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Want more lycopene? Try this. August 28, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. For whatever reason, I’ve always loved orange and yellow tomatoes more than red ones. Sure, a ripe red tomato is great, but for me, the flavor of an orange tomato trumps a red one every time.

I’ve always felt guilty about this because of the much-trumpeted news that the lycopene found in red tomatoes is so good for you. This super-antioxidant is even more bioavailable when cooked in a tomato sauce. (And yes, of course I love tomato sauce, pizza sauce, and the like.) Was I shortchanging myself by eating orange tomatoes instead?

Turns out, the answer is no. Research has now revealed that the lycopene in raw orange tomatoes is far more bioavailable than the lycopene in raw red tomatoes. Hooray! And it’s even more available when combined with olive oil.

Oh happy day! My all-time favorite summer salad is a play on the classic Caprese salad. I start with a bed of Romaine lettuce to add crunch, or a combo of Romaine, butter/Boston lettuce, and arugula to add depth and crunch. On top, I alternate slices of tomato, sweet onion (such as Vidalia or Walla Walla), fresh mozzarella, and whole basil leaves. Then I sprinkle chopped scallions (green onions) over the salad, add salt (we like Real Salt) and fresh-cracked black pepper, and drizzle on some luscious extra-virgin olive oil (our favorite is Hojiblanca, from Spain). Yummmmmm!!! So easy, and so good.

I also enjoy thick slices of orange tomato on toasted whole-wheat bread with Hellman’s mayonnaise or Vegenaise, lettuce, and Cheddar cheese. And of course they’re perfect cut in more manageable segments in any salad.

So hit the orange tomatoes, splash on some olive oil, and enjoy your lycopenes while tomato season lasts! There’ll be plenty of time for spaghetti sauce and pizza come winter.

‘Til next time,

Silence

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Blight hits; tomatoes wilt. June 27, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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3 comments

Here at Hawk’s Haven, our crops were coming in so well we thought this would be our best year ever. Then blight hit our tomatoes, and almost every one wilted before our eyes. Our local paper ran a front-page story alerting gardeners to the super-early arrival of blight this year. This is the same blight that caused the Irish potato famine; it attacks potatoes as well as tomato plants. But our potatoes seem to be holding their own; it’s only our tomatoes that are wilting. We’re just devastated.

Looks like we’ll be buying our tomatoes at the grocery or farmers’ market this year. What about you?

That tomato did WHAT?!!! September 15, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben got an e-mail this morning from Territorial Seed Company (www.territorialseed.com) announcing the winners of its Great Northwest Tomato Taste-Off. Ha, this will be a fun way to start the day, I thought. I opened the e-mail to read the following: “Competition was fierce, but one tomato outshined all the others.”

Say what?! Whatever happened to “outshone”?!! Last time I looked, the past tense of shine was shone, with one exception: When someone shines (polishes) shoes, in which case, the shoes were shined. But that’s because “shine” in the case of shoe polishing is slang; the shoes shine, but no one can really “shine” them; rather, by polishing them, they cause the shoes to shine. The same is true if you say that you shine silver, brass or another metal rather than polishing it.

For the sake of my sanity, I’m going to assume that the winning tomato wasn’t selected because its shoe- or metal-shining abilities were greater than those of its competition, but rather because it tasted better. It outshone its rivals in the matter of flavor. (Mind you, it wouldn’t surprise our friend Ben to discover that someone, somewhere, has tried to shine shoes with tomatoes, but that’s a different matter.)

The abrupt departure of what are called irregular past tenses—those that aren’t formed by adding “-ed” to the end of present-tense verbs—from our language makes our friend Ben sad. I’m stunned every time I read or hear “kneeled” used as the past tense of “kneel” rather than “knelt.” No doubt “weeped” is being used somewhere instead of “wept,” “sleeped” has displaced “slept,” and “dreamt” has been consigned to Shakespearian archives. English is such an inherently rich and diverse language, I hate to see it flattened out.

