50%. So if you are growing a very rare hierloom plant and want to guarantee pure seed, go ahead and bag. It’s super easy.

This year is the first year I’ll be bagging any of my varieties. Since tomato seeds are viable for 3-5 years (if stored properly), saving seed every year is not necessary. So since I didn’t save seed last year, I’ll bag and save this year for fresh seed.

I started with a very thin white and blue cotton ticking fabric. I decided to use this fabric because I could easily breathe through it–the tomatoes might appreciate being able to breathe through the bag too. I cut double squares out about 7″ x 8″. I’ll be making 12 bags today though I have a little fabric left if I want more next year.

The bags are cut out and ready to be sewn.

Next, I started sewing. I made a larger hem at the top to thread a ribbon through. And I sewed the sides and bottom. This can be done with a serger tons faster, but I decided to sew on the sewing machine today. I actually used a very old technique: I sewing wrong-sides-together first (very narrow) then turned right-sides-together and sewed the seam again (wider). Then turn right-side-out for a finished bag with no raw edges. I’m making these bags to last!

The first bag is finished.

Here is the same bag with drawstring pulled.

Very nice! You can see how a tomato truss will fit in there easily.

All 12 bags are finished, yea!

And now for a demonstration of them in action:

Find yourself the first tomato flower truss on the variety you want to save. In this example, I’ve pictured my first and only tomato flower truss with the flowers already open. Don’t bag trusses like this one! Pick trusses with flowers that are not open yet, such as the ones I circled:

Pick trusses that have flowers unopened, like those I circled.

Gently place the bag over the truss and pull the drawstring closed. The bags are bigger than necessary to allow fruit to start to grow inside.

See the flowers in the bag? Those seeds will be pure!

When the fruit begins to grow, you can be assured you will have pure seed inside those tomatoes. When the tomatoes start to outgrow the bag, take the bag off and mark the truss with colorful ribbon or surveyor’s tape. Then save seeds from the marked ripe tomatoes.

If you aren’t handy, just buy some party favor bags made of tulle or organza. These come in festive colors (I’d stick to neutrals unless you want to attract more insects!) and are pretty inexpensive per pack.

These are a generous 8″ x 12″ and are cotton, both of which would be great for peppers (just put the bag around the whole plant).

Or these are about 5″ by 4″ and are extremely inexpensive for 12.

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I’ve transplanted 3 of the volunteer squash, cause slugs ate most of my watermelon seedlings. Wonder what I’ll get! I also got several lemon boy volunteers, which I can plant out in the “potager” which isn’t likely to be a potager anymore…

I’m getting blossoms on 4 tomato varieties so far, even though the tallest plants are less than 2′ tall. Yesterday I went ahead and staked and tied the tallest ones. They all seem to be doing okay now, except for the lime green salad in the ground; but the one in the pot is doing great. The groshovka’s are very slow growers so far.

While still small, I tied them to stakes. Some are flowering already.

We’ve gotten about 25 strawberries so far, and that’s probably all we’ll get. We lost one more plant, but have lots of runners.

All that talk you've heard about homegrown strawberries? It's true!

Scott helped me weed the side garden on Sunday for about an hour, we took out tons of weeds! Lots of greens for the compost. Now there’s room to plant more stuff. I really need to get a mulch though, but probably won’t this year until fall.

My side garden. It's curvy, and now weed free!

We also have 2 zucchini growing, that is if they got fertilized. We’ll have to wait and see. Chard is also doing very well.

It's under my finger! Sorry, I couldn't get the camera to focus on the tiny nub.

Out of the seed balls I threw at my parents house, they’ve got a bunch of arugula and a couple poppies. They may have had more but it got mowed down, oh well. The arugula made tons of seeds, so they might get a second crop or more next spring. Neat experiment.

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I did indeed get the plants the next day and planted them that friday. It took me 3 hours? Maybe 4. I’m not sure. But it was windy and I ended up getting a rash on my hands and spread it to my ears and neck. Sucked! Got 20 out of 25 strawberry plants. So I emailed them to give me a partial refund. The rhubarb I got was one big and 2 smalls. I planted the asparagus in a ditch and don’t think it was deep enough as I can see several roots poking up by the crowns. The asparagus growing out of it now is super thin—like yarn thickness. I’ll try to get some more dirt on them somehow. One rhubarb rotted—the smallest one. Only one strawberry plant didn’t make it (and Burpee’s refunded me $3 which is cool).

Today I planted out my watermelon plants. I originally planted 9 saved seeds. Well none sprouted! So I went ahead and replanted in the same pots—8 more seeds cause one was indeed about to sprout. So of those, six didn’t come up and I still ended up with 9 seedlings! Cool. Hope they all live and make juicy watermelons!

Some of my tomatoes are tall enough to plant in the ground but I’ll wait a few more days cause I still need to bury my 2 liters (reminder: get some more 2 liters on trash day tomorrow!).

I’m having the worst luck with my salad crops! Nothing is coming up except the arugula and broccoli raab (of which I’m out of seed), and very sparse lettuce. No parsley, no carrots, no celery, no cilantro, no chard, and I planted out beans and corn and zucchini last week and those haven’t come up either. Must be the weather? Or my irregular watering?

Mom bought me special anti-rash soap to wash with after gardening—so nice! It smells medicated and is a “laundry soap” (in a bar) so it doesn’t have ingredients listed. I cut the bar into 3 parts cause it was big! I used it today and my hands were literally squeaky clean after lathering 1 minute. No more rashes, yippee!

I think I’ll get all the tomato plants I wanted, but those heirloom seeds were poor germinators! Possibly they weren’t all fertile seeds. I really really wanted to be able to give Mom and Dad a black cherry plant, and planted several seeds more than once. Finally I’m getting another sprouting. It’ll be a few weeks behind for now but will soon catch up with its older siblings. The other late sprouter was the JBT—I finally got two seeds to sprout, both in the same plug. I resowed those a couple times too.

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