UPDATED 3/17/2010 — scroll down for the additional material.
The seeds I ordered from Bradley Gates of Wild Boar Farms for some of the amazing and delicious varieties of open-pollinated tomatoes that he developed arrived today! I know I called them “heirloom tomatoes” in the headline, and in 45 or so years they will be. Open-pollinated tomatoes breed true and are deemed heirloom varieties if they are at least 50 years old.
I was first attracted to Bradley Gates’s tomatoes by the name, “Berkeley Tie-Dye.” You can see it in my photo above — it’s the big tomato that looks, well, tie-dyed. The smaller one that looks tie-dyed also was developed by Brad and is called “Black and Brown Boar.” These are delicious tomatoes and I love their arresting appearance.
I don’t usually part with my heirloom tomato secrets, but I will tell you that you can now buy Berkeley Tie-Dye, Black and Brown Boar and Brad’s other rare and yummy tomatoes directly from Wild Boar Farms online if you have a PayPal account. (Brad has sold out of Brad’s Black Heart — the only other commercial source I know of is TomatoFest.)
And here is Brad himself to teach you how to plant the seeds — tomatoes are the easiest plant to grow from seed and they are ready to plant within six-to-eight weeks of sprouting:
Now take a stroll through Brad’s “tomato forest” of Brandywine tomato plants at his farm — I am in awe:
When I had a sunny bedroom and patio, I was able to start tomato seeds easily with just the seed-starting “green houses” I bought at the hardware store. I don’t have that kind of sunshine in my father’s house, so now I use a grow light and seed-starting mat.
By the way, Burpee has come out with a hybrid tomato variety it’s calling “Tye-Dye.” Do not confuse the Burpee hybrid with any of the tomatoes from Wild Boar Farms.
And for a bonus, my favorite beefsteak tomato is Brandywine, Sudduth’s strain and my favorite cherry tomatoes are Galina’s Yellow Cherry and Wild Cherry (aka Matt’s Wild Cherry). Another unusual tomato I love is Orange Russian 117, which is shaped like a giant yellow-and-orange striped strawberry. These are all available from Tomato Grower’s Supply. The only tomato I’ve found so far with a flavor that rivals Brandywine, Sudduth’s strain — and believe me, I’ve been on a mission — is Prue, which can be ordered from from Skyfire Seeds (which also has several varieties of basil) and Gleckler’s Seedsmen.
If you prefer ordering heirloom tomato plants rather than seeds, my favorite source of heirloom tomato plants is Darrel Jones at Selected Plants. He’s the best and he takes enormous care with his plants and with shipping them.
Oh, and as Obi’s Sister found out the hard way last year: Mr. Stripey is one of the most commonly available heirloom tomato plants from your local nursery or big box store, but it is more of a cruel trick/hazing ritual than a tomato. I believe it is sold to discourage the uninitiated from straying from the hybrid path forever more. The tomatoes it produces — if you get any — are large and beautiful, but usually are so bland that they don’t seem worth the effort.
UPDATE, 3/17/2010, Wed.:
Today Instapundit repeats a link to a lovely post on “the inevitable canning backlash” at the cooking blog, Al Dente, by Rebekah Denn, and adds an update with “thoughts on foodie warfare,” from Nick at the blog, Dad in the House. The discussion started with a piece at Slate by Sara Dickerson, who sneers at modern home canners for being too “trendy” because few of them have to can out of necessity as people once had to do. Nick sides with Al Dente, “… I agree with Denn’s justification for wanting to preserve [home canning] essentially as an art-form and on scanty practical grounds.”
And then Nick takes the discussion to the next level, which is why I have added this update:
I am trying to start a garden in part to test some of these philosophies. I want to have it both ways: using traditional skills to get modern ROIs. Is that possible? Hopefully I’ll figure it out.
Growing heirloom varieties of vegetables, grains, fruits and flowers is like canning now because we have the luxury of doing it for reasons other than necessity. Necessity has given us very productive hybrids. But we need the genetic variety that is stored in heirloom plants. The USDA really is not in a position to store all these seeds and keep growing them to maintain seeds fresh enough to germinate.
The United States has the largest and most diverse community of heirloom gardeners in the world preserving these plants by continuing to grow them and save their seeds year after year. The reason other countries do not is that they have laws governing seed companies that make it prohibitively expensive to offer many different seeds. The U.S. is going in that direction with laws requiring seed dealers to pay for licenses, regulations that I think hit hard at the heirloom hobby gardeners who sell their seeds.
By the way, coveted heirloom tomato varieties are hard to find from commercial seed companies for a number of reasons. Most of the companies selling a decent selection of heirloom seeds are very small and are run by people with a passion. It does not take much bad luck or heartbreak to kill their companies. Plus, their owners do grow old and/or sick and die. Also, growing these plants and preserving their seeds is difficult and exacting work and the results are subject to a great deal of chance. Finally, in order to maintain a competitive edge, few companies carry varieties that their competitors offer.
My grandparents on both sides of my family were farmers. I remember my mamaw’s home in Tennessee with a cast iron stove, a pump at the sink and a well with water that tasted like it came from a bucket of nails. My father, who will be 94 in April, remembers riding an old horse as a child to take water to his father and the men working the field. Their lives on the farm were hard. They farmed and gardened and canned from necessity. Now we can garden and can from love, self-expression, creativity, joy. Good.