Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Tomatoes? Already?

In fact, I may be a few weeks behind some of the more ambitious--read organized--gardeners out there. It's time to start seedlings for transplanting after the last frost.

I'm embarrassed to say I didn't have a seed starting mix to fill my trays. A sterile starting mix is recommended to protect the germinating seeds from any diseases that might be lurking in the soil. I filled my trays with what I had--organic potting mix--and started planting. Each of the labels you see marks a separate four-pack of cells, one seed to a cell.

These cells are larger than what I might normally use. But I've discovered I don't really need 20 tomato seedlings, since I only keep about eight plants. What happens is, the other seedlings get transplanted into larger pots and just grow, and grow, and grow on the front stoop because I don't have room for them in the garden and I can't bring myself to destroy them. Last year I was lucky: I found someone who needed tomato plants at the last minute and he took mine. I'm happy to send tomatoes to a good home.

This year in the tomato department I have five varieties: Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Dr. Carolyn and Roma. I'm substituting Mortgage Lifter for Brandywine as our red eating tomato. I wasn't so impressed with the production or the quality our Brandywine plants produced last year. Mortgage Lifter comes with the story of the man who developed the strain and was so successful selling it, he paid off his mortgage.

Cherokee Purple is a gangbuster of a tomato. It has a dark blush--not exactly purple--and produces lots of big, juicy fruit. Our plants were particularly long-lasting, making fruit well into the fall. I think I got most of our green tomatoes for pickling from our Cherokee Purple plants.

Green Zebra is one of my wife's requests. We haven't grown it before. But she's always impressed with this one when we see it at the farmers market. There's just something exotic and thrilling about a green tomato you can eat like a red one.

Dr. Carolyn is a heritage yellow cherry tomato. We had a couple of plants two years ago and they were covered with fruit, even the ones I neglected to cage and that just sprawled on the ground.

Roma is the original heritage Italian breed and will be my first attempt at growing canning tomatoes. I had a Roma plant of some sort in the garden last year, but I have no idea where it came from. It was a volunteer and we were able to make a couple of pasta sauces from it.

Also in the works is Ping Tung eggplant, the long, skinny variety of eggplant that we like so much. My wife isn't an eggplant fan normally, but she is partial to this one. We also have two chili peppers, jalapeno and Thai.

Over the years I've noticed the heat disappearing from the japanos in the grocery store so I decided to plant my own and see if they are any better. We are huge fans of Thai food. One of the problems we encounter buying ingredients such as Thai chilies is that they come pre-packaged in large quantities at the Thai grocery. You can't just buy the few that you need. This way we can pick only as many as the recipe calls for.

Now the seed tray goes onto a heated rubber mat made specifically for germinating seeds. Nightshades such as tomatoes, eggplants and peppers like it hot--a soil temperature of around 80 degrees--in order to germinate. Since the temperatures outside are still in the 50s, we will plug in our seed-starting mat somewhere safe inside and fool our seeds into thinking its June.


Joanna said...

Ed this is such a useful post ... will you keep us up to date on the progress of these seedlings? It's just that, in the past, I don't get it quite right - leggy toms, or sowing late, or ... well the 101 things you can do to ruin a perfectly good set of tomato seedlings.


conroyarchila said...

Where do you get your supplies? Like the rubber mat?

Ed Bruske said...

Joanna, glad you can use this information. I will give periodic updates.

CA, I believe I got my heat mat here:


I do not use a thermostat, which is purcahsed separately. Most of my other supplies come from the garden center, but I try to re-use as much as possible.

sugarcreekfarm said...

I highly recommend the Mortgage Lifter. We grow it every year and it's one of our favorites!

Melinda said...

Ed, you will *love* the green zebra. I didn't know what I was doing last year and planted one. Turned out to be one of the best things we planted! When you have tomatoes growing out your ears, you can just sink your teeth into a green zebra and it's - not the same as a tomato - it's totally different tasting. Refreshing in a little red sauce, sooo good on fresh bread with a little homemade cheese... mmmmm.

Calendula said...

I just read in the new Seeds of Change catalog that Brandywines tend to do better in cooler weather. I wonder if they can't take DC's heat? I'm going to try a later planting this year and see if they do better towards fall.

Trying Cherokee Purple for the first time this season. I've always been intrigued by the Green Zebras. Curious to watch how they'll do for you...

Ed Bruske said...

SCF, I've always wanted to try Mortgage Lifter. At heart, I don't believe there is a perfect tomato. The perfect tomato is the one I remember from our garden as a kid, sitting there in the sun with a salt shaker, juice running down my arm. I'd love to know what variety that was.

Melinda, we've had Green Zebra once or twice from the farmers market and of course you're right, it's not like a red tomato. I'm unable at the moment to remember exactly how it tasted, but I'm anxious to have more of it.

Christa, definitely let me know how your Cherokees turn out. Both Brandywine and Chrokee Purple were recommended as especially easy to grow in my "Heirloom Tomatoes" book, that's how I got started on them.

WashingtonGardener said...

Ed - I may have extra packs to share of Mortgage Lifter that D Landreth Seeds gave us for our annual Washington Gardener Seed Exhange. If I do any tomatoes, I usually stick to sweeter, smaller kinds.

Brent said...

I loved the Green Zebra that I planted last year. It's a very refreshing tomato that I liked with a little balsamic vinegar sprinkled on top

Ed Bruske said...

Kathy, would love to share your tomato seeds with you. From everything I've heard, mortgage lifter is a great variety.

Brent, we've mixed Green Zebra in a tomato salad, but never eaten it all on its own. I'm anxious to try.