Tomato Worship

Seeds Trust is proud to offer only heirloom tomato seeds, seeds passed on from generation to generation and originally saved from the best tasting varieties. Looking for a good small acidic yellow cherry or maybe a big beefy red slicer? How about tomatoes from Siberia? Our goal is to continually add new categories corresponding to our customer's outlandish wishes.


History

America's most favorite vegetable originated in the highlands of northern South America. The first wild plants brought into cultivation bore tiny, watery, acid tasting fruits that barely resemble today's delicious giants. To give some idea, the Latin name for the original wild tomato, Lycopersicon esculentum, means "edible wolfpeach". Over the centuries the tomato made its way north to the Aztecs of central Mexico who are thought to have done much of the original breeding work. In fact, our name for the plant comes from the Aztec name, "tomatl".

Spanish conquistadors brought tomato seeds back to Europe for the first time and Spain became the first European country to really produce tomatoes. Italy adopted the Pomo d' oro, "golden apple", as an integral part of its national cuisine. The rest of Europe had a bit more trouble adopting this new garden favorite from the New World because tomatoes are in the nightshade family and their leaves closely resemble a number of deadly plants including belladonna. The English were really the last to be convinced and many of the first American colonists from England carried a bias against tomatoes. For this reason, the first tomatoes grown in America were grown as ornamentals.

The writings of Thomas Jefferson are one of the first places we find evidence of Americans eating tomatoes. He writes about growing them for consumption in his garden journal beginning in 1809. Amazing stories come from the early days of America when the majority thought tomatoes poisonous. Col. Robert Johnson, a world traveler and adventurer, against the advice of his physician and in the presence of the local undertaker, ate much of a bushel of tomatoes in front of a terrified crowd on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey in 1820.

Some say the Creoles in New Orleans were the first in the United States to seriously use tomatoes and in 1860 brought them into commercial production. The immense popularity of tomatoes in the late 19th century helped to create hundreds of new varieties as gardeners and farmers saved seeds from their own stock and selected for different characteristics. This trend continued until after WW II when hybridization and commercialization became the driving forces in tomato production. The results have been nothing short of amazing. Tomatoes are now mechanically picked, tossed into trucks, driven thousands of miles and stacked on shelves for weeks at a time! A so-called breakthrough at the University of California at Davis a few years ago resulted in the "square" tomato which facilitates packaging in boxes.

Most of us would agree that modern commercialization of the tomato has not been without negative effects. Bland tasting supermarket tomatoes have forced a record number of Americans to grow tomatoes at home. The number of good-tasting, open-pollinated tomato varieties so prevalent before WWII is rapidly shrinking. In 1990, according to the Seed Savers Exchange, 396 open-pollinated varieties of tomatoes were available from seed companies in North America. This was 46 varieties fewer than just two years before.  In the last few years, there has been a turn-around in popularity as all kinds of tasty, homegrown, heirloom tomatoes make their way into the mainstream.


Important Variety

The first step for any tomato gardener is to search for the varieties they wish to grow. Most American gardeners limit their search to the normal, commercial universe of hybrid offerings. SEEDS TRUST sells a wide variety of open-pollinated tomatoes from which seed can be saved (as opposed to the F1 hybrids which produce sterile or unreliable seed). This allows gardeners and farmers to save their own seeds from varieties that perform best in their own mini-ecosystem or conform to their own special tastes. This assures diversity in the same way that diversity has been promoted instinctively for 10,000 years. We invite you to sample the cornucopia of varieties still available around the world whether early or late, cold or heat tolerant, round or pear-shaped, yellow, gold, orange, purple, green or even red. You can be assured that the Seed Trust varieties listed result from careful selection for "fresh-picked" flavor and cold-tolerance.


Site Selection

Site selection is a gardener's next step. Maximize the growing seasons of cold mountain gardens by creating small, warm mini-climates. Choose or create well-protected, south-facing sites. Even a small angle of slope to the south can dramatically increase soil warmth. Surround tomatoes with large rocks or concrete walls that collect the sun's heat during the day and protect from frost at night. Tall-growing crops or permanent hedges will protect larger gardens and fields. It is worthy to note an old Chinese saying: "Select proper site for garden and half the work is done."

In the desert elevations, heat can be the culprit when temperatures get above 80° F and makes pollen sterile. In the early morning or late evening, when temps begin to cool, go out to your tomatoes and gently shake the flowers of the plants to stimulate fertile pollination.


