Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of all Time by Craig LeHoullier
Tomatoes are the most popular fruit in the world. First grown by the Aztecs and Incas around 700 AD, they spread to Europe in the late 16th century and are now grown all around the world.
There aren’t too many tomatoes used in dishes at your local Chinese restaurant, so it may come as a surprise that China grows and consumes more tomatoes than any other country. Still it is not so surprising when you consider that China is home to at least 18% of the world’s population. India with 17% of the world’s population runs a close second in tomato consumption, while the United States with only about 4% of the world’s population, is third on the list by eating 11 million metric tonnes of tomatoes to China’s 34 million metric tonnes. That is a lot of tomatoes! Those population percentages suggest a lot about what changes are likely over the next decades, not only with tomatoes.
In our country the vast amount of tomatoes are grown in California and Florida which means many of these tomatoes are grown to withstand hundreds and even thousands of miles of shipping. Some are grown to ripen all at once to make harvesting more efficient for food companies like Heinz and companies that can tomatoes in various forms. And yet we all long for flavorful sun ripened tomatoes to eat off the vine on a summer afternoon – which means that a lot of us grow tomatoes in the backyard. Fortunately, with the rise of local farms and farmer’s markets, it is easier to get those fresh grown tomatoes even if we don’t have yards.
Craig LeHoullier, tomato aficionado extraordinaire, has grown over 1,200 tomato varieties over 30 years and has now written Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time (Storey Publishing $19.95). This is a book about the history of tomatoes, and the delights of heirloom tomatoes. He does admit “To be fair, with the exception of Moreton, Supersteak, Early Cascade, Big Girl and Ultra Sweet, the hybrids did very well in terms of yield and flavor. However none of the hybrids were superior to the best of the open-pollinated varieties – Nepal, Brandywine, Anna Russian, and Polish, to name but a few of the superb heirlooms that I tested.”
Epic Tomatoes is just chock-full of amazing historical facts including the famous public tomato consumption event staged by Robert Gibbon Johnson, a leading citizen of Salem, New Jersey in 1820. Because they are members of the nightshade family tomatoes were generally considered poisonous at that time, so hundreds of people came from miles around to witness this startling event. “The story goes that when Johnson bit into a tomato some onlookers fainted, and with Johnson suffering no ill effects, the tomato industry in America began.” However tomatoes did not really become popular until after the Civil War.
History is fascinating, but LeHoullier goes on to give information about his favorite varieties which include Tiger Tom, Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, the now more familiar Brandywine and the encouraging Mortgage Lifter. The book would be fun to read if only for the names of these historic and delicious tomatoes: Kellogg’s Breakfast, Stump of the World, Rosella Purple, Mexico Midget, Giant Syrian, Black from Tula, Green Zebra, Black Prince, Hugh’s German Johnson, and Gregori’s Altai.
All this information is as delicious as a sun warmed Cherokee Purple, one of my own favorites, but LeHoullier has practical advice and instruction to offer new and experienced gardeners. When do you plant seeds indoors? What’s the best planting mix? There is full information about caring for seedlings indoors and when to plant them outdoors. He also gives advice on buying transplants and even the new grafted transplants. He thinks the jury is still out on the benefits of grafting, but that the idea is promising.
Cat Face afflicted tomato – Now I know what cat face looks like
Chapter 9: Troubleshooting Diseases , Pests and Other Problems was particularly fascinating and useful. Clear photographs make it easy to identify the problems that can occur, with causes, and control. I had heard the term cat-face but never knew what it meant. Now I do. Cat-face causes brown corky folds at the blossom end of a tomato that usually afflicts beefsteak tomato varieties. I have grown cat-faced tomatoes.
It is easier to find heirloom tomato seeds, and even transplants, than it used to be. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) offers dozens of varieties from green, to yellow, pink, red and purple as well as paste tomatoes, cherry and plum. Local garden centers also offer an array of these heirloom seedlings. How to choose from so many? LeHoullier provides a list of 250 recommendations, across the various spectrums, listing size, season and flavor.
In spite of the discouraging snow cover around our house, it is time to start gardening. It is time to start planting tomato seeds indoors. It is time to start visualizing fresh picked tomatoes eaten on the way from the garden to the house. With juice running down your arm. LeHoullier has definitely put me in the mood.