But I know you’re actually more interested in which tomato won the competition than in my rantings about the decline of the English language, however, so here’s the spoiler: ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’ (and yes, that really is the name of a tomato) narrowly edged out—I mean, outshined—the beloved ‘Red Brandywine’ (#2) and ‘Early Girl’ (#3) to take the title.

Trick to keep tomatoes fresh longer. August 20, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Nothing’s as good as a ripe tomato in summer. And nothing’s as gross as a tomato that’s rotted away to a moldy, squashy, splattery, stinking mess seemingly the moment your back was turned. Eeeeewwwww!!!!

No doubt the best way to avoid this is to use your bounty of vine-ripened tomatoes (whether they’re homegrown or fresh from a local farm stand or farmers’ market) to make fresh salsa or fresh tomato sauce as soon as you get them home. But what if you want to save those luscious, incomparable summer treats to enjoy on a burger or BLT or CLT (cheese, lettuce and tomato, for us vegetarian types) or in a Caprese salad (with Romaine, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella, a drizzle of olive oil, and salt) or that classic Southern summer lunch combo, sliced ripe tomatoes topped with cottage cheese? Or chopped as an accompaniment to refried beans and all the other goodness of a Mexican Night Fiesta, or in a classic fresh corn and black bean salad? Or you name it?

Thank God, help is now at hand, thanks to the good folks at America’s Test Kitchen, the publishers of Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines. They did some experiments to see how to keep ripe tomatoes from going bad, and discovered that they stay fresh a lot longer when stored stem-end down rather than stem-end up.

This is counterintuitive to me, to say the least. I of course know that you’re supposed to keep tomatoes out on the counter or in a bowl at room temperature rather than refrigerating them. But I’ve always kept mine stem-end-up, so I could monitor for the first signs of mold, which always seems to start at the point where the stem is removed from the fruit, and not be taken by surprise. (Nothing like grabbing a tomato from the bowl and discovering that half of it’s gone moldy and rotten; I check mine every day, since I’ve learned from ghastly experience that assuming everything is fine leads to nausea-inducing disaster.)

The America’s Test Kitchen folks speculate that the stem end is the entry point for mold and bacteria. So putting the stem end down prevents that from occurring. They also suggest that moisture escapes through the stem end, causing wrinkling, and that this can be prevented by keeping the stem end down.

What they don’t say, but I assume from their comments, is that they’re putting the tomatoes stem-end down on a flat surface, such as a countertop or paper-lined shelf. Not, in other words, in a bowl as I do, which presumably would still let air (with its attendant bacteria and molds) reach the stem end, no matter what way it was pointed.

But what if, like me, you don’t have the counter space to set out a bunch of stem-end-down tomatoes? Well, here’s a weird trick that the America’s Test Kitchen folks found worked just as well: Tape over the stem end and your tomatoes will keep, plump and mold-free, every bit as long as those stored stem-end-down. Both will stay fresh as just-picked for at least a week.

               ‘Til next time,

                             Silence

Too many tomatoes (and tomatillos, too)! September 6, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I don’t know what you do over Labor Day Weekend, but I’ve been laboring. That’s because it’s time to put up tomatoes and tomatillos. As I did last year, I bought a Xerox-paper-box full of heirloom ‘Amish Paste’ and ‘San Marzano’ paste tomatoes Saturday morning, when our friend Ben and I trekked over to James Weaver’s Meadow View Farm in scenic Bowers, PA to try to beat the crowds that are sure to turn up there this coming weekend as part of the Bowers Chile Pepper Food Festival. (You’ll be hearing more about this from OFB and our heat-loving friend and fellow blog contributor, Richard Saunders, later in the week.)