Soil

Healthy soil is the foundation for all successful gardens and tomato gardens are no exception. At high altitudes, soils reach their extremes and are inherently more fragile, more alkaline or more acidic and more deprived of organic matter than soil in more moderate climes. Top soil is often non-existent, or subject to rapid degradation by being exposed to severe wind and intense sun. We encourage gardeners to build up and care for soil by:

  1. Adding organic matter. We continually obtain the best yields in our gardens after feeding first our soil and secondly the plants growing in it. Feed soil with copious amounts of fully decomposed compost. Tomatoes especially like soil that contains composted tomato plants. Be aware that overly fresh manure and other undigested organic matter may take too long to decompose in cold, spring soil, aggravating already acidic pH levels and lowering nitrogen levels. If necessary, add overly fresh manure as early in the fall as possible.

  2. Adding nutrients. The optimum method for building a supply of available nutrients in garden soil is to add organic soil aids each spring. Organic soil aids decompose slowly over the years thereby preventing overdose damage. The necessary macro- and micro-nutrients are assured. Testing and fine-tuning for specific nutrients becomes unnecessary. Balance between nitrogen and phosphorous is preserved when both are added at the same time at recommended amounts. Too nitrogen-rich soil will over-stimulate plant growth, delaying fruit production.

  3. Testing soil pH. An unbalanced soil pH can bind nutrients into garden soil and prevent them from being made available to plants. Tomatoes prefer soil with a pH in the range of 6.0-7.0. A test for soil pH (acidity or alkalinity) is fast, simple, accurate and inexpensive. We test our garden beds each spring with the Lamotte pH test kit.

  4. Minimizing tillage. Proper tillage increases the biological activity in the soil. We double dig our beds once each spring. We try to minimize a turning or mixing of the different levels of soil. Over-tilling leads to rapid breakdown of organic matter in soil. For a complete discussion of proper soil care, we recommend How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons.

  5. Keeping garden soil covered. In between crops or after harvest, plant a cover crop such as Austrian winter peas or rye to minimize erosion and to add organic matter.

  6. Rotating crops. Occasionally allow one or more seasons for a nitrogen-fixing crop such as alfalfa or clover to replenish the soil.


Start Indoors

Tomato plants destined benefit from early indoor planting. Seeds should be planted indoors in flats at least 6-8 weeks early. Experienced tomato gardeners start as early as 11-12 weeks before the last frost date if unrestricted root growth during the entire period can be assured. Tomatoes must be transplanted before roots reach sides of the container because growth can be stunted permanently. Three or more transplants into successively larger pots is not uncommon in a 12 week period. Wise tomato gardeners plant no more than 6-8 weeks when the responsibility of transplanting is not wanted. A smaller tomato plant with growth momentum is better than a large, root bound tomato plant.

Provide plenty of light to avoid tall, leggy growth. Twenty watts of artificial light per square foot is sufficient. Light-deprived plants grow tall and spindly in search of more light. Nutrient movement through tall, skinny stems is restricted. Short, stocky plants, the result of adequate light, actually produce more, larger tomatoes, sooner than tall skinny plants. To minimize restricted nutrient movement, pinch lower leaves and bury stem completely. Tall, skinny stems will actually grow somewhat fatter underground.

A good potting soil should be used for indoor tomato starts. We make our own using 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 perlite or vermiculite. Regular garden soil is not an acceptable substitute. Daily watering in small containers destroys the structure of garden soil leaving it too compacted to allow necessary air exchange with roots. The result is yellow, sickly plants.


Transplant Outdoors

Experienced tomato gardeners "harden off" tomato starts before transplanting outside. "Hardening off" is a term used by gardeners to describe the changes tender, indoor plants go through to survive outside in wind, rain, sun and widely fluctuating air and soil temperatures. Successful "hardening" of tomato plants is done gradually over a ten-day period. Plants should be set outside for a few hours only the first day. A cloudy day or late afternoon is best in the beginning. Protect from strong wind until visible strengthening occurs. Lengthen the time outside each day and expose to sun and wind gradually. Allow soil to dry before "hardening". This actually begins the process to toughen and protect. White coloring on the leaves is a sign of sunburn.

Our favorite method to transplant large tomato seedlings is called "the trench method". Lower leaves are pinched off the entire length of the lower stem. The plant is laid horizontally into a small trench 3" or 4" deep with the top sticking out and above the ground at the end. The entire length of the stem underground will grow roots setting the stage for future dynamic growth. It will fatten to allow more nutrients access to leaves, flowers and fruit. Sun has a greater chance of warming the newly rooted stem early in the season because it is only 3-4" deep. Fertilizer should not be put directly in the trench as it may "burn" a tender, new seedling. Water deeply, immediately because root hairs are damaged temporarily during transplant and are unable to transport water efficiently.