I do not expect to have a vegetable garden this year, but I was given a couple of fabric Smart Pots to test, and I plan to Smart Pot up some small heirloom tomatoes. Expect to hear more about Smart Pots, and my heirloom tomato adventures.
Between the Rows April 11, 2015
Thomas Affleck Rose
Thomas Affleck is not blooming yet, but I did clean out the Herb Bed where this rose is the western anchor. It looks like it came through our horrendous winter well. All that deep snow was a blessing for many plants. Chives and parsley and marjoram are showing new growth, but I am going to have to wait a while more the roses to bloom.
Thomas Affleck came from the Antique Rose Emporium where many of my most beautiful roses. They have Old roses, new roses, and roses in any shade of pink, red, white and yellow.
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Herb Garden before weeding
The first garden day came on Sunday when temperatures rose to 60 degrees. The Herb Garden in front of the house has been clear of snow for about a week but there has been no sun, only grey skies and lots of wind. You can see that I did not cut everything back in the fall.
Herb Garden after weeding
I only made the first pass, so it doesn’t look new garden bed neat, but everything is cut down, raked out, and I did pull out grass and a few weeds.
Herb Garden – long viiew
I’m sure this is a new kind of selfie – I didn’t notice my shadow. You can see how wonderfully strong the sun is. At last! The herb garden is about 34 feet long. It always surprises me to find out how much is green and growing underneath the winter debris. I found chives and garlic chives which was no surprise, but also lemon balm, autumn crocus shoots, golden marjoram, horseradish shoots, yarrow, and Fulda Glow sedum. The real surprise was some tiny fine parsley shoots. Parsley is a biennial which means it send up a flower to make seeds in its second year. Theoretically you should get two springs of usable parsley, but that has never happened for me. I only expected soft rotting old parsley remains, but in one spot there were parsley shoots which should be usable before I can start snipping the new parsley starts that I will plant soon.
It must be Spring!
Carolina Silverbell on the Bridge of Flowers
Blooming trees are an important part of our domestic landscape, giving it substance as well as beauty. Planting a blooming tree requires more thought than planting a perennial or pots of annuals. A tree cannot be moved at will.
No matter what we plant in our garden we have to consider the site, sun or shade, and we have to consider the growth rate and the ultimate size of the plant. With a tree these considerations become even more important. We planted five ginkgo trees in our new Lawn Beds 16 years ago when we had five toddler grandsons belonging to our three daughters. The trees were a nod to our years in Beijing, and pleasing to me because of the unusual fan shape of the foliage which turns a beautiful shade of yellow in the fall.
Ginkgo in October 2012
Ginkgo trees are dioecious which means they need male and female trees to fruit. We did not know whether we had male or female trees so we couldn’t be sure they would fruit or not. Male ginkgoes are more desirable because they will never fruit, and the fruits are famous for their bad smell. We didn’t worry about this because even if we had male and female trees they would probably not mature and fruit for many years – when we would no longer be around. We might seem thoughtless, but it is my position that we can see only so far ahead into the future, and in the case of plants we can usually please ourselves. The only exception would be deliberately planting something invasive.
We had the room in our country garden to plant trees that would get fairly large. In a suburban yard or garden you will have to be more discriminating about which trees to plant. When I look at the dimensions of trees labeled ‘small’ they can still be larger than you might expect. For example, there are many crabapple varieties that range from 12 to 25 feet high with an equal spread. Donald Wyman crab, one of the ten most disease resistant, produces white flowers in spring and small red apples in the fall. Prairiefire is also highly disease resistant and has bright pink flowers in the spring. The foliage begins with a purplish shade, changes to bronzey green and finishes with a yellow/orange shade in the fall. Crabapples are wonderful trees, with beautiful spring bloom to please you and support pollinators, with small apples in the fall that you might use in the kitchen or that the birds will enjoy.
The pagoda dogwood, Cornus alternifolia, is a native dogwood that can reach a height of 25 feet with an equal spread. Its airy while blossoms do not resemble the more familiar flowers of Cornus florida or Cornus kousa, but there will eventually be small blue berries that will attract birds. The name refers to the attractive layered arrangement of the branches.
The Silverbell is slightly larger, possibly reaching a height of 35 feet. You can see this tree on the Bridge of Flowers. Clusters of small white bell-like flowers appear in mid to late April.
Rate of growth will depend on your soil, but I once listened to an arborist explaining to a friend that she could control the size of a tree by regular pruning. This is good to remember when a small blooming tree that you have planted becomes larger than you and your garden’s definition of ‘small.’
