What I’m Growing - Part I - Things I Start Ahead

Sharon February 24th, 2008

I thought it would be fun to talk about favorite plant varieties.  When I get sick of winter, I start seeds - there’s something so magical about the process.  And one of my favorite projects is choosing varieties.  Perhaps some of what I grow will be useful to you.  This is going to be long - I like a lot of plants, and so I’m doing it in pieces as I get around to it.  The first one will focus on tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, ground cherries and tomatillos, among the first things that I start indoors.  I actually start much, much more than this, but one thing at a time.

 BTW, as we discuss this, we should probably note locations and what your garden is like - the plants I have success with in my cool, wet, heavy soil in upstate NY might not suit your arid, cold high plains garden or your humid, warm midwestern loam, and vice-versa.  Still, almost anything is worth a shot!

 First, there are tomatoes.  Everyone loves tomatoes, and discussing tomato varieties is one of those things that no gardener can get enough of.  I have quite a few favorites - I could never choose one or two.

 My favorite OP (open pollinated, that means not a hybrid) cherry tomato is right now is a variety I tried for the first time last year, “Black Cherry” - I’ve always liked black tomatoes, and this one has the rich flavor of a large black tomato in a prolific cherry. 

I’ll admit, my favorite cherry tomato of all time is Sungold, a hybrid.  Baker Creek Heirlooms was offering a dehybridized version of this for a while, and I grew it, but it was definitely inferior to the tropical taste of the original.   But sooner or later someone will create a good dehybridized version, and in the meantime, I love it and so do my customers.  For containers, I was growing “Red Robin” which is good (although I got a batch from Tomato Growers Supply that was *terrible* so not all strains are equal), but I’m even more excited by “Balconi Yellow” from Thompson and Morgan which tastes really good.

I don’t grow grape tomatoes - most are hybrids, and I’ve usually found them inferior to cherries.  Anyone found a non-hybrid grape tomato worth growing?  My CSA customers asked for them last year.

The best early tomato I’ve grown hands down is Glacier - I don’t bother with anything else at this point.  Not quite as early, but slightly better tasting is _Cosmonaut Volkov_  - generally my goal is to have potted tomatoes by June 10, and my first decent sized tomato by July 4, which is pretty good in our climate.  I start these in February, along with a few sweet and hot peppers.  I don’t always succeed - this year I was running late on my seed starting - but I usually make my July 4 goal.

Ok, big tomatoes.  My favorite multicolor is pineapple - I got my seed from Pinetree seeds - it is a wonderful tasting tomato, and I’m wildly in love with it.  My favorite big red is Costoluto Genovese - weird crinkly, terrific flavor.  Smaller tomatoes I’m fond of are “Rose de Berne” “Jaune Flamee” and “Red Bobs.” (That last is a great container tomato - and I’m excited to try “Paul Robeson” this year in containers, after they were praised by Pat Meadows).  Of the Brandywines I’ve tried, I like the “Black Brandywine” quit a lot although it doesn’t yield spectacularly for me.

Finally, pastes.  Polish Linguica and Opalka are the best in my garden, without a doubt, although Orange Banana is very popular here - the kids thing bright orange tomato sauce is a kick. 

 Ok on to peppers - it is very hard to get peppers to ripen fully in my climate. I’m up at about 1400 feet, and in a cool region, and summer nights are routinely in the 50s - and sometimes in the 40s.  Peppers really don’t like cool nights, and most of the ones that mature best are hybrids.  I’ve been growing some because of the customers, but this year I’m going to try and restrict myself entirely to OP peppers.

 Ace hybrid has been a reliable, reasonably early red turner here, as has Jupiter and Sunbell.  King of the North is my favorite OP, which I get from Fedco.  Albino Bullnose, a very old heirloom has also done well here, so these will probably be my main crop peppers.  I’m also going to try using my pop-up greenhouses this year over some peppers and melons to retain night heat and give them the warm temps they like.  Perhaps I’ll even be able to get the super-hot habaneros I love so much, but can’t mature here.  Growing in containers is also important for us - because the containers get warmer than the soil in the summer, peppers mature faster and better.  “Fish” hot pepper is a stunning container plant, and a delicious pepper.

Eggplants, oddly aren’t nearly as much of a problem for me as peppers.  I have no idea why - so many people have it the other way around.  The only hybrid I bother with is a mini-variety called “fairy tale” which grows in containers.  Eggplants in containers are more prolific and earlier for me than in the ground.  In the ground, I’ve done very well with “Lousiana Long Green” (lovely flavor) Rosa Bianca, and Italian White. 