Spacing

The optimum spacing between newly planted tomato seedlings depends on several factors including soil fertility and exposure to wind and sun. Experience is the most important guide. If many tomatoes are sun burned one summer, less space may be an answer the next. Also, a gardener can produce more different varieties of tomatoes in a small garden by trellising, pruning and planting tomatoes very close to each other. The number and size of tomatoes on each plant will be somewhat restricted but more different kinds can be grown. Recommended, traditional spacing for tomato rows is 36-48". Plants in rows have been spaced between 12-24". Spacing in double-dug, deep beds often varied between 18-24".


Frost Protection

Tomatoes are commonly thought to have no frost tolerance. However, many of our tomatoes have survived 29°F. frosts with no protection. This is possibly a result of supplementing soil with kelp meal. According to soil scientist, R. H. Faust, Ph.D., tests at Clemson College showed that, "tomato plants grown in flats on which seaweed meal has been used possessed considerable cold resistance. Seaweed treated flats of tomatoes withstood freezing temperatures as low as 29°F. We offer 1 lb. Icelandic Kelp Meal. Apply no more than one pound per 100 sq. ft. to avoid retarded growth.

Technology has provided a number of devices that protect tomatoes and other warm season crops from frost damage. Wall o'Water is a great product that allows heavy vinyl, sectioned, cylindrical tubes to be filled with water. These water filled tubes hold warmth from the sun to warm plants at night allowing a garden to be started outside, 6-8 weeks early. If water freezes, heat still will be released as water gives off heat when it cools. Perfect for peppers, squashes, tomatoes and other warm season crops. Protects small plants down to 16° F. Each self-standing Wall o'Water is 18" x 18" and holds 3 gallons of water. Lasts for years.


Soil Temperature

Soil temperatures below 70°F. can slow tomato growth for days, even weeks. We advise gardeners in high altitudes to take careful soil temperature readings before planting. After years of searching, we finally found a versatile, pocket-sized Propagation Thermometer that lets cold-climate gardener's monitor soil temperatures indoors in propagation flats or outdoors in the garden.

Gardeners have been using clear plastic mulch to warm spring soils and black plastic to suppress weeds. IRT 100 Mulch is a dark brown, embossed, wavelength selective, plastic mulch that warms soil like clear plastic yet suppresses weeds as well as any black plastic.


Companion Plants

The most complete discussion of companion planting, "the ability of certain species of plants to help each other by their mere presence" is contained in a book titled, Companion Plants, by Helen Philbrick and Richard Gregg. The book is based on 40 years of careful observation by Sir Albert Howard in India. The organic farming methods of Mr. Howard were brought to America in the early forties by the late J. I. Rodale. Plants which enhance the growth of tomatoes when planted closely nearby include: onions, parsley, asparagus, carrots, marigolds.


Support

Contrary to popular belief, tomato plants do not require support to maximize tomato production. In fact, our tests show that indeterminate tomato plants allowed to sprawl over the ground actually produce more pounds of tomatoes. Provide at least 1 sq. yard of garden space per plant if this method is used. A thin layer of mulch on the ground will keep tomatoes dry and less likely to rot.

Trellises, cages and stakes do provide some advantages. Tomatoes are easier to find and harvest. Individual tomatoes grow larger because pruned, supported vines produce fewer numbers of fruit. Tomatoes kept above the ground are cleaner with less rotting and ripen sooner.

Wire cages offer the most advantages for a garden with less than 10 tomato plants. Plants in cages grow and support themselves with little pruning or care. They develop enough foliage to shade tomatoes and prevent sunburn. We use concrete reinforcing wire with 6" squares to allow easy hand access. Our cages are 5' tall and at least 18" in diameter. This requires a piece of wire 5' x 4 1/2' which is then rolled.

Staking tomato plants also keeps vines and tomatoes off the ground and saves space. Sticks for use as stakes cost less than wire. Staking does require more labor than caging. Plants should be pruned and tied to the stake at least once a week. Fruits are less protected from the sun by foliage and therefore more likely to be sunburned. Staked tomato plants produce fewer fruits because every branch not tied is removed. We found staked tomatoes to be more susceptible of blossom end rot because the ground underneath is less shaded and therefore more likely to dry in hot weather.

The advantage of using tomato trellises is that only one structure is necessary to support a large number of plants. The time needed to prune and tie is similar to staking and tomatoes are more exposed to sun than in cages.


