Tomatoes and Corn, mmmm

And the winner is . . . (drum roll) . . . Lillian’s Yellow. Last week’s tomato growing workshop here climaxed with a tomato tasting of 15 heirloom varieties. Many of the fruits came from Four Winds Farm in Gardiner, NY, which specializes in and, in spring, sells transplants of, heirloom varieties.
In order to be semi-scientific about which heirlooms tasted best, I splayed them out on a tray, and as I sliced each variety, we tasted and rated them on a scale of 1 to 10. Occasionally we went back to tasting prior ones to see if taste buds were getting dulled or if we had started out setting the bar either to high or too low.
Lillian’s Yellow’s victory, with an average rating of 8, came as a surprise. After all, it was up against Brandywine, which is a top contender in every tomato taste-off. Carolyn Male, in her excellent book 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for American Gardens, describes Lillian’s Yellow as having a creamy, yet meaty, flesh and a deep and complex flavor, “rich, citrusy, yet slightly sweet.” Put more simply, it tastes very, very good. This variety is not high-yielding and the fruit often ripens with blemishes and in odd shapes. Still, on the basis of flavor alone, I’ll be planting it next year.
Brandywine, which came in as a close second with an average rating of 7.7, is described by Male, as exploding “with flavor, literally assaulting your senses with every bite, and [having] a depth of flavor that truly matches its century-long heritage.” Brandywine’s close kin, Yellow Brandywine, was no slacker, just missing coming in third. That prize went to the variety Goldie, which averaged 6.7 to beat out Yellow Brandywine at 6.6.
Averages have their limitations. Someone who really really loved Golden King of Siberia, which most people at the workshop disliked for having a soapy flavor, might bring up the average. One eccentric taste bud would be evident in the wide range of the rating. Here, then, is the average and range of ratings for each of the heirloom varieties we tried:
 Variety Average Range
Amish Paste 4.2 6
Aunt Ruby 7 4
Belgian Giant 5.3 5
Brandywine 7.7 3
German Johnson 4.8 5
Golden King of Siberia 3.2 5
Goldie 6.7 5
Green Zebra 6.3 5
Lillian’s Yellow 8 2
Mortgage Lifter 6 5
Mountain Princess 4.2 5
Nepal 5.1 4
Rose de Berne 7 2
Truckers’ Favorite 5.8 4
Yellow Brandywine 6.6 4
Take all this with a grain of salt (literally, if you like) because weather also might figure  into tomato flavor. And then, of course, it is all a matter of taste.
I’m not sure just how much effect weather has on tomato flavor but the effect can be much more dramatic in other ways in the garden. Especially this year’s weather.
How about that heat back in July? I’m blaming it on a poor showing of peppers and a couple of plantings of corn. Peppers are especially finicky about the weather. Blossoms drop without getting pollinated when daytime temperatures rise above 90° in conjunction with nighttime temperatures above 75°, or if nighttime temperatures are below 55°. Sensitivity varies with pepper variety, with hot peppers being more heat (as in weather) tolerant than sweet peppers.
Unfortunately, this year I grew varieties that seem to be temperature sensitive. Most plants are beautifully lush and green, but have few fruits on them. Many fruits have set after the heat wave and won’t have time to reach full, red ripeness.
Corn also had pollination problems, evidenced by ears with too many missing kernels and uneven ripening. Temperatures in the 90s kill the pollen, which is shed from the tassels atop each plant, although

most pollen is shed in the morning before temperatures get that hot. Again, though, nights that are too warm can interfere with corn pollination. Some insect eating the silk at critical stage could also result in incomplete pollination.

Whacky weather can also put tasseling and silking out of synch. Pollen is usually shed beginning two to three days before silks emerge and continues for five to eight days. Dry weather — especially hot, dry weather — slows silk growth but not tasseling so that when silks are finally receptive, there’s not enough pollen around for complete pollination. Complete pollination, where each of the about 1,000 silks of each ear gets some viable pollen so that the kernel to which it is attached can grow, is what leads to plump, full ears.
To keep us in fresh corn from midsummer on, I made four planting of corn, each a couple of weeks apart. Yields from the last two plantings are heavy, so we’ve been eating and freezing corn almost daily. 
Getting back to the question of weather and tomato flavor . . . Although a lot of people feel like the effect can be dramatic, no studies have shown that to be the case. True, cloudy weather means less photosynthesis, which translates to less sugars and other flavor components. And yes, quantitative differences in flavor components have been measured by sensitive instruments. And a lot of rain probably does make tomatoes somewhat more watery. But generally, such changes are too small to be noticed by our taste buds.
Except, there is one dramatic, taste-able difference due to weather. If poor fruit set occurs and fewer fruits result, the remaining fruits will taste noticeably better. Which is one reason why determinate varieties of tomatoes, which set all their fruit in a short window of time (good from a commercial standpoint), taste so bad. And why many heirloom varieties, whose harvest is spread over many weeks, taste so good.

