Seed Exchange Creates a New Path in the Search for the Perfect Tomato Variety

In late May of last year, the heirloom tomato variety Rose de Berne was recommended to me by one of the market gardeners at the local farmer’s market.  He considers it a good choice for our short and often cool summers, so I purchased a six pack of his transplants and divided them between my Ellsworth Garden and the teaching garden in Eastport.  Although waiting until late August to ripen and then only moderately productive, the harvested fruits were both beautiful and delicious.

In my search for the best tomato varieties for northern New England gardens, I would certainly add Rose de Berne to the list.  The rose-pink fruits make up in flavor for what they lack in quantity.

About a month ago I received an email from a reader, a gardener in midcoast Maine, asking if I would consider a seed exchange.  He was interested in obtaining seeds of heirloom cucumbers that I had discussed in a recent column and offered seeds of heirloom tomatoes in exchange.  We worked a deal.

Two weeks later I received seeds of a dozen open-pollinated tomato varieties that are considered by their donor to be productive in northern New England.  The seeds were accompanied by a brief description of each variety’s garden performance and a flavor ranking for each variety on a scale of 1 to 10 (best).  When I look at the array of twelve small plastic bags now lying on my writing desk, each containing a few seeds and a slip of paper carefully inked with the variety name, my mind fast-forwards to sowing them all in early May, raising the seedlings indoors under lights, and finally transplanting the seedlings to warm soil in June.

Here are a few of the hand-written variety descriptions enclosed with the seeds.  “D” stands for determinate, varieties that grow to a compact height, and “I” for indeterminate, varieties that continue to increase in height through the season.

Gold Nugget (D), small grape, best in container.  Quick.

Silvery Fir Tree (D), 3 feet, does good in pot, carrot leaf foliage.

Jaunne Flamme (I), 6-7 feet, ripe when color of dried apricot.  Plant near a spot where you can chuck blemished ones.  Gets soft spots in middle of production period, then goes normal.  Worth fussing with.

Rita’s Black (I), 5 feet, have to do the pinch test for ripeness, named for Belgian botanist who also was involved with the next variety.

Belgian Heart (I), 7 feet, should be grown to just prank people with the foliage.  Wispy.  Looks sick.  You will spend time wondering what is wrong with it.  That is fun after you accept it, people come by, get all worried…

Guido (I), 7 feet, burly robust, needs more heat than I can give it but produces and I love it.

The remaining varieties included in the exchange are Yellow Scotland, Wisconsin 55 (developed at University of Wisconsin), Wisconsin 55 Gold, Rostova (also called Sunset Red Horizon), and Paquebot Roma.  While eleven of the dozen are open-pollinated heirlooms, I also received seeds of a hybrid, Brandy Boy, with the scribbled note, “don’t be a plant snob.”  It must be a delicious tomato to make the cut, but I’ve learned that Brandy Boy should be grown strictly for immediate consumption as the fruits are lobed and difficult to peel for processing.

In general, heirloom vegetable varieties are recognized for their superior taste when compared with hybrids developed in breeding programs focused on production (yield) and durability in shipping.  Yet flavor is a personal matter among gardeners, some preferring tomatoes that are sweet over those that are tart, some favoring thin-skinned fruits over those with tough skin.   For what it’s worth, among tomato varieties that I received in this seed exchange, Gold Nugget, Silvery Fir Tree, Yellow Scotland, and Wisconsin 55 came with high flavor rankings.

Climate winners, varieties that have performed well in a midcoast Maine garden, are Gold Nugget, Silvery Fir Tree, Juanne Flamme, Yellow Scotland, Paquebot Roma, and the hybrid, Brandy Boy.  Yellow Scotland is a popular tomato in the San Francisco Bay area where there is plenty of fog and gloom, so it should grow

Jaune Flammee is an heirloom tomato best eaten when the fruit is the color of ripe apricots. (Photo courtesy of http://t.tatianastomatobase.com:88/wiki/Jaune_Flamm%C3%A9e, with permission.)

well in a coastal Maine garden.

The determinate varieties, Gold Nugget and Silvery Fir Tree, do well in pots, good choices for gardeners with limited space.  Gold Nugget, an Oregon State University introduction, is an early ripening grape tomato that bears fruit into July, wearing thin as the fruits of Silvery Fir Tree begin to ripen.   Silvery Fir Tree is a compact Russian heirloom with ferny leaves, the majority of its red fruits ripening over a 3- to 4-week period, ending when the main season tomatoes begin to ripen.

With growing heirloom vegetables becoming more popular, you may find the above tomatoes and many other heirloom treasures as transplants in local garden centers.  It has been my experience that the small independent garden center is your best bet for open-pollinated varieties.  And, as I have experienced, market gardeners are beginning to offer heirlooms that they find grow well on their farms.

If you like to grow your own heirloom seedlings, can you find a source of seed?  In addition to local garden centers and mail order seed companies that specialize in heirlooms (google “heirloom vegetable seeds”),  I discovered an online source that offers seeds of over 3000 varieties of open-pollinated vegetables: Tatianas TOMATObase Heritage Tomatoes (http://t.tatianastomatobase.com:88/wiki/Tatiana%27s_TOMATObase_-_Heritage_Tomatoes).  Tatiana Kouchnareva operates this privately owned and privately funded seed bank in Anmore, Cananda.  Her business focuses on collecting and sharing seeds from a wide variety of heirloom vegetables, including tomatoes, and her website provides a wealth of information on the characteristics of the fruits and plants as well as historical information about each variety.

So yes, there are sources of seeds for hundreds of heirloom vegetable varieties.  But how does the gardener narrow the list to varieties likely to grow best in his or her garden, varieties that meet the gardner’s preferences for plant size, color, and flavor?   If you are as determined as I am to discover heirloom vegetable varieties that are rich in flavor and that will ripen in cool, short summers, local seed savers are invaluable resources, not only as sources of seed but primarily as experienced gardeners with knowledge of what works in your area.  Seek them out and get involved with swapping seeds and sharing gardening knowledge.  You will discover new paths in the search for vegetable varieties best suited to your garden.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)