Pruning

"Pruning" usually means pinching off new little shoots that grow out of stems just above leaves. These little "suckers", as they are often called, have become the unfortunate target of many serious gardeners. If tomato plants are staked or trellised, pruning makes sense because room is available for one or two stems only. Whether pruning actually increases production on caged or free roaming plants remains to be seen. Pruning late in the growing season can allow more sunlight and heat underneath a plant which will speed ripening on cool days. Pinch off the top of a plant late in the season to encourage more energy to ripening fruits instead of foliage which will soon be frozen. Sunburned tomatoes result from plants pruned too much.


Water

Provide an even supply of water to maximize growth and prevent blossom end rot. Lack of calcium will cause a black rot to appear on the ends of tomatoes and calcium flow into a plant will be greatly reduced if water is unavailable. On the other hand, too-much water will saturate soil and restrict oxygen to the roots which is necessary for optimum growth. Tomatoes need at least 1 inch of water per week to insure quality growth. This translates into about 60 gallons of water per 100 sq. ft. of garden soil per week.

Avoid watering with icy, cold water. Many Siberians fill large tanks painted black so that garden water will be warmed before being applied. If possible water deeply at the base of each plant and avoid top-watering. Some gardeners bury gallon cans between each tomato plant. The tops are cut off and holes punched in the sides. Fill each can with water and it will soak deeply into the soil around the roots without damage.

Mulch

Mulch can keep free roaming tomatoes clean and dry and keep the soil underneath moist during hot spells. Avoid applying too early in spring when it can act as an insulator and prevent the soil from properly warming.


Disease

Many tomato diseases are associated with hot, moist weather and are not a threat in higher, drier climes (except in greenhouses). To prevent most problems, provide healthy transplants, fertile soil and plenty of calcium.

Early blight (Alternaria solani) is probably the most common tomato disease. This soil-born fungus first appears as brown spots on bottom leaves with yellow, concentric circles spreading out around them. Lower leaves are affected first, but whole plants can become infected. Avoid top-watering and splashing underneath. Practice three-year rotation to eliminate.

Fusarium wilt is also common in warmer climates. The best defense against "the yellows" as it is also called is to plant resistant varieties (designated "F"). Fusarium is a fungus that is taken up through the roots and into the stem where it grows and gives off the toxic substances that eventually cause yellowing, wilting and death. Fusarium can remain alive in the soil for many years so infected sites should be avoided for at least 4 years.

Verticillium wilt appears with identical symptoms as fusarium and is much more common in cold, northern climates. The only definitive solution is to plant resistant varieties (designated "V").


Insects

Flea beetles are most likely to be most destructive early in the season. Use sticky traps or diatameous earth (not the kind used in pools). Making sure soil is free of debri and companion planting will also dimish flea beetle infestations.  We pick Colorado potato beetles by hand and occasionally use pyrethrum. Dipel (Bacillus thuringiensis) will control tomato horn worms.


Physical Problems

Blossom end rot, sunburn and cracking are serious problems faced by small-scale commercial growers who need especially beautiful fruits. Blossom end rot is actually caused by a lack of calcium. Calcium is transported by water in tomato plants. Dry conditions aggravate calcium deficiencies in plants resulting in blossom end rot. Provide consistent water to avoid most cases. Calcium can be added as a last resort.

Sunburn appears as a yellowish, white patch on the sunny side of ripening tomatoes. Prevent sunburn by allowing enough foliage to shade each fruit. Although ugly, sunburn does not affect the eating quality of tomatoes. Simply cut away the discolored portion and enjoy the remaining fruit.

Cracking is often the result of too much water. Unusually rainy, warm weather most often causes cracking. Ripening tomatoes actually absorb too much water and expand faster than skin can grow. Provide a consistent, even, water supply.


Harvest

Continued harvesting stimulates continued production. Harvest to avoid frost damage should be done by pulling entire plants instead of picking individual tomatoes. Hang entire tomato plant upside down in cool, dry location. If not damaged, tomatoes will ripen slowly, for several weeks.


Storage

Firm ripe tomatoes keep for 4-7 days at 45-50°F. and 85-90% humidity. Mature green tomatoes will keep 1-3 weeks if kept between 55-70°F. and 85-90% humidity. Ethylene gas will ripen green tomatoes to full color. Commercial growers artificially apply ethylene gas to green tomatoes before delivering to grocery stores. Apples, pears, plums, peaches, musk melons and avocados naturally give off ethylene gas and will hasten ripening if added to a paper bag containing green tomatoes.

