Tomato planting is just around the corner in my North Carolina area and I am looking forward to putting my “babies” in the ground. I am far behind the past few years’ planting schedule, but a long, cool, wet Spring has slowed my steps and the 2008 season is still fresh in my memory. The cool, wet days of that year led to a blight that wiped out our 150+ tomato plants and I am just not ready to take the chance of losing my tender seedlings to Mother Nature’s unpredictable weather pattern. Every plant in my greenhouse was started from seed and some of them look pretty fragile, but warm sunshine and just the right amount of rain will give them a needed boost and they will catch up with those department store plants I have grudgingly admired. Although I am tempted to buy a plant that already has fruit hanging, I remind myself the plants I grow will produce tastier fruit than any of those hybrids.
The first big crop of tomatoes at Heart & Sole was planted in 2008. Richard and I were proud of the Big Boys, Better Boys and Romas that grew tall and became loaded with fruit, but we were devastated when late spring rains came and the plants developed late blight. Within days, almost all plants were affected. Although no tomato plant (or potato) is immune to blights, after our experience, we decided to grow only heirloom varieties, started from seed, in our gardens.
Our daughter, Kate, a self-professed tomato connoisseur, was suspicious of the various colors, shapes and sizes we planned to grow in 2009. She asked that we plant “lots of those big red beefsteaks,” because they were her favorites. I found an heirloom beefsteak variety and we did include plenty of those, along with intriguing new ones. At the height of tomato season, we covered a huge platter with tomato slices and conducted a “taste test” lunch. The only slices that were uneaten were red beefsteaks and Kate had to admit they were no longer her favorite!
After growing over ninety varieties of heirloom tomatoes, I am often asked which tomato is my favorite. The answer: each one is a favorite for different reasons. Cream Sausage, a white paste tomato, is best for canning and making white tomato bisque soup. Amish Paste and Japanese Plum are best for fresh salsa. Great Whites, with their huge size and slightly garlic flavor, are perfect for sandwiches. Green Zebras’ salt content makes them the best choice for eating fresh, without added salt. Red, Yellow and Ivory Pear, Black Cherry, Snowberry, Isis Candy and Fox Cherry make a beautifully colored addition to salads or pies. A. Grappoli D’Iverno and Principe Borghese are best for drying. Reisetomate, with a strange brain-like shape, is a great conversation food and who could possibly resist tiny Sungold, eaten fresh off the vine?
Although each tomato I grow is a favorite, I have to confess there is one variety that holds a special place in my garden. Csikos Botermo is not one of the more beautiful tomatoes. With a thick skin, seedy flesh and a tendency to develop small spots on its striped top, this tomato is not easy to slice, is not conducive to juicing, is not suitable for drying or canning and does not really have an outstanding flavor. So why am I partial to a tomato with a name that I am not even sure I can pronounce? Because, in 2009, Csikos Botermo was the first heirloom tomato, started from seed planted in my basement, to ripen. You could compare my relationship with this tomato to first love. That giddy, joyous feeling that makes the whole world look brighter, prettier, and causes one to smile. So, when I walk along my rows of tomatoes, I always pause to admire Csikos Botermo. Maybe not the tomato anyone else would even notice, but the one I absolutely have to grow every year. Csikos Botermo: First Love. Easy to understand why the French call tomatoes pomme d’amour, “love apples.”
During the next few weeks, I plan to post notes about the various tomatoes we have grown at Heart & Sole Gardens. Please remember that my notes are subjective and reflect opinions about tomato varieties’ productivity during particular seasons and growing conditions. I encourage any gardener to plant a variety of heirloom tomato types and taste the fruits of each. Taste is a personal prerogative and each individual needs to decide which varieties best suit a gardener’s needs and desires. Undoubtedly, there can be no more satisfying “taste test” than a platter full of heirloom tomato slices, so enjoy the process!