What Makes a Good Tomato?

IMG_0006It’s time we had an honest discussion about tomatoes.

I can talk up kale and chard as much as I please, but what folks really want in their CSA shares is lots of fresh, flavorful tomatoes. CSA farmers can screw up pretty much everything else, but if they routinely can’t grow tomatoes, they should probably find another vocation.

And this passion for tomatoes is for a good reason. The red round things sold as tomatoes in your typical megamart are a pale, degraded, deranged copy of an actual tomato. Once you’ve had a real tomato, there’s no going back.

Usually when people think about CSA tomatoes, they are thinking about heirloom tomatoes. These old, open-pollinated varieties were bred for characteristics like color, flavor, and regional adaptation, rather than mere packability, truckability, and long shelf life, as most modern hybrid tomatoes are. This is why many people, including some CSA farmers, reject hybrid tomatoes in favor of heirlooms. But there are tradeoffs with heirlooms. They are trickier to grow. They are sometimes more prone to pests and diseases. Often they are less productive than modern hybrids.

Now, here’s a secret: There are some really good hybrid tomatoes out there. Not heirloom good, sure, but pretty good nonetheless. And they have bred-in resistances to diseases and a vigor that provides higher yields. And the way I grow them — in nutrient-dense soil, picked ripe, and delivered promptly — these tomatoes are still worlds apart from your typical grocery store fare. In other words, I am not going to look down my nose at a big, juicy, red tomato just because it doesn’t have the correct pedigree.

I’ve always included these good, red tomatoes in my line-up, augmented with some of the fabulous heirlooms out there. But now here is a twist in this story: Plant breeders are developing hybrid tomatoes with heirloom characteristics. When I first heard about these from another grower, I was resistant to the idea. After all, if farmers like us don’t grow heirlooms, who will? But after further consideration, I am intrigued. Here’s why:

One of the heirlooms I often grow is Cherokee Purple, a very lovely and tasty specimen. But it has its problems. The first fruit set is reliably great, but afterwards. quality declines sharply. The fruit cracks, splits, and rots on the vine. The plant succumbs to disease and is finished long before the season ends — at least that’s my experience. And since tomatoes are so time- and resource-intensive, at a certain point it’s more cost-effective for me to take a five-gallon pail of dollar bills out into the field and set fire to it.

So if there are tomato varieties out there that combine the vigor and durability of hybrids with the color and flavor of heirlooms, this is a big deal for a grower like me. So this year I am growing a few of them, as well as their heirloom counterparts, and then we’ll see. Will Martha Washington measure up to Grace Lahman? Can Margold go toe to toe with Gold Medal? How does Chef’s Choice compare to Valencia? We are going to find out this summer, together.

Keeping the Trains Running on Time

This week I’ve been hard at work on my greenhouse schedule — a long spreadsheet that will tell me how much of what to plant when so that there will be plenty of food in the CSA shares come summertime. And none too soon: the first date on the schedule is February 29, where I see I need to be seeding leeks, onions, and shallots. We’ll see if that happens or not. A couple of varieties are backordered from the supplier, so I’ll just have to seed those whenever they arrive.

I’ve become rather fond of spreadsheets, believe it or not. I find them soothing, especially the way they take large, unruly bodies of information and sort them out into usable parcels. I’ve set up the greenhouse schedule to automatically calculate things like the number of seeds I will need (including extra to account for germination failure) and how many pots they will require. And when it comes time for transplanting, it will remind me how many beds with how many rows at what plant spacing I will need, all calculated automatically. All I have to do is enter what kind of yields I want, and the spreadsheet does the rest. Pretty slick.

I use the same template each season, so my work is limited to tweaking what exists rather than creating everything from scratch. This year, for example, I moved my brussels sprouts and fall broccoli plantings two weeks earlier, because I felt they came in too late last year, and I struck my summer broccoli from the line-up entirely. Broccoli grown in the summer is just too bitter for my taste, and I try not to make the members eat something I won’t.

I also switched up my lettuce varieties. The trick to having lettuce reliably all season — or for all but the hottest part of the season — is variety selection. Some do well seeded when it’s cool for harvesting during warmer weather, others tolerate being seeded when it’s warmer for harvesting when it’s hotter, and so on. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a whole ready-made line-up for farmers to use, and that’s what I decided to follow this year. If they’ve already done all the work, why duplicate it?

Once I’m satisfied with the schedule, I’ll review the seeds I have on hand to make sure I have everything I need, and quickly order any shortfalls or oversights. Then everything will be ready to go.


IMG_0263The first thing I do each farming year (if you don’t count planting garlic the previous fall) is order my seeds. This job is also the most fun of all the jobs. The new season, and all its coming successes and failures, still lies in potential, and the entire farm fits in a cardboard box. Plus, deep winter is a good time to leaf through the colorful catalogues and dream about what the farm could become when spring arrives.

But by the start of the new calendar year, it’s time to stop dreaming and start planning. I knocked out this year’s order in a couple of days in early January. Seed shopping is a task that takes as much time as you give it, and the more time you take, the greater chance you’ll start ordering things that seem like a good idea in January but look pretty foolish come May.

Knowing how much seed to order is pretty straightforward. If the quantities from the previous year worked, I stick with them. Knowing which varieties to order, though, takes a little more care.

More often than not, what I grew before worked just fine. For example, last year my main sweet pepper varieties once again performed well, and I see no need to change things up.

Sometimes the varieties worked well enough, but I want to tweak things by using slightly different ones to diversify my offerings, and I choose and swap accordingly. I’m doing this with lettuce this year, keeping some well-performing standbys but adding others for a mix of colors and textures.

But sometimes things aren’t working at all, and I have to rethink my whole approach. This year the big changes are in my squash line-up. In the past, I made my choices so that I would have a variety of interesting a flavorful squashes. But flavor and variety are irrelevant if you have widespread crop failures, which has been the norm so far on this farm. One of the problems the past three seasons has been powdery mildew, a fungal disease that, left unchecked, covers the leaves of the plant with a white powder (hence the name), dramatically decreasing yields, if not killing the plant outright. There are a handful of organic remedies that can be sprayed to keep the disease in check, but at my scale it’s a labor-intensive job. So when selecting varieties for summer and winter squash this year, I limited myself to only vigorous strains with a bred-in resistance to powdery mildew. My hope is that these genetics will tilt the odds a little more in my favor and result in better yields

And I always try to grow something new each year. Sometimes these experiments work, and sometimes they don’t, but I enjoy seeing how different crops grow. This year’s addition is tomatillos, which we grew on the farm I apprenticed at, but not on this farm yet. I think they will grow fine. The real question is if they will sell at market and how the CSA members respond to having them in their shares.

The seeds all arrived by the end of last week and are patiently waiting in their cardboard boxes, which is good, because it’s less than a month until we fire up the greenhouse and start bringing their potential into reality.