In Search Of The Perfect Tomato

…And The Search Still On

Plant and seed catalogs start to pile up at this time of year.  It’s always fun to leaf through them as there’s not much I can do in the garden and they give me ideas for next season.  Now is the time to look for new plants, plan new arrangements for the garden, and order new seeds to experiment with.  The growing season starts in less than two months.  March is when I start my chili pepper and tomato seedlings.  It doesn’t matter how cold or how high the snow is outside.   If I don’t start seedlings for these two vegetables early, there will not be enough time for them to produce mature fruit.  The growing season in the Northeastern part of the US is very short I have to start early in the house.

We love tomatoes, especially home grown tomatoes.  We did really well with our tomatoes last year.  Not just what we grew in our garden, the seedlings we had given to friends and colleagues did well too.  I think the weather really helped.  I experiment with new types of tomatoes every year and continue to grow only the ones we like best.  Our favorites are Brandywine, Mortgage lifter, Cherokee purple and Rose for large tomatoes.

Holy basil, Thai basil, Rose tomatoes, Mortgage lifter, Brandywine, Cherokee purple, Chocolate tomato, Nova, Indigo cherry, Tomatoberry and some self-sown tomatoes
Holy basil, Thai basil, Rose tomatoes, Mortgage lifter, Brandywine, Cherokee purple, Chocolate tomato, Nova, Indigo cherry, Tomatoberry and some self-sown tomatoes
These Brandywine tomatoes were over a pound each and very tasty too
These Brandywine tomatoes were over a pound each and very tasty too
Mortgage lifter is another large tomato we have been growing. This one is also over a pound
Mortgage lifter is another large tomato we have been growing. This one is also over a pound
Cherokee Purple has very thin skin and easily split when there is too much rain but has an exceptional taste.
Cherokee Purple has very thin skin and easily split when there is too much rain but has an exceptional taste.

We love cherry tomatoes too but never had much luck finding one whose taste we really loved until last year.  We have been depending on the self-sown tomatoes for our cherry tomatoes.  They grew fast, strong and very sweet.  The seeds or plants I bought have been disappointments until last year.  I found Indigo cherry and Nova, which are very beautiful and tasty.  I will grow these two cherry tomatoes again this year but I am still looking for a new one to try.

Indigo Cherry drop bears plenty of beautiful fruits and is very sweet when it's very ripe
Indigo Cherry drop bears plenty of beautiful fruits and is very sweet when it’s very ripe
I bought one Chocolate tomato at the Union Square Farmers market in 2014 because of its color, but it tasted so good that I kept the seeds. The ripe fruit has a reddish brown color with green stripes that drew my attention initially.
I bought one Chocolate tomato at the Union Square Farmers market in 2014 because of its color, but it tasted so good that I kept the seeds. The ripe fruit has a reddish brown color with green stripes that drew my attention initially.

At this point we still debating between the Black Krim-Heirloom from Crimea or Burpee’s Steakhouse Hybrid.   But our favorites and the Chocolate will always have their place in our garden.

 

Tomatoes And Chili Peppers

Time To Start Seedlings

Tomatoes and chili peppers are a staple in our vegetable garden.  We love trying new kinds of tomatoes for both color and taste.  Once we find the one we like we cull seeds to grow the year after.  Four kinds of tomato we have been growing every year because they have a marvelous taste are Cherokee purple, Mortgage Lifter , Brandywine and Rose.  We fell in love with the Cherokee purple at first bite, with its thin skin, juicyness and full tomato taste.  The rest are big, meaty and tasty.  We vouch for these four tomatoes anytime we’re asked.  We let the cherry tomatoes self-sow year after year.  I have no idea what type of cherry tomato they are, but they’re very sweet.  At this point I should call them ‘Resident Tomato’ since they seem to come up by themselves all over the yard every year.

Cherokee purple from last year's harvest
Cherokee purple from last year’s harvest
This Mortgage lifter also from last year's harvest
This Mortgage lifter also from last year’s harvest

We both love spicy food hence the collection of chili peppers.  I try to add some new kinds of chili pepper every year.  Some are harder to grow than others.  And, growing chili peppers in a cold climate is a challenge.

Growing tomato and chili pepper in the Northeastern part of the US takes some good planning since the growing season is a little bit short for some them to grow, bear fruit and ripen.  I have learned from vendors at the farmers market that the tomato and pepper plants they are selling were germinated in early March.  So, I have been following their method.

This year I started my tomato and chili peppers on March 8, never mind the snow and freezing cold out side.  I put seed trays on heat mats set to 80° Fahrenheit by the bay window.  Natural sunlight is enough for now and I don’t have room in the basement to add trays there.  It’s too cold down there anyway.  Some tomatoes sprouted within 5 days but the chili peppers take a little bit longer.  I usually see them sprout up within a week, providing that the heat mat stays between 75 and 80 degrees at all time.