Careful planting is important to the future of a tree. Dig a generously wide hole and loosen the soil within the hole. It should be only as deep as the roots, or balled roots, or the container that your tree came in
If you have a small bare root tree support it in the middle of the hole so the root collar is even with the soil level. Fill in with the original soil. Tamp it down to make sure there are no air pockets and that the tree is firmly held. As you fill in the last of the soil make sure it is just below the root collar and that there is a shallow basin to collect water. Water well. Then mulch with two inches of wood chips or bark, but make sure to keep the mulch away from the trunk. No mulch volcanoes!
If your tree came balled and burlaped place it in a good big hole so it is at the proper level. Then cut away and remove all the wires and the burlap. If there is burlap left underneath that is fine as long as it is not plastic burlap. You want to free all those roots. Fill with original soil, water and mulch as for a barerooted tree. If you have a landscaper do this for you, make sure the wires and burlap get removed. I have heard horror stories of inept landscaping help not doing this resulting in the loss of the trees.
If your tree comes in a container and you find the roots are rootbound you should cut an X at the bottom of the root ball with a sharp knife, and make three or four cuts down the sides. This root-pruning will encourage new root growth. This is not unlike firmly combing out tangled roots in a rootbound perennial before planting. As with any plant, keep it well watered for the first year while it is getting established.
Trees give us so much: sculptural form, shade, the whispering of breezes among the leaves, seasonal flowering and food and shelter for many creatures. Choosing the appropriate tree for its site and planting it well will give you decades of beauty.
Between the Rows April 4, 2015
View from the bedroom window April 10, 2015
The view from the bedroom window shows a world iced with crystal and shrouded in mist.
Yellow Birch – Iced and shrouded
I love taking photos of this yellow birch in the west field. So mysterious shrouded in fog.
Iced trees on April 10, 2015
I didn’t worry about all the perennials buried under three feet of snow all during the frigid month of February, but ice on the weeping cherry is definitely a worry.
Ice on the wisteria April 10, 2015
I wonder how the wisteria feels about all the ice. Probably not happy.
Little Bulbs – Crocus and Glory of the Snow
The Little Bubs are the earliest to bloom. This collection is crocus and Glory-of-the-Snow, otherwise know as Chionodoxa will be blooming on the Bridge of Flowers any minute. I have Glory-of-the-Snow down by the vegetable garden, still covered by snow. Crocus and Chionodoxa and deer and rodent resistant, and both will increase over time.
Most of my snowdrops are also still under the snow, but temperatures got to 50 degrees today, so I think they will emerge from their white blanket very soon. I got smart a couple of years ago and put a few snowdrop bulbs in the Herb Border which warms early, and lets the snowdrops claim the crown for first bloomers in my garden. I love these Little Bulbs, including scillas and grape hyacinths, because they are no trouble, increase in numbers every year and bloom early in great patches – once they get going. Mine are planted in the lawn and I try to get the grass mowed very short when we go into winter, to let them shine more easily.
All the small bulbs should be planted in the fall. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs have a multitude of spring and summer blooming bulbs. Still
Bird Bath – Still water
For years putting water in the garden was a problem for me. Beverley Nichols was one of my favorite authors when I was younger and spent a lot of time reading English garden books. He is wonderfully witty (the British are never merely funny) and I can certainly identify with many of his adventures with plants, and other gardeners. I did take against one thing he said with great energy which was that a good garden required water. How the heck was I supposed to get water into my garden? All I could manage was a birdbath and I didn’t think that counted. In my defense I have to say this was before the advent of solar powered fountain pumps, and electric recycling pumps that came with the fountain urns sold in every garden center.
Three years ago, in lieu of buying a whole fountain with urn, reservoir and recycling pump, I bought a little fountain setup with some bamboo that rested across a small livestock waterer and a recycling pump that sat inside the waterer. I thought the bamboo made it look serenely Asian. (We all do have our fantasies.) I placed it on the Welcoming Platform next to our piazza where we sit in the shade of the wisteria to eat or just to relax and enjoy the view. I surrounded the not very attractive black water basin with potted plants and hid the electric cord almost invisibly.
The day was fine and sunny. I took my book, about American gardens, out to the piazza, plugged the fountain into an outlet in the wall near the door, sat and waited. What I really wanted from my fountain was the burble of falling water. I could hear only the slightest sigh from fountain. What was wrong?