 We love tomatillos here, and eat a ton of salsa verde both fresh and canned, and I mostly grow the common green variety.  But I tried “Purple de Milpa” last year, and really liked it - it was a bit sweeter and more complex.  Tomatillos and Ground Cherries are no fuss crops - plant ‘em, ignore ‘em, harvest ‘em.  Both are so prolific that I just don’t bother thinking much about them.  I like straight Ground Cherry jam pretty well, but my family mixed ground cherries with fall raspberries, about 50-50 last year, for something truly transcendent.  Not only is it good jam, but it tastes really good with meats, and a little less sweet would make a great ketchup - something to try next year.

 Ok, more soon - greens and lettuces!  Boy will that take a while!



17 Responses to “What I’m Growing - Part I - Things I Start Ahead”

  1. Anion 26 Feb 2008 at 10:28 am

    I’ve been seeding my onions and leeks in flats- think spring! (as even more snow is falling….sigh)
    FEDCO noted in their letter that came with my order this year, that sales are amazing- more than 100K ahead of last year’s sales at this point compared to last year at the same time- they describe it as “like we are at the cutting edge of a new sea change in people’s daily lives” . Unlike the Y2K phenom- which they figured would just be a one-time blip- they are seeing this increase in seed sales and gardening as a harbinger of real change……

    as for Sun- Gold- there is none better I have to agree- ever taste sun-dried Sun- Golds?? amazing……

    as for paste tomatoes-I have to vote for Amish Paste-they grow very well here and are prolific and meaty…

    At 1600 ft- I have found that growing peppers, eggplants and tomatoes in a grow tunnel is the best idea- outside is rather marginal…..depends on the year but one never knows…….

  2. Odysseuson 26 Feb 2008 at 11:10 am

    Here in my part of Colorado we don’t escape frost until late May (and even then you can get still get bit by it). I have started some tomatoes and herbs now, for my largest plants I will put out. I will have to transfer them to progressively bigger pots until the baby tomatoes I have sprouting now will be in 1qt pots in May. I will start the rest of my seeds probably next week.

    Here’s a great tip on starting most seeds: try fine vermiculite as the media for the first sprouting of the seedlings. Most people plant their seeds too deep, and the loose vermiculite lets them push up and down as they sprout. Once they emerge with the first pair of leaves, you can gently pluck them up with your fingers and using a pencil, transplant them to your starting soil plugs. Most initial seedlings for me are too leggy and this method lets me get them down deeper into the soil and they develop better root systems. A few drops of SuperThrive during the early waterings helps them root out too.

    I agree that starting seeds is a great end-the-winter-blah’s cure. But like many old skills, it takes some practice to get much success growing large plants from seeds. It’s a lot like raising babies, you can’t imagine what it really takes until you do it yourself! I encourage everyone to try growing at least a full size tomato and basil plant from seed.

    Here’s to happy seedlings!

  3. Greenpaon 26 Feb 2008 at 11:20 am

    What fun! All the different kinds to try and play with. Used to do that here; alas other chores have grown, and we just don’t have the time for “a little of this, a little of that” right now. I know I’m missing out.

    You DO have to try things out on your own soil- newbies need to know- what they tell you in the catalog is.. uh.. questionable.

    I’m curious- have you managed to get any of your boys really involved in the choices and experimentation yet? That would be wonderful.

  4. Lsa Zon 26 Feb 2008 at 11:42 am

    Ani, thanks for sharing the note from Fedco. It’s made my day! I’m so happy to hear about the gardening boom…

  5. Sharonon 26 Feb 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Hi Ani - I got that same message from Fedco - how cool is that!

    Greenpa, the boys are involved in the garden to a degree - they’ve had their own garden for three years now. The first year it was a snacking garden, the second year an “alphabet garden” (plants for every letter), and this year it is going to be a three sisters garden. In addition, Isaiah (4) is a passionate gardener - we started his seeds in early January because he couldn’t wait. He talks every day about how he can’t wait to go picking the garden, and he’s going to have his own bed. He picked his seeds too - he is growing bright purple cauliflower, red carrots, purple green beans, morning glories, lemon cucumbers, rainbow chard, cherry tomatoes, snapdragons, mixed nasturtiums, red-veined sorrel and sweet alyssum. He’s a demon weeder and picker - and he just loves it so much. The last time we went to visit Grandma in NYC in the fall, all the kids could pick one thing to take with them in the car. Other kids picked books and toys - Isaiah went outside and picked a big green salad and brought it to Grandma, partly for her, and partly so he’d have chard and nasturtiums at her house ;-).