Tomato and chili pepper seedlings by the bay window, March 14
Tomato and chili pepper seedlings by the bay window, March 14
Tomato seedlings, March 19.  Pretty lanky stretching for light
Tomato seedlings, March 19. Pretty lanky stretching for light
Chili pepper seedlings, March 19.  They are a little bit shorter than the tomato and  a little bit slower to grow
Chili pepper seedlings, March 19. They are a little bit shorter than the tomato and a little bit slower to grow

Now I have to wait for the true leaves to come up before I can put them in their individual pots, should be one more week now.

So far most tomato and chili pepper seeds have sprouted:

  • The large tomatoes: Mortgage lifter, Rose, Brandywine, Cherokee purple and Chocolate
  • Cherry tomato: Indigo cherry drop, Razzleberry, Tomatoberry and Nova
  • Chili pepper: Bhut Jolokia, Sikkim, Purira, Korean chili, Karen chili (tribal), Jamaican Red, Jamaican yellow, Himalayan yellow, Lemon drop, Wild Brazil, South Indian chili, Yellow torch, Long Thai, Thai Bird chili, Scotch Bonnet, Mexican chili, Yellow Thai chili

I forgot to put baby bell and Shishito peppers in, so I will have to buy the plants for this season.  They are very mild and good for snacking.  I may be able to start the Shishito now though since I will stir-fry the peppers when they still green, no need for maturity.

The gourmet growing season has begun!

 

A Good Year For Tomato

Slow To Start But Good At The End

The growing season started late this year because winter seemed to last forever.  Vegetables that need warmer temperatures like tomatoes and peppers grew slowly at the beginning.  I started to germinate the seeds in March but couldn’t put anything in the ground until May.  Once in the ground, they seemed not to want to grow at all so I wasn’t expecting much from these two vegetables this year.  But as soon as the temperature reach 80º F, they grew like grass especially the tomatoes.  I have to tie them up once every couple of days so the stems won’t break.  A few of them are taller than me now.

It turned out to be a great year for tomatoes.  Though it’s hot during the day, it’s much cooler at night.  There have been only a few high humidity days so far.   Hot and dry during the day and cooler at night is good for tomato and chili pepper.  It’s harder for disease to develop on the leaves.  I actually have to cut the leaves off the tomatoes so the fruits can get some sun, ripen faster and get some air flow between plants.  I slowly cut from the bottom up.

I picked some of the small ones (the Ceylon) this week.  Cherry and Grape tomatoes are still green since they are self-sown so they sprouted up much later than the ones I germinated in the house.  The larger ones like Cherokee Purple and Rose have just started to turn.  I can hardly wait to sink my teeth into them over the kitchen sink!

Tomato plants crowded with leaves
Tomato plants crowded with leaves
Ceylon tomato, a medium sized tomato, I grew for the first time this year. Plenty of 1.5 to 2 inches fruits
Ceylon tomato, a medium sized tomato, I grew for the first time this year. Plenty of 1.5 to 2 inches fruits
I have no idea what this one is.  I picked up an organic heirloom tomato from the farmer's market last year and we loved it.  So I kept some seeds.  They are pretty big and look like ribbed pears.
I have no idea what this one is. I picked up an organic heirloom tomato from the farmer’s market last year and we loved it. So I kept some seeds. They are pretty big and look like ribbed pears.
This one grew from seeds of the same tomato above but probably has to fight for food with the asparagus next to it so the fruits are much slimmer.
This one grew from seeds of the same tomato above but probably has to fight for food with the asparagus next to it so the fruits are much slimmer.
These Cherokee purple are too big for their own good. The one in the middle is around 4.5 inch across.  Their weight broke the stem.
These Cherokee purple are too big for their own good. The one in the middle is around 4.5 inch across. Their weight broke the stem.
Another Cherokee purple, our favorite, started to turn.  The stem also bent from the weight.
Another Cherokee purple, our favorite, started to turn. The stem also bent from the weight.

City Tomato

A Will To Live

I snapped this photo while I was on a lunch break.  A healthy tomato squeezing up from a crack in the sidewalk, between a drain pipe and a building.  It’s over a foot tall now so it’s been there for while.

Who said a tomato plant is fussy and difficult to grow; this tomato defies the genre.  This one tough tomato takes on dirt, exhaust fumes and heat in stride.  It definitely has a strong will to live.  Someone may have gotten a salad but didn’t like the tomato and threw it on the sidewalk (the NYC attitude).  One little seed from that tomato had a will to live and found its way to survive and grow in a concrete forest, Manhattan, on its own.  This is a tomato with guts.  A tomato with ambition.  A tomato not intimidated by the less decent the city has to offer.  It will be really cool if it bears fruit.

One lone brave tomato
One lone brave tomato

Started Seedlings

Adapting To A Long Winter

I usually start seedlings of any plants that need longer time to mature in the house not long before I can plant them outside: Chili pepper, tomato, Bitter melon, Moonflower and a few more. I put them right in their permanent spots in the garden when they have developed their true leaves (the second set of leaves).   When it gets too chilly I just cover them with plastic cups or soup containers. It’s been my normal practice until this year.

