Holy tomato!

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Sowing tomatoes was the big moment in the garden last week. The sowing was actually indoors, and it was on April 1, which is six weeks before the “average date of the last killing frost” – or, to those in the know, ADLKF.

I’m finicky about what varieties to grow, because good tomatoes just waste garden space, never getting eaten, if great-tasting tomatoes are also to be had. But look at tomato variety descriptions in seed catalogues and on seed packets, and you’d think that every tomato variety tastes great and is worth growing.

I read those descriptors carefully to narrow the field. For starters, I avoid any tomato listed as “determinate.” Determinate varieties grow by branching repeatedly, because each stem ends in a cluster of fruits. The plants are compact and ripen their fruits over a short season, which appeals to commercial growers. Down sides are that their lower leaf-to-fruit ratio results in poor flavor, and concentrated ripening causes more stress and hence susceptibility to diseases.

So I grow only “indeterminate” varieties, whose clusters of fruits hang from along their ever-elongating (indeterminate in length) stems. These are the varieties that can be pruned for staking.

Short of tasting a particular variety of tomato, the next descriptor that would guide me is whether or not it’s a “potato-leaf” variety. Yes, their leaves look like those of potatoes (a close relative) – that is, thicker and with smooth rather than serrated edges. Still, a lot of great-tasting tomatoes are not potato-leaved.

Pink, heart-shaped tomatoes also have the edge on flavor. Same goes for tomatoes that don’t ripen to a uniform red color, or tomatoes that don’t ripen to perfectly round orbs. I also happen to like dark-colored (so-called “black”) varieties. You could almost say that the uglier the tomato (by commercial standards), the better the flavor. That is not to say that every tomato variety bearing ugly fruits is great-tasting, but it’s a start.

A man (or woman or child) can grow only so many tomatoes. This year I narrowed my lineup to 16 varieties: some old favorites and a few new ones – the new ones chosen on the basis of being indeterminate, perhaps potato-leaved et cetera.

The old favorites are Belgian Giant, Anna Russian (good cooked and fresh), San Marzano (good cooked, bad fresh), Cherokee Purple, Blue Beech (good fresh and with unique, good flavor cooked), Amish Paste (good cooked and fresh), Rose de Berne, Valencia (orange fruit) and Nepal; also two cherry tomatoes, Sungold and Gardener’s Delight. The latter was my favorite decades ago, and I’m curious now how it compares with the incomparable Sungold.

New varieties for this year are Brandywine Black, Black Prince, Cherokee Chocolate, German Giant and Black Krim.

Whew! That’s a lotta tomatoes. Even with a greenhouse, indoor planting space is at a premium. Besides those 16 varieties of tomatoes, with plans for at least four plants of each variety, I have dozens of other vegetable seedlings – broccoli, lettuce, kale, Brussels sprouts, pepper, eggplant and more – growing or in the works, and multiple varieties of each.

I’m managing all this by starting out sowing seeds in what look like miniature fields. These “fields” are four-by-six-inch seedflats, filled with potting soil into which I press four furrows with my MFT (my “mini-furrowing tool”). The MFT is a four-by-six piece of plywood with a handle on its upper side and four spaced-out quarter-inch-diameter dowels glued to its underside. Into the furrows impressed by the dowels I sprinkle the seeds, cover the furrows, and then smooth the “field” with a similar plywood rectangle lacking the dowel underbelly. The seedlings, when they sprout, look like miniature fields of plants.

Once sprouts unfold their second sets of leaves, they’re ready to be “pricked out” and given their own home. That home could be a pot or a cell in a plastic tray of multiple cells. Sliding a small blunt knife into the potting soil beneath a seedling lets me gingerly grab its leaves and lift it out with roots intact to be dropped into a waiting hole that I’ve dibbled with my cone-shaped dibbler. As each seedling is in place, I tuck potting soil in around its roots. Without delay, once a tray of seedlings has been pricked out, I spray a gentle-but-thorough mist of water to moisten the soil and settle the little sprouts into place without knocking them down.

Seeds and very young sprouts spend one or more weeks (four, in the case of slow-germinating and -growing celery) in the seedflats, and then another four weeks or so in their cells. That translates to 50 or more seedlings in an area four by six inches for a couple of weeks, and then about 20 older seedlings growing up in a space of about a square foot for the next four weeks.

All this not only squeezes oodles of seedlings into relatively small space, it also keeps me intimate with them in their youth. I’ll be planting tomato seedlings out in the garden one week after the ADLKF.

It’s time to prune trees and shrubs! I will be holding a pruning workshop at my New Paltz garden on April 13 from 2-5:30 p.m. Learn the tools of the trade and how plants respond to pruning with hands-on pruning of apple trees, blueberry bushes, lilac bushes and other plants. There’s limited space, so pre-registration is necessary. The cost is $55 per person. To register, e-mail [email protected] or call (845) 255-0417.

Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at [email protected] and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at www.leereich.blogspot.com. For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s homehudsonvalley.com.

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