Tomato Sowing, and More

Sowing tomatoes was the big moment in the garden last week. The sowing was actually indoors and it was on April 1st, which is 6 weeks before the “average date of the last killing frost,” or, to those in the know, ADLKF.
I’m finicky about what varieties to grow because good tomatoes just waste garden space, never getting eaten if great-tasting tomatoes, are also to be had. But look at tomato variety descriptions in seed catalogues and on seed packets, and you’d think that every tomato variety tastes great and is worth growing. 
I read those descriptors carefully to narrow the field. For starters, I avoid any tomato listed as “determinate.” Determinate varieties grow by branching repeatedly because each stem ends in a cluster of fruits. The plants are compact and ripen their fruits over a short season, which appeals to commercial growers. Downsides are that their lower leaf to fruit ratio results in poor flavor and concentrated ripening causes more stress and, hence, susceptibility to diseases.
So I grow only “indeterminate” varieties, whose clusters of fruits hang from along their ever elongating (indeterminate in length) stems. These are the varieties that can be pruned for staking.
Short of tasting a particular variety of tomato, the next descriptor that would guide me is whether or not it’s a “potato leaf” variety. Yes, their leaves look like those of potatoes (a close relative), that is, thicker and with smooth, rather than serrated edges. Still, a lot of great-tasting tomatoes are not potato-leaved.
Pink, heart-shaped tomatoes also have the edge on flavor. Same goes for tomatoes that don’t ripen to a

Two great tomatoes: Cherokee Purple & Amish Paste

uniform red color. Or tomatoes that don’t ripen to perfectly round orbs. I also happen to like dark colored — so-called “black” — varieties. You could almost say that the uglier the tomato (by commercial standards) the better the flavor. Which is not to say that every tomato variety bearing ugly fruits is great-tasting; but it’s a start.

A man (or woman, or child) can grow only so many tomatoes. This year I narrowed my lineup to 16 varieties, some old favorites and a few new ones, the new ones chosen on the basis of being indeterminate, perhaps potato-leaved, etc.
The old favorites are Belgian Giant, Anna Russian (good cooked and fresh), San Marzano (good cooked, bad fresh), Cherokee Purple, Blue Beech (good fresh and with unique, good flavor cooked), Amish Paste (good

Some of last year’s tomatoes

cooked and fresh), Rose de Berne, Valencia (orange fruit), and Nepal. Also two cherry tomatoes, Sungold and Gardener’s Delight. The latter was my favorite decades ago and I’m curious now how it compares with the incomparable Sungold.

New varieties for this year are Brandywine Black, Black Prince, Cherokee Chocolate, German Giant, and Black Krim.
Whew! That’s a lotta’ tomatoes.
Even with a greenhouse, indoor planting space is at a premium. Besides those 16 varieties of tomatoes, with plans for at least 4 plants of each variety, I have dozens of other vegetable seedlings — broccoli, lettuce, kale, Brussels sprouts, pepper, eggplant, and more — growing or in the works. And multiple varieties of each.
I’m managing all this by starting out sowing seeds in what look like miniature fields. These “fields” are 4 by 6 inch seed flats, filled with potting soil into which I press 4 furrows with my MFT (my “mini-furrowing tool”). MFT is a 4 by 6 piece of plywood with a handle on its upper side and four, spaced out, 1/4 inch diameter dowels glued to its underside. Into the furrows impressed by the dowels I sprinkle the seeds, cover the furrows, and then smooth the “field” with a similar plywood rectangle lacking the dowel underbelly. The seedlings, when they sprout, look like miniature fields of plants.
Once sprouts unfold their second sets of leaves, they’re ready to be “pricked out” and given their own home. That home could be a pot or a cell in a plastic tray of multiple cells. Sliding a small, blunt knife into the potting soil beneath a seedling lets me gingerly grab its leaves and lift it out with roots intact to be dropped

A lot of seedlings in a little space.

into a waiting hole I’ve dibbled with my cone shaped “dibbler.” As each seedling is in place I tuck potting soil in around its roots. Without delay, once a tray of seedlings has been pricked out, I spray a gentle but thorough mist of water to moisten the soil and settle the little sprouts into place without knocking them down.

Seeds and very young sprouts spend one or more weeks — four in the case of slow-germinating and growing celery — in the seed flats, and then another four weeks or so in their cells. That translates to 50 or more seedling in an area 4 by 6 inches for a couple of weeks and then about 20 older seedlings growing up in a space of about a square foot for the next four weeks.
All this not only squeezes oodles of seedlings into relatively small space; it also keeps me intimate with them in their youth. I’ll be planting tomato seedlings out in the garden one week after the ADLKF.