Thursday, August 6, 2009

Becoming a Tomato Convert

I've never been a huge tomato fan, so we only planted a few tomato plants this spring. Due to my ambivalence, I let my younger son select the plants. We didn't do any research ahead of time, trusting the nursery to have plants well-suited to our hot weather. My son is a ketchup fanatic -- we buy ketchup by the case from our restaurant wholesaler just for him -- and he had visions of vats of homemade ketchup. We ended up with Better Boy and Yellow Pear tomatoes (2 plants each), plus one that was labeled Yellow Pear but is in fact a big red tomato.

The Mystery Tomato has consistently outperformed the Better Boy, and I wish I could identify it. I asked the nursery where we purchased the plant for help, but they said the plants arrive already labeled by the grower, making an identification impossible. We haven't exactly had a bumper crop, but the lone Mystery plant has produced big red tomatoes all summer. Not to sound cliche, but they are dramatically better than the "heirloom" tomatoes that David has been bringing home from Central Market. They don't always look perfect, but the taste is exceptional -- nice texture, sweet, no slime in the center. These tomatoes turned my thinking about tomatoes around.

The Better Boy tomatoes, on the other hand, have been a disappointment. The first fruits all suffered from blossom-end rot, turning black and ugly on the bottoms. Then the birds started pecking holes in the tomatoes -- not big, but enough to ruin the fruit. Perhaps the problem is one of location. The Better Boy plants are right under a mature pine tree. They get plenty of sun, but the birds must sit up there ogling the tomatoes until they're the perfect degree of ripeness to attack.

The best tomato production by far has been from our Yellow Pear plants. I've picked a small bowlful of tomatoes almost every day since early June. We have so many Yellow Pears on hand that David has a hard time keeping up with supply. I can't stand to see them go to waste, so we have been eating dishes with Yellow Pear tomatoes almost every night. From a chef's perspective, David prefers the large tomatoes because they're easier to work with. But from a gardener's perspective, these little tomatoes are my favorite. The plants are highly productive, need absolutely no attention, and the tomatoes taste great. The brilliant yellow color is an added bonus, and they keep their color when cooked. We haven't had any pest or disease problems yet despite the heat. The plants are a big sprawling mess because I didn't do a good job staking them, but they continue to grow and produce. I even find beautiful ripe tomatoes on branches growing on the ground.

In Houston, we get two chances to plant tomatoes -- spring and fall. Given my newfound appreciation for a good tomato, I put more thought into which tomatoes to plant for fall. I started everything from seed this time instead of buying plants. I selected "Green Zebra" from Botanical Interests, "Matt's Wild Cherry" from Southern Exposure, and a pack of 30 assorted heirloom tomatoes from Park Seeds. The great thing about the assortment is that for just a few bucks I got seeds for 6 different types of tomatoes. The negative is that I can't tell which seedlings will produce which tomatoes, so I have to try to plant as many of them as possible. I don't have room for 30 tomato plants (plus my Green Zebras and Wild Cherrys), so I'm thinking about planting some in pots and sharing them with family and friends.

I also collected seeds from two tomatoes I bought at our Farmer's Market -- a red cherry tomato, and a red roma tomato. Local growers know which varieties grow well in Houston, so I expect those tomatoes to be successful in our garden. The seeds were easy to collect. I removed the seeds from the viscous centers in a fine-meshed sieve. I then rinsed them well, and let them dry on a paper towel. Many of the seeds stuck to the paper towel after they dried, so I just tore around the paper a bit and stuck all the seeds in envelopes. The seeds germinated extremely well (despite the bits of paper towel stuck to them). I'll never know the variety of either tomato, but we've had good luck this summer with mystery tomatoes. The challenge will be finding room for still more tomato plants.

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