Getting back to the tomatoes, ‘San Marzano’ is my favorite paste tomato, and of course, ‘Amish Paste’ is revered here in Amish country, so I was extremely excited with my haul. But of course, that meant I had to cook them. Fortunately, it finally cooled down this weekend: perfect weather for spending a really, really long time over a hot stove. Because I’m telling you, it takes a looong time to cook tomatoes—even paste tomatoes—down to the thickness I wanted, that tomato-paste spoon-stands-up-in-it thickness.

Our neighbors had also been giving us tomatoes, and of course we have some of our own, too (though we mostly focus on growing a variety of yummy cherry, pear, and plum tomatoes). I never turn down gifts of tomatoes, since I can always use them in sandwiches, salads, and sauces. And as overwhelming as it might seem, tomato season is over all too quickly here in Pennsylvania. So we try to eat vine-ripened tomatoes every single day during the season, and I always try to preserve some of that hot-off-the-vine freshness in sauces and salsas.

So there I was, washing and chopping tomatoes like a madwoman and dumping them into my biggest LeCreuset Dutch oven and into my Crock-Pot. (I wanted to do a comparison and see what the tomatoes did in each type of reduction.) I slapped a spatter shield rather than a lid over the huge pot full of tomatoes and turned the heat down low; that way the tomatoes could cook down faster without making a huge mess all over the stovetop (and yours truly). I weighted the spatter shield down with the bamboo spoon I was using to stir the tomatoes. I turned the Crock-Pot on low and wedged a toothpick under the lid on two sides to allow a little evaporation.

As the tomatoes in the Dutch oven cooked down throughout the afternoon and evening, I chopped more and added them until the pot was once again full, stirring well to distribute the fresh tomatoes throughout the pot. I’d have done the same thing with the Crock-Pot, but there was one little problem: the tomatoes in it weren’t cooking down, even with the toothpicks. It’s not that they weren’t cooking: They made a lovely batch of tomato juice. They just weren’t cooking down, reducing in volume. I tried pushing the lid open a bit to allow more steam to escape, and I kept the Crock-Pot cooking overnight (I refrigerated the Dutch oven until morning, when I could resume operations), but to no avail. Clearly, the Dutch oven was the winner in terms of making a thick, rich sauce or paste and using up all those tomatoes, though as noted, the Crock-Pot was ideal for making tomato juice.

On Sunday morning, I put the Dutch oven back on the stove, still on low, and continued to cook the sauce, adding tomatoes as the volume cooked down. By afternoon, I’d used the entire box of tomatoes and all the tomatoes we’d been given, and I had a rich, red, fragrant, spoon-standing paste. Yum! I plan to use it to make spaghetti sauce, lasagna, and eggplant parm. And that’s just the beginning! For more ways to prepare a big batch of tomatoes for sauce, plus a great sauce for canning, check out my earlier post, “What to do with all those ripe tomatoes, part 3” (you can find it via our search bar at upper right).

Now, let’s time-travel back to Saturday and those tomatillos. I’d decided to plant a tomatillo for the first time this spring, buying a transplant from Jim Weaver when we got our heirloom tomato and hot pepper transplants. And yes, you read that right, I got one tomatillo plant. But hey, space is limited here in the Hawk’s Haven veggie beds, and I wanted to make sure I could grow and, of course, use the tomatillos before I planted more. Still, I felt a bit sheepish approaching the counter with my one plant.

Turns out, I shouldn’t have worried. My lone tomatillo plant grew fantastically and produced dozens of tomatillos. I’d been looking forward to making homemade salsa verde (the famed Mexican “green sauce”), and it was definitely time to harvest the plump, pale green fruits in their papery husks: They’d filled out the husks and the husks were turning beige. So I went out with a large bowl and came back with several pounds of tomatillos.

I used a recipe I’d found on the Internet as a guide for my salsa verde, but of course, I couldn’t resist ignoring most of what it said and transforming it into Salsa Verde a la Silence. I guess I’m just incorrigible, but I know what we like and how to tweak a recipe to get it there. At least this time I (mostly) stuck to the original ingredients list, just not the proportions and directions.