    The other boys like to help and scavenge, but they don’t have that deep drive for dirt that Isaiah has - I find it pretty remarkable, because I certainly have it now, but I didn’t at his age. He’s told me he wants to be a farmer since he could talk, and I wouldn’t be surprised.

    I know what you mean about not being able to experiment a lot - we are experimenting more this year since we’re not running the CSA - before we didn’t have as much time to devote to possibilities.

    I love talking about food and gardening!


  6. Rosaon 26 Feb 2008 at 4:29 pm

    I’m glad to hear you like Paul Robeson and the purple de Milpa tomatillos, because they’re in my seeds to plant tin for this spring.

  7. Old_Grey_Mareon 26 Feb 2008 at 7:41 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    Do you have any kind of hoophouse or greenhouse or do you just do it in your house? Do you use grow lights?


  8. Deb Gon 27 Feb 2008 at 8:34 am

    Tomatoes are such an awesome thing! Between my mom and I we will be growing 16 different kinds of tomatoes and only two of them are a variety on your list-Sun Gold and Brandywine. Brandywine is super fussy and sometimes I only get 3 or 4 tomatoes off the one plant I’ll grow, but oh are they good! One of our other favorites is Seattle’s Best, usually grows very well in the Pacific Northwest and has a good flavor.

  9. Rebecca (RAS)on 27 Feb 2008 at 9:10 am

    Hey Sharon,
    One thing you might want to try with your peppers (maybe even in addition to growing them in pots) is to put them on the south side of your house or another building. That might just be the trick they need. I planted some extra tomato plants last year in a newly empty flower bed on the south side of my place (I was out of room, sad to say) and they grew better, faster, and longer than my others. The house also protected them from frost longer -I picked my last tomatoes from the vine in January! And while my climate is significantly warmer than yours (there are people here who manage to grow citrus without greenhouse, albeit in protected spots with lots of pampering) it just might work for you.

    Down here, Roma is one of the best paste tomatoes. It takes everything we hand it -drought, heat, humidtiy, and keeps on going. Brandywines also do good here, and one of the things I’ve heard consistently from older gardeners is that while they are one of the best tasting tomatoes, they don’t yield very much, so perhaps that’s a trait of the breed?

    Here, its peppers peppers galore and I can’t wait for summer!

    Oh one question: is it something with my computer, or is the site really printed in blockes of test 2 inches wide and long? I was scrathcing my head trying to figure out if it was something I did.

  10. Sarahon 27 Feb 2008 at 9:28 am

    I love fairy tale eggplants! We get them from our CSA, and one week there was an extra-small one curled up into a ball right on top of the pile like some sort of sleepy creature. I have a picture of me petting it somewhere. It was a very tasty sleepy creature ;-)

    And I have to try that ground-cherry raspberry combination! The ground cherries at the farm never get much love, and I don’t like them very much myself, but I think raspberries might be just what they need. A Sungold-raspberry jam might also be good. We dried those and then ate them like candy.

  11. Leilaon 27 Feb 2008 at 10:51 am

    I’m curious about ground cherries. Can you eat them raw? Do you prepare them in other ways besides jam? What does the jam taste like, sweet? sour?

    I noticed you seem to be averse to hybrids and prefer OP varieties. But what’s wrong with hybrids (other than you can’t save the seed)?

    I too am experimenting with different tomato varieties. I’m looking for the perfect spaghetti-sauce tomato. My sauces always come out watery, even after simmering them for 5 hours. So this year I’m trying principe borghese, an heirloom sundrying tomato that is supposed to be low-moisture. I hope the skins aren’t too thick because I like to keep them on, even though they dull my knives like nothing else. And I’m looking forward to making sundried tomatos for the first time.

    For taste, my favorite is Rutgers. I’m not at all fond of Brandywine (too mealy). I’m going to try Costuloto Genovese this year.

  12. jameyon 27 Feb 2008 at 9:30 pm

    This is so perfectly timed - we have a flat of spinach sprouting today - first leaves and all - so they can be ready to go into the hoophouse soil this weekend for some “grow tunnel” excitement. The soil is just about 40F, but several days of clouds/snow is just getting us more into it. Seeds sprouts leaves!