My husband came home and we fiddled with the depth of the water, the fall of the water into the basin but nothing made much difference to me. Why not? Well, the problem was my ears. They just were not working as they had 20 years earlier. It then occurred to me I hadn’t been hearing the birds as much as I used to either.
Something had to be done and I did it. I now have almost invisible (not that I care) bits of silver in my ears that help me hear the birds, but my little bamboo fountain never burbled sufficiently.
A friend gave me a wonderful bird bath that we put in front of the piazza. It had a solar pump that sent the water splashing and that was lovely. But the pump died and I could never find a suitable replacement pump. Now the birds on our hill have still water awaiting them, but birders tell me that it is the sound of moving water that most dependably attracts birds.
Over the years I have had the pleasure of being invited into many gardens and many of those gardens have had water. Jane Markoski has a fountain made of an old millstone, but she also has a lotus pond. The water is still but the lotuses, holding their heads above the water are magnificent.
Rose Deskavitch’s stream and fountain
Rose Deskavich has a burbling fountain in her front yard, and a bit of woman-made stream with pool and a spouting splashing fountain in her backyard. Except for the fountain spout in the pool I thought it was a natural stream, and thought she was awfully lucky to have a stream emerge from her property line the way it did. Deskavich laughed at me when I exclaimed at her good fortune, but my husband now merely rolls his eyes and thinks I am the most gullible person he has ever met.
But I digress. Other gardens have bowls of water in the sun or in the shade, resting on the ground or supported by handsome columns, but always surrounded by shrubs or trees so that birds stopping by for a drink or a quick bath can also find quick shelter if they suddenly feel threatened. Whether you have a stream or a pond or a small birdbath, it is possible to have water in the garden and it all counts.
The good news is that solar or electrical fountains on any scale from small to grand, are now available in garden centers. When I attended the February New England Grows exhibits in Boston there were booths filled with fountains of every type. There were splashing fountains and silent fountains where water slid down stone plinths, or granite balls resting on a plinth, or large stone bowls resting on a plinth. Our own Bridge of Flowers has a silent fountain in the shade that I call the Stone Spring. A beautiful boulder that is set on river stones has been slightly hollowed so that water collects and then silently slips over the edge into the reservoir where it is recirculated, setting the mood for contemplation after the riotous color of the sunny Bridge of Flowers.
And fortunately for people such as myself, beautiful or amusing birdbaths are still easy to find in garden centers.
Jane Markoski’s millstone fountain
Do you have water in your garden? What is it that you most enjoy? The sound of moving water, or the way water attracts birds and butterflies to your garden? Does your fountain or birdbath serve as a work of art? I would love to hear about the water in your garden. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Between the Rows March 28, 2015
View from the Bedroom Window March 2, 2015
February ended cold, and March began cold. 10 degrees at 7 am on March 2. The fountain juniper is almost completely covered.
View from the Bedroom Window March 4, 2015
More snow yesterday, but warmer temperatures – over freezing.
View from the Bedroom Window March 16, 2015
Temperatures are staying at freezing or below – but the fountain juniper begins to reveal itself. The only place to find color is at the Smith College Spring Bulb show.
View from the Bedroom Window March 22, 2015
More sun, but still freezing temperatures. And yet melting – or subliming – continues. ”Sublime verb – to move from a solid (ice or snow) to vapor.”
View from the Bedroom Window March 26, 2015
I wouldn’t have taken a photo today but the early morning fog is so beautiful. Last night there was rain, then snow. By noon the sun was shining and the temperature had risen to 50 degrees! Not for long.
View from the Bedroom Window March 31, 2015
And so March finally ends. The snow is still deep and frozen over most of the landscape. Last year there were patches of bare ground. What will April bring?
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Homegrown Herb Garden
Herbs. Some people like herb gardens because they are so practical, others like the romance of herbs. All new herb gardeners will find that they are about the easiest gardens to tend. Herbs are not fussy plants.
Lisa Baker Morgan and Ann McCormick belong to the practical school. Their book Homegrown Herb Garden: A Guide to Growing and Culinary Uses (Quarry Books $24.99) gives information about growing 15 flavorful herbs, and then delicious recipes using each of the 15.
These 15 herbs range from the familiar basil and Italian parsley to the more exotic bay laurel and lemongrass. They include fashionable herbs like cilantro and chervil which were never in any cookbook I owned in1960.