I began by pouring olive oil in the bottom of my second-largest LeCreuset Dutch oven, adding Trocomare (spicy herbed salt), lemon pepper, chipotle powder, a huge diced sweet onion (‘Vidalia’ or ‘WallaWalla’ type), and three large minced garlic cloves. As the onion cooked down, I added veggie stock (any brand is good; this time, I used Emeril’s Organic) as needed to prevent sticking.

Meanwhile, I de-husked, washed, sliced, and chopped the tomatillos. This was not fun. Well, the dehusking part was fun, but the husked tomatillos were sticky, and once you rinsed them, the sticky stuff became slimy (as did your hands). Eeewwww. Next, you took your fingers’ safety in your hands (uh, so to speak) when it came time to actually slice and dice the tomatillos, which are quite hard even when ripe. All too easy for that knife to slip! A very sharp paring knife and unwavering attention are definitely called for.

I added the tomatillos to the pot as I filled the cutting board with them, continuing until they were all chopped. And of course I kept an eye on the pot, stirring and continuing to add veggie stock as needed. Once the tomatillos were all in, I added two minced green and two minced red chiles. (The recipe called for 8 to 12 serrano chiles, but OFB and I aren’t as heat-tolerant as many of our friends, and I wanted to use what I had on hand rather than going to the store to buy serranos. Not to mention that I’d already added some chipotle powder.) Next, I added a half-bunch of chopped fresh cilantro. Finally, when everything had almost cooked down, I added a liberal splash of Key lime juice.

The recipe said to put this mix in the blender and blend until smooth. No doubt, if you did that, you’d have the salsa verde you get in Mexican restaurants. But of course I didn’t. I don’t mind extra texture—in fact, I enjoy it—and I already had enough dishes piling up, given the tomato sauce situation.

Now, needless to say, I’m desperate to make burritos for supper. I have the large flour tortillas and even managed to get hold of both queso blanca and queso fresca. I have half a bunch of gorgeous cilantro left over from the salsa verde, and of course the salsa verde itself. All I’d have to do is make some rice and a blander version of my usual refried beans (adding the rest of the cilantro to the beans), spoon the rice and refritos into the middle of a tortilla, top with crumbled queso, top that with salsa verde, fold the tortilla over the filling, and secure the tortilla with toothpicks before sealing it in aluminum foil and popping it in the oven to bake (along with two more for OFB). Then, I’d just need to top each hot burrito with shredded lettuce and salsa roja (red sauce). Served up with margaritas, they’d be quite a treat!

But hey, what about that salsa roja? No worries, I have the tomato-sauce base! I’m thinking I’d saute another chopped sweet onion in olive oil with a couple more minced garlic cloves, toss in a couple of minced jarred chipotle chiles once the onion clarified, add Trocomare and 1/4 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, cloves, and allspice, then add the tomato sauce. I could puree that in a blender, or leave it, too, as is. Yum!

Now I just have to make a Thai eggplant dish to use up all the eggplants, and a Thai curry, and… gasp…

            ‘Til next time,

                         Silence

OFB opinion poll #1. May 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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11 comments

Our friend Ben wants to know what you think. Specifically, I want to know what you think about upside-down tomato plants. Our friend Ben saw a whole lotta those this past weekend while plant- and potting soil-shopping at local nurseries. And I’m not happy about it.

We all know those horrible plastic bags of soil that you hang up and dangle tomato plants out of, sort of like a sausage that suddenly sprouted upside down. And now there are hanging “baskets” (you may think of baskets in terms of white plastic, but not our friend Ben) with holes in the bottom, out of which the hapless tomato plants hang helpless like the victims of Ghengis Khan or Vlad the Impaler. One ingenious retailer had even planted basil in the tops of these hanging planters, so you could presumably enjoy tomatoes and basil from the same container.