    Have to put in my plug for cherry tomatoes - Peacevine from Seeds of Change has been our “rock” for over a decade now. Although, we did have that orange volunteer cherry pop up - made wonderful dried tomatoes. And Amish Paste is the “rock” of our pasters. We found it 15 yrs ago in “Organic Gardening” when the Iowan Zone 4 tester told us she would never stray from its quiet dependability again. And on her advice, we also added “Arkansas Traveler”, an heirloom pink tomato that is one of our main croppers. An absolute marvel of a tomato with no end rot, blight, or support issues for us. Boo-yah to hardy plants that don’t need much help.

    @Leila - We grow only OP seeds because we can save them and pick the survivors that adapt the best to our garden (zone 4, heavy loam, chaotic short summers). Can’t do that with hybrids or OP seeds from somebody else. They may be widely adapted, but I think that after three or four seasons of careful seed-saving I can do a better job - I could select for the earliest Peacevine cherries and plant only those. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (http://www.southernexposure.com/) is a regional seed-house with heirlooms, hardy plants, and no hybrids but geared for mid-Atlantic states. Plus they are worker-owned and appear all to be hippy-folk. That is what I am talking about!

  13. BoysMomon 28 Feb 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Our absolute favorite tomato is Pruden’s Purple. The catalog describes them as a short season brandywine type. I’ve never lived anywhere with a long enough growing season to grow brandywines, so I have no idea if this is accurate.
    I’ve grown them in pots in the living room, outside in pots, outside in the ground, and in a homemade greenhouse. They’re an indeterminate, which means if you’re growing inside you’ll have them hitting the ceiling.

  14. Sharonon 29 Feb 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Leila - We’re seed savers, and because of that, we have to make choices sometimes about how to use garden space - I can only fit so many hybrids that might cross-pollinate with my seed saving plants. So I do grow some - mostly for customers, but generally speaking, like Jamey, I think I’ll get a better crop eventually as I select for my region. Plus, I don’t see any real reason to give people money every year ;-) - not enough to go around for all the uses I’ve got these days as it is.

    The ground cherries are one of those things you like or don’t. I really do like them and eat quite a lot of them straight. Most of kids like them, but one doesn’t. My husband likes them in jam, but isn’t passionate about them. My best description would be that they are a tomatillo that tastes mostly like a fruit - they are sweet, but there’s an underlying vegetableness about them that some people find kind of weird. They are easy, so worth trying.

    Boysmom, I forgot about Prudens - we grow it every year, and really like that one too.

    Rebecca, right now the south side of my house is filled with forest garden, so there’s no sun for peppers, but it isn’t a bad idea. I have one warm, sandy spot I was saving for lavender, but maybe I’ll change my mind and put hot peppers there.

    Sarah, I love the way you described the eggplants - that’s so evocative.

    Old Grey Mare - A hoophouse is probably forthcoming soon. We’re working on it - the problem is that the only place to put it needs drainage dug, so besides the cost of the hoophouse, there’s the drainage. So it keeps getting put off…

    Oh boy do I want a greenhouse and a couple of hoophouses ;-).


  15. Connieon 01 Mar 2008 at 9:07 am

    I would also like to know, along with Old Grey Mare, do you use grow-lights? Mine are currently on 24 hours a day in an effort to germinate chamomile, which needs light in order to do so. I feels very wrong to do it this way…are there alternatives? Also, what about heat mats for additional heat to germinate stuff like peppers, melons, and tomatoes in my cold damp basement? That doesn’t feel sustainable either. Bleh.

  16. Sharonon 02 Mar 2008 at 10:19 am

    Connie, I do use some grow lights - I try to keep them to a minimum, and I do have some sunny windowsills. But yes, I do hang a couple of grow-lights, and use the energy. I do also use a heat mat briefly when germinating eggplant and peppers - again, I’m not too happy about it, but otherwise, germination is quite poor. I justify it by noting that the energy used is far less than I would spend driving to the store to get my food, but that is a justification.

    There are some alternatives - a hotbed was the traditional method of doing this - uncomposted horse or pig manure was piled up, covered with a layer of soil or compost, and the seeds were planted into it and covered with plastic or glass. The heat from the composting of the manure germinates the seesds. And in the absence of electricity, I’d do that. I’ve done it once before, and it worked well, if a bit later than I would have liked (too cold when I normally start eggplants and peppers).

    I’m working on long-term solutions - and they use energy too. A hoophouse or a greenhouse will require some new materials, even if I scavenge the rest. But right now I do what time and money allow.


  17. Jane Vanderhoofon 22 Apr 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Are tomatillow supposed to be planted deeply civering a first set of leaves when transplanting? I live in the Pacific Northwest.
    thanks, Jane

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