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.

A Visitation, Clematis, and a Workshop

Last minute notice: Come visit my farmden, in real life. As part of the Garden Conservancy Open Days program, I’ll be hosting visitors between 10am and 4pm. For more information about this visit or other sites, contact the Garden Conservancy (

Letting a few clematis plants grow is the closest I’ve come to playing the lottery. It looks like I’ve won, judging from the first flower that opened last week.
Let me explain. I have a half dozen or so clematis plants of named varieties that I got from nurseries. A few years ago, I started noticing small plants — seedlings of the named varieties, especially from near a Nelly Moser plant — sprouting near the mother plants. I meant to save a couple, I even transplanted some, but these first seedlings succumbed to neglect. More recently, I’ve paid closer attention to the seedlings, especially those that sprouted fortuitously near the fence around the vegetable garden.
The gamble was that some seedlings would be garden-worthy. (Not that big a gamble; if not garden-worthy, I could just dig them out and walk them to the compost pile.) Named varieties of clematis, such as

Seedling of Nelly Moser

my plant named Nelly Moser, are propagated by cloning. That is, every Nelly Moser plant is genetically identical to every other Nelly Moser plant. Clones of any plant are propagated by root, leaf, or stem cuttings, by grafting, or by some other method of asexual propagation.

My seedlings arose from seeds that dropped from a pollinated flower, that is, the seedlings are the result of the sexual union of pollen and egg cells. Whatever jumbling around of genes happened during that union will be reflected in the plants’ growth and flowers.
My first seedling flower spread open clear, blue petals — beautiful. It’s a keeper. If I deem it truly and uniquely spectacular, I could give it a name and multiply it asexually to spread the joy. Then it would become a named variety or, to use the more professionably acceptable term, “cultivar,” from the words “cultivated variety.” The word “cultivar” grates on my ears; I refuse to use it.
That unspeakable “c” word came about because the word “variety”was too general; it could mean two different things, plantwise. One meaning is a garden variety, as in Nelly Moser clematis. The other kind of “variety” is a botanical variety.
In the classification of plants, a botanical variety is a subclassification sometimes occurring within a

Nelly Moser clematis

species. That occurs if there are populations within the same species that are sufficiently similar to distinguish themselves from other populations within a species, and the differences are inheritable. (Both populations are, of course, sufficiently similar to be included within the same species.)

Botanists have not chosen to bastardize the English language with so ugly a word as “botanivar” tomean a “botanical variety.” Likewise, there’s no reason for horticulturalists to bastardize our language with the word “cultivar.” I’ll stick with “cultivated variety” or, if the sense is obvious, just “variety.”
The flowering habit of my clematis seedlings is also of interest. That is, when does it flower? Some clematis flower only on new growth, which means they flower later in the season. Some clematis flower only on old growth, which means they flower early in the season. And still other clematis flower on both new and old growth, which means they flower early and late, over a long season.
As I detail in my book, The Pruning Book, pruning technique varies depending on a clematis plant’s flowering habit. Early bloomers are best pruned right after they finish blooming. Late bloomers are pruned before growth begins for the season. And you do a little of both for plants that bloom early and late. (My book groups cultivars — whoops, I mean varieties — of clematis according to their flowering habits and pruning needs.)
My seedlings have mostly appeared near the “feet” of Nelly Moser, which flowers early in the season, so

Nelly Moser and its baby

presumably will be similarly inclined. That is the case with the seedling that recently unfolded its blossoms. But it could flower again this season.

For now, I’m enjoying the flowers of the first bloomer and looking forward to what unfolds on the stems of other seedlings.
“How to Grow a Lot of Vegetables with Little Space, Time, and Effort” is the topic for an upcoming workshop I’ll be holding here at my farmden in New Paltz on June 23rd, from 9 to 11:30 am. (The growing season is still young: It’s not too late to get more out of your garden; it’s not even too late to start a garden!) The cost is $50 and space is limited so registration is necessary. For questions or registration, contact me at garden[at]lee