Our friend Ben just doesn’t get this. If God wanted tomatoes to hang upside down, He’d have given them monkey tails and sent them into trees. Mind you, I don’t see anything wrong with growing tomatoes in containers; see our earlier post, “The container tomato trial,” to find out about our own experiments with this. But there’s quite a difference between growing tomatoes upright in a container and having them hang upside down from the bottom of a bag or “basket.” I realize that it means you wouldn’t have to cage, stake, or otherwise support the growing plants. But frankly, that’s not a huge deal.

However, trying to water a container that’s high enough off the ground to allow a tomato plant to grow to its full height (or length, I suppose, in this case) would be a big deal. It would be an even bigger deal to try to hoist a container that’s roomy enough for deep-digging tomato roots to spread out. Our friend Ben thinks you’d need a support as strong as an arbor to hold one up, and a half-barrel-sized container swinging from on high strikes me as Monty Pythonesque. Not to mention the unfortunate truth that fullgrown tomato plants aren’t the most aesthetic botanicals on the block. Foliage yellows and spots, and often falls off; tomato hornworms make their stealthy way onto stems and leaves. Do you really want a mass of that hanging down in your face?

Well, maybe you do. Somebody’s definitely buying these hanging tomato gizmos, or the nurseries wouldn’t be selling them. That’s why our friend Ben is asking for your opinion. Do you use them? Do you like them? If so, sound off and change my mind. If not, let me hear from you, too: We right-side-up-minded gardeners need to stick together!

Note: For some very astute observations on tomato-growing habits in general, see David in Kansas’s comment, which unfortunately wound up with our earlier post “Frugal living tip #21” rather than here.

The container tomato trial. May 13, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was very interested to read a recent post by Vanessa Richins at TomatoCasual (www.tomatocasual.com) called “Dwarf Tomato Plants.” Vanessa was reviewing a number of tomato plants that were small enough to grow in containers, including ‘Micro Tom’, ‘Micro-Gold’, ‘Red Robin’, and ‘Tiny Tim’. She also mentioned The Dwarf Tomato Project (http://dwarftomatoproject.net/), a venture spearheaded by tomato lovers in Adelaide, South Australia and Raleigh, North Carolina who aim to breed smaller tomato plants for containers and limited spaces.

Our friend Ben was especially interested in all this because my vegetable bed space is limited, but my appetite for homegrown organic tomatoes isn’t. In addition to the heirloom tomatoes I’d planted out, I’d decided to trial one of my favorites, the hybrid orange cherry tomato ‘Sungold’, in a container just to see how it fared. Then, in one of those serendipitous occurences that occasionally bless us all, Silence Dogood and I stopped by the nearby Rodale Institute on Saturday to check out their plant sale. Silence was keen to see if they had any cardamom plants (jackpot!), and our friend Ben wanted to check out their tomatoes. To my amazement, they had seven different varieties bred especially for container growing!

I don’t suppose I need to tell you that I snapped up one of each. The Hawk’s Haven container tomato trial was officially underway. Rodale’s offerings would have been interesting even if I weren’t obsessed with container culture. They had ‘Maskotka Cherry’ (a red cherry tomato), ‘Vilma’ (a blackish-purple cherry tomato), ‘Smarty Cherry’ (a red grape tomato), ‘Husky Cherry’ (a red cherry tomato), ‘Polbig’ (a red roasting tomato), ‘Heartland’ (a 6-8-ounce red tomato), and ‘Little Sweetie’ (an elongated red cherry tomato). In addition to these, our friend Ben bought ‘Pride of the Trial’—or at least that’s what I thought the sign said. The tag in the transplant turned out to say ‘Pride of the Trail’, a rather different concept, and I’ve been unable to find anything about it online. Does anyone know anything about this variety? This one apparently wasn’t a container variety, but I thought I’d try it in a container anyway so poor ‘Sungold’ wouldn’t get lonely.