Morgan and McCormick give basic growing information for all herbs which is basically a site in the sun, and soil with good drainage. Herbs will not need much in the way of fertilizer if you give them ordinarily fertile garden soil, but you will need to fertilize herbs planted in containers. You will also need to give potted plants sufficient water.
Growing culinary herbs is only half the job. Once you have these plants producing prolifically you will need to know how to harvest and preserve them. We are all familiar with jars of dried herbs in the store, or bunches tied prettily with ribbon hanging from the rafters in a colonial home. But how do you know which of the many varieties to grow, when to harvest, how best to dry, how best to store. The Homegrown Herb Garden has all the answers which vary with each herb.
Drying herbs is one way method of preservation. Freezing is another. Morgan and McCormick suggest one way of freezing basil or cilantro or other herbs that you plan to use in a sauce or soup is to puree the fresh leaves with a bit of water and then put the puree in ice cube trays and freeze. You can then put these frozen herb cubes in plastic freezer bags and pull out one or two when you need them.
I have my own method for preserving parsley which is often called for in soup or sauce recipes. I grow a lot of Italian, flat leaf, parsley. It makes a nice border for the herb garden in front of my house and saves me a lot of money when I consider how many $1.99 bunches of parsley I would buy over the season. With the arrival of September I start to harvest bunches of parsley and remove the heavier stems, then I lay a good amount on a piece of waxed paper and roll it up like a cigarette. I will put three or four parsley rolls in a freezer bag and freeze them When a recipe calls for parsley I just cut off as much of a parsley roll as needed.
A look at the recipes included will make this valuable as a cookbook as well. Kabocha and Coconut Soup with Thai basil, and Venetian Seafood en Papillote with garlic, shallots, basil, chives, bay leaves and dill sound particularly yummy.
Herb Lovers Spa Book
In The Herb Lover’s Spa Book: Create a Luxury Spa Experience at Home With Fragrant Herbs from Your Garden Sue Goetz comes at herbs from a different direction. She takes 19 common herbs from Aloe vera to witch hazel and with the help of beeswax, alcohol, salt and vinegar turns their sap, foliage, and flowers into facial steam, bathing potions, herbal teas, herbal scrubs, healing ointments and more. What do you need? Invigoration? Soothing? Healing? Your herb garden can provide all of these.
Goetz begins with the design of your garden which will very well include more than herbs. How do you want to arrange plants and spaces to give you a retreat where you can refresh yourself? We gardeners know that our time in the garden is about more than the plants. There is sun and shade, fragrance, birdsong, and maybe the sound of trickling water.
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, as well as mints, are not only culinary herbs (and a popular song) they are also the basis, singly and in combination, for tub teas, foot scrubs, aftershave, and other spa potions.
For Goetz the rose is an herb and it certainly is used in many lotions and balms. The rose water that is used in some recipes is not difficult to make. Count on me to make my own this summer. My rugosa roses are fragrant and perfect for this project.
I’ve sometimes looked longingly in stores at clear spray bottles with fancy labels for water to spray on linens when you iron them. To me they speak of an organized life with old fashioned amenities. I have never bought them of course, but with Goetz’s help I realized I can make these myself very easily. Sometimes I am amazed that I don’t instantly see the obvious.
I have had an herb garden for many years. I always laugh when I see photos of neat geometric herb gardens that look nothing like mine. My herbs have been more rowdy than neat and I love them for their energy and their willingness to be undemanding while giving me savor in my kitchen, fresh fragrance in my linen closet, and lots and lots of pollinators in the garden.
If you are a new gardener an herb garden will satisfy you with the success the common herbs will give you, and if you are an experienced gardener Goetz, Morgan and McCormick will show how to grow more exotics like lemongrass and new delicious and soothing ways to use them.
My herb garden in front of the house
Between the Rows March 21, 2015
Mirror Lake, Japanese Garden in Buffalo NY
Water is a precious resource. It is also a source of beauty in our gardens. We cannot all have water like this in our garden, but . . .
we can have a circular fountain, and
Grotto fountain and pool
and we can have fountain and grotto pool in our back yard jungle, and
and we can have a simple urn fountain, but
Frog Fountain, Seattle WA
we will probably never have a frogs with turtles fountain like this one in Seattle, Washington.
What kind of water do you have in your garden?
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