The cold weather has lasted longer this year so I had to adapt my method of planting otherwise the plants will not have enough time to produce anything but leaves.  I started chili peppers, tomatoes and Anise in mid-March.   The 48 cell seed starter tray is a perfect tray to use for this job. I put 3-4 seeds in each cell and put the tray on a heat mat that I set to 80º F.  Most of the tomato plants sprouted in about 4 days, followed by some of the chili peppers.

Chili pepper and tomato seedlings getting some sun outside in a warm day
Chili pepper and tomato seedlings getting some sun outside in a warm day

Then came the part I always skip, putting them in their individual pot when they develop true leaves. I know if I put them in the ground at this time, even with plastic cups over them, they will die.  So, I separated the tomato seedlings and put them in their individual pots in the house.  When it gets a little warmer outside I will put them in the cold frame to harden them before I put them in their permanent spots or give them to friends and colleagues.

Tomato seedlings are in their own space and chili pepper seedlings still under the dome
Tomato seedlings are in their own space and chili pepper seedlings still under the dome

As for large size tomatoes, I grow the usual ones: Mortgage Lifter, Rose and my favorite-Cherokee purple.  The ‘Ribbed’ one, I have no idea what it is but I love the taste so I kept the seeds to grow this year.  I’m still waiting for some self seeded cherry and grapes tomatoes to sprout in the garden.  They are late this year due to weather.

"Gold Nuggets" cherry tomato seedlings
“Gold Nuggets” cherry tomato seedlings

Vegetable Garden

Summer Vegetables

Our vegetable garden this year is very different from last year.  We had a lot of cherry tomatoes last year from seeds that sprouted up in compost I used.  There are not many of them this year as I’ve pulled the sprouts out early before my guilt set in.  I just can’t bring myself to demolish a perfectly good plant.  I didn’t expect the uneven weather we’ve had that caused a lot of the tomato flowers to drop and the fruits to grow very slowly.  Beans, Kale, Broccoli and Swiss Chard are doing well though.  I can’t pick them fast enough.

August is here and the temperature dropping close to 50°F for a few nights has not helped either.  What happened to summer?  I’m debating whether I should sow winter vegetables now or wait until mid-September as usual.

The Swiss Chard is doing fine this summer
The Swiss Chard is doing fine this summer
I have no idea how this Morning glory got here but I let it grow since the flowers are so beautiful. The Bitter melon doesn't seem to mind sharing space on the fence either.
I have no idea how this Morning glory got here but I let it grow since the flowers are so beautiful. The Bitter melon doesn’t seem to mind sharing space on the fence either.
Winged beans in the foreground are just starting to flower. The Italian and Asian long beans in the background have been producing a lot of beans this season.
Winged beans in the foreground are just starting to flower. The Italian and Asian long beans in the background have been producing a lot of beans this season.
The lush Red Asian Long beans and Italian beans are growing faster than I can harvest.
The lush Red Asian Long beans and Italian beans are growing faster than I can harvest.
Sad looking tomatoes.  I had to cut most of their leaves off when black spots started to grow after  raining continuously for a few days.
Sad looking tomatoes. I had to cut most of their leaves off when black spots started to grow after raining continuously for a few days.
Holy basil are doing fine amongst the Kale, Dill and Genoese basil.
Holy basil are doing fine amongst the Kale, Dill and Genoese basil.

Vegetable Seedlings

Seedlings In The House

I promised myself to be tougher with self-sown seedlings this year.  Last year we returned from vacation to discover plenty of tomato seedlings in the vegetable garden.  They were very healthy too, so I dug some up and either gave them to colleagues or replanted them in my neighbor’s garden.  I let some of them grow and that posted a big problem.  They took over the garden.  I have a solid plan this year: only the seedlings I started in the house will have their space in the garden.

I settled with twelve seedlings for each tomato: Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, White Tomesol, Rose, Aunt Gertie’s Gold and grape tomatoes.   They came up four days after I put them in the coconut planting medium.   I waited for the tomatoes to produce true leaves, the second set of leaves, before I put them in individual pots.  I know there will be seedlings from our compost corner and I use them so I didn’t start any cherry tomatoes.

The chili peppers have taken a little bit longer to germinate.  I’m growing a few more varieties this year: Bhut Jolokia, Congo Trinidad, Chocolate Habanero, Caribbean Red, Sikkim chili, Lemon Drop, Purira, Punjab, Nepalese Bell (a colleague gave me fresh seeds), Karen (Golden Triangle tribe)chili, Bird Dropping (smallest Thai chili), medium Thai chili, and Long Thai chili.  They are very slow to grow since I didn’t use a heating pad this year and the only light they get is through the living room bay window.

If I’m home on the day the temperature has gone up above 60°F, I would take them outside to get real sunlight and harden them up a bit.  I hope to be able to put them in the garden in the middle of the month.

Tomato seedlings a week ago.  They are in their individual pots now.
Tomato seedlings a week ago. They are in their individual pots now.
Chili pepper seedlings just starting to produce true leaves.  I hope to be able to put them in their pot in the next few days.
Chili pepper seedlings just starting to produce true leaves. I hope to be able to put them in their pot in the next few days.