Back at home, while Silence was planting her coveted cardamom in the greenhouse bed and adding a few herbs to one of our outdoor raised beds, our friend Ben took the tomatoes out of their 4-inch pots and put them into the biggest utilitarian pots I could put my hands on, which ranged in size from sort of big to ginormous. I planted the tomatoes in a mix of potting soil and mushroom compost. My method was far from scientific: I put the biggest transplants in the biggest pots I had on hand and worked my way down to the smallest plants in the smaller pots, figuring that I could pot them up as I was able to acquire bigger pots. At least they all had room to stretch their roots in good soil. I also have some spare tomato cages to stick in the pots if any of the tomatoes show signs of getting out of hand.

Let the tomato trials (or, ahem, trails) begin! With our current nights in the 40s (?!!!), I have the pots in the greenhouse, but once it finally warms up, I’ll move them to a sunny spot outside. I’ll add liquid seaweed and SUPERthrive to their water, but probably won’t do anything else in the way of fertilizer since they already have the benefit of the mushroom compost. Unless, of course, they start looking miserable, in which case I’ll add some organic fertilizer—maybe a little guano or even some of our own homegrown chicken manure.

If anyone else out there is growing tomatoes in containers, I’d love to know what you’re growing, how you’re growing them, in what size pots, and how it’s going!

Tomatoes times two. April 3, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben read a wonderful post over at TomatoCasual (www.tomatocasual.com) this morning called “Instant Tomatoes: Just Add Water,” by Scott Daigre of Tomatomania fame. Despite the clever title—and given our bucket-hauling irrigation style here, our friend Ben is still waiting for someone to come up with tomatoes that will grow and produce if you don’t add water—it’s actually about early-fruiting tomatoes.

Here in Pennsylvania, full-size tomatoes don’t tend to start setting until late in the season; we have better luck with cherries, pastes, and other smaller-fruited types. (Hmmm, maybe that water thing has something to do with this… ) So maybe starting with early-fruiting types would work better for us.

Scott recommended eight-plus varieties that had proven to be earliest in trials, including ‘Matina’, ‘Stupice’, ‘Prairie Fire’, and ‘Golden Mama’. And as it happens, we’re making our first trip of the season out to Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm, that motherlode of heirloom veggie transplants, tomorrow, so we’ve made our list and will be looking for these (and our longtime faves).

So head on over to TomatoCasual and read all about these early birds! You’ll be glad you did.

While I was thinking about tomatoes, I finally got around to heading over to Tomato Bob’s website (www.tomatobob.com). This is a seed company beloved of the Shibaguyz, who recommend it often on their fabulous blog “Here We Go! Life with the Shibaguyz” (http://shibaguyz.com/). They especially love Tomato Bob’s special seed offers (“1945 prices! 25 cents per pack!”), which give budget-strapped gardeners a way to try a variety of veggies in an era when many companies are charging over $3 per pack.

Sound too good to be true? Well, again, you get what you pay for. If you want to try growing some old-time varieties of turnip, parsnip, beet, and the like, and you don’t want to grow too many of them, it’s a deal. But most of Tomato Bob’s seed packs go for market rates; you have to look for the 25-cent specials. Still, he offers lots of heirloom veggie varieties and specializes in heirloom tomatoes. He also carries transplants and flower seeds. If the Shibaguyz love Tomato Bob, it’s worth looking into!

Meanwhile, stay tuned for the update after we head off to Meadow View tomorrow. If you don’t know about Jim Weaver and the Bowers Chile Pepper Festival, read our earlier posts “The case for tomato transplants,” “Scotch bonnets and Dutchy gunpowder,” “Annihilation and other good things,” and “Pepper festival alert.”

Instant tomatoes? Is it still April Fool’s Day? But early tomatoes: We’ll, uh, bite.

The case for tomato transplants. February 11, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Time was when the backyard gardener had two choices: buy a flat of six identical tomato transplants—usually hybrids like ‘Early Girl’, ‘Better Boy’, or, if you were lucky, ‘Sweet 100’—from the local garden center, Agway, or hardware store, or, if you wanted more interesting varieties (technically, cultivars, cultivated varieties), grow them yourself from seed. But what if your garden space was limited and you wanted to grow, say, 10 to 12 different varieties, one plant of each? You either had to buy 10 to 12 seed packets and plant one seed from each packet, or you were the hell out of luck.

Fortunately for all us small-space gardeners, things have changed dramatically in the tomato universe in the past few years. Garden centers have expanded their transplant offerings to include more interesting varieties. And mail-order transplants are becoming more and more available.

Our friend Ben is lucky, since I live relatively near James Weaver’s Meadowview Farm in Bowers, Pennsylvania. Jim Weaver loves heirloom veggies, and grows numerous types of transplants of tomatoes, peppers, hot peppers, eggplants, melons, cukes, squash, and much more, along with herbs, annuals, and a nursery of perennials, shrubs, and trees, as well as offering decorative containers, homemade jams, jellies, and canned goods, customized hot pepper powders, and much, much more. For many years, Silence Dogood, Richard Saunders and I have made the annual spring trek out to Meadowview to select our tomatoes, peppers, decorative hot peppers, nasturtiums, herbs, golden zucchini, ‘Lemon’ and pickling cukes, melons, and ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon transplants (OFB and Silence) and the hottest hot pepper transplants known to man or beast (Richard).

Thanks to Jim Weaver and Meadowview Farm, our friend Ben has never had to order transplants through the mail. But I’ve been most impressed with the selection of tomato transplants offered by an ever-widening group of highly reputable mail-order companies. If any of you have experience with mail-order transplants, please share it with us!

Meanwhile, here are some sources you should definitely check out if you’d like to go the “one or two of each but really wonderful varieties, please” route:

Totally Tomatoes (www.totallytomato.com): Offers tomato and pepper transplants; minimum purchase is eight plants, four each of two varieties of eight of a single variety. They also offer a number of collections, including the Brandywine Collection, Heirloom Tomato Collection, Paste Tomato Collection, Lil Bit Tomato Collection, Big and Little Tomato Collection, and Main Crop Tomato Collection. Since you’re still getting four plants of each type, you might want to go in with a friend (or four).

Burpee (www.burpee.com): The venerable seed house now offers transplants of most of its tomatoes, three plants per variety, as well as collections like Burpee’s Hot Tomato Collection (no, they’re not fiery hot, just “hot” new introductions), Best of Show Tomato Collection, Burpee’s Tomato Sampler, Burpee’s Tomato Hall of Fame, and Heirloom Taste Tomato Collection. Burpee’s collections include one of each plant, or you can order a double collection with two of each variety.

Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com): Certified organic and committed to preserving biodiversity and supporting sustainable organic agriculture, Seeds of Change takes the higher moral ground. If you’re not pressed for cash and want to put your money where your principles are, check out their Heirloom Tomato Seedlings. You can buy their collection of six excellent organic heirloom transplants as a one-plant-each set or save by buying two of each.

Territorial Seed Company (www.territorialseed.com): Territorial offers a wonderful selection of tomato transplants, including lots of heirlooms. Best of all, you can buy them by the plant for just $3.25 each. Check it out!

White Flower Farm (www.whiteflowerfarm.com): Hard to believe but true, the venerable perennial firm White Flower Farm has gotten into tomato transplants in a big way. Check out their Tomatomania Collection, Early Pickers Collection, Tomato Sampler, Heirloom Sampler, and huge assortment of individual tomato plants, including lots of heirlooms (available individually or in groups of three). As you might expect from an upscale company, the plants aren’t exactly cheap—$6.95 each or three for $19.95—but if you’ve got the money, they certainly have the selection.

Hmmm. Our friend Ben sees that a number of my very favorite seed companies aren’t represented here. That’s because they don’t offer transplants. But they do offer a ton of wonderful tomato seeds, and they all offer free catalogues as well. Our friend Ben suggests that you request their catalogues if you don’t already have them, and think about following up with a seed order: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com), Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com), Abundant Life Seeds (www.abundantlifeseeds.com), Park Seed Company (www.parkseed.com), Renee’s Garden (www.reneesgarden.com), and last but certainly not least, Tomato Growers Supply Comapny (www.tomatogrowers.com).

If you have other favorites our friend Ben has overlooked, please let me know! Check out my earlier post, “Ben Picks Ten: Tomatoes,” for my own top tomato choices. And if you aren’t familiar with the tomatocentric blog, Tomato Casual (www.tomatocasual.com), check it out for “all things tomato.” Happy tomato growing!

It’s all about the tomatoes. August 19, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Harvesting tomatoes. Eating tomatoes. Canning tomatoes. Reading about tomatoes. Uh, say what? Today, as Silence Dogood prepares to cut up and cook down a Xerox box full of heirloom paste tomatoes to make and can her famous tomato sauce, it seems only appropriate to recommend a book she discovered on a recent trip to the small but choice used-book store in nearby Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Especially since our friend Ben dissed the umpteen cookbooks she dragged home from her expedition. Talk about stocking up!)

The front room of the Saucony Book Shop is devoted to regional history, and its proprietor, Brendan Strasser, often displays new books by local authors in addition to the wealth of used books for which the bookstore is known. Our friend Ben once found a book of poems there that was written by the previous owner of my own home, Hawk’s Haven. But what Silence found was a book about tomatoes.

Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer describes the conversion of author Tim Stark from freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York to heirloom tomato farmer back at his family place, Eckerton Hill Farm, outside Lenhartsville, PA. (Obviously enough, though, this is a book we’re talking about. Once a writer, always a writer.)

Now, our friend Ben’s and Silence’s favorite fantasy reading has always been about derring-do involving back-to-the-land adventures. From childhood’s Little House on the Prairie books and pretty much any book about Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and their ilk, to grad school’s Good Life books by Helen and Scott Nearing and well-thumbed issues of Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News, to today’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry’s Port William novels, and Donald McCaig’s An American Homeplace, that pioneer spirit, the centrality of the land, of finding one’s place on earth, has always been “it” for us. (Remember the choleric little Gerald O’Hara shouting in Gone with the Wind, “Land is the only thing that matters, Katie Scarlett!” No, not the only thing. Just the thing.)

So imagine our delight when we discovered a back-to-the-land book with a real-life setting about half an hour from our rural home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA! We pass through Lenhartsville regularly en route to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, that preeminent hawk migration site on the Kittatinny Ridge. We even think we recognize the description of the author’s home place. And of course, Tim Stark’s description of his journey of discovery, of how heirloom tomatoes (and heirloom chile peppers) came to define his livelihood and his sense of self, resonated with us. We wannabe back-to-the-landers were in awe: Look, he actually did it!

Mind you, we’re not talking about self-sufficient living here, drawing all your resources from the land, the ultimate produce gardener’s fantasy. Tim Stark is able to do what he does because he sells his heirloom tomatoes in New York City, to high-end chefs and in the fabled Greenmarket, as opposed to, say, the Kutztown Farmers’ Market. From what we can tell, he was also the first person to introduce heirloom, non-red tomatoes to New York, creating demand as well as cornering the market.

This is not the life for everyone, to say the least. But for Tim Stark, it’s turned his private passion—heirloom tomatoes—into a profession. God bless him. And let’s hope that Heirloom will prompt the rest of us to take a good long look at what we really want to do with our lives, and think about turning those dreams into reality. Like the Nearings’ books, which launched the back-to-the-land movement in the ’70s, it’s another wake-up call. As Russia goes to war, Pakistan’s political shakeup further threatens the stability of the Middle East, and yet another hurricane slams into our coasts, our friend Ben thinks Jean-Jacques Rousseau had the right idea: We must cultivate our gardens. And, say, can some tomato sauce.