"Long keeper" tomatoes are quite unique. They contain the "NorA" or long-keeper gene that prevents tomatoes from ripening. "NorA" varieties can sit for months in cool, dry places waiting to be eaten fresh. The skin on these varieties never turns red yet the flesh inside turns red and is quite delicious.


Growing Indoors

Unpredictable weather forces most mountain gardeners at one time or another to consider growing tomatoes indoors. Whether you plant in a new, solar greenhouse or carry pots of tomato plants indoors at night to avoid fall frost, the following information can help assure a supply of fresh-picked tomatoes year round.
Most northern gardeners never realize that tomatoes are perennial plants. Brought inside in the fall, tomato plants can be coaxed to produce for many years, or at least until outdoor summer gardens are again productive. Another short-cut method for starting indoor winter tomato plants is to pinch the larger "suckers" or the tops off outdoor tomato plants. Soak in warm water for several hours to stimulate root production, pinch off lower leaves and plant in good potting soil. Keep moist for several days.

Use large containers for your tomatoes. The scientists at the Integral Urban House in Berkeley, California figured the optimum size for soil containers that would minimize stunted growth in tomatoes. Their answer was a 50 gal. oil drum cut in half. Small containers work but larger containers mean more and larger tomatoes. Don't fill containers with regular garden soil.

Plant indeterminate varieties. Indeterminate varieties continue tomato production as long as the plant is alive. Size can be controlled in tight spaces with pruning. Production in determinate varieties is more cyclical with all fruits ripening at one time.

Don't be discouraged when flower production slows during the shortest days of December. Fruits will continue to ripen and as soon as the days begin to lengthen after December 21, masses of new flowers and foliage will begin to reappear.


Feed potted and indoor tomato plants regularly. Chemical fertilizers are basically salts. Regular use will cause potting soil to become too alkaline. Check soil pH. Add acidifying agents if necessary. Sulphur is our choice.

Put containers of tomato plants into a child's wagon to help facilitate movement indoors at night during transition periods in spring and fall.


Seed Production

With little more work and attention than it takes to grow a home garden, everyone can begin to re-elevate the gardening experience to a new, sustainable level. We were inspired by our trip to Siberia where thousands and thousands of people from all walks of life save their own garden seed. In fact, seed saving in Siberia is an integral part of the gardening experience. Competition for the best garden harvest is intense. For example the best tomato varieties we saw while we were there resulted from years of selective seed saving and not from a packet of seeds purchased in the mail. Our goal as a seed company is to find the best open-pollinated varieties from around the world so gardeners can begin a seed saving adventure with the best possible genetic material. (These open-pollinated varieties as opposed to F1 hybrids, produce "viable" seeds.)

Isolation For Purity

Tomatoes produce individual flowers with both male and female parts (botanists call them "perfect"). They are self-pollinating. This means that two or more varieties can be grown safely in the same garden. (Note: A small percentage of natural cross-pollination can be caused by bees. This is greatly reduced by increasing the distance between different varieties or by separating them with another flowering crop.) Separate varieties with short styles (most modern varieties) by at least 10 feet. Varieties with long styles (heirlooms and older varieties) need at least 25 feet. If bees are prevalent, separate all varieties with another flowering crop.


Harvesting

If possible, allow tomatoes to completely ripen before harvesting for seed production. Unripe fruits, saved from the first frost, will ripen slowly if kept in a cool, dry location. Seeds from green, unripe fruits will be most viable if extracted after allowing the fruits to turn color.

Cut the tomato into halves at its equator. This will open the vertical cavities that contain the seeds. Gently squeeze out from the cavities the jelly-like substance that contains the seeds. If done carefully, the tomato itself can still be eaten or saved for canning or dehydrating. (We always have a winter-long supply of sun-dried tomatoes!)

Place the jelly and seeds into a small jar or glass. (Add a little water if you are only processing one or two small tomatoes.) Make sure the container is properly labeled. Loosely cover the container and place in a warm location, 60-75° F. for about three days. Stir once a day.

A layer of fungus will begin to appear on the top of the mixture after a couple of days. This fungus is not only eating the gelatinous coat that surrounds each seed and prevents its germination, it also is producing a range of antibiotics that help to control seed-borne diseases like bacterial spot, canker and speck.

After three days fill the seed container with warm water. Let the contents begin to settle and begin pouring out the water along with pieces of tomato pulp and immature seeds floating on top. Note: The viable seeds will be heavy enough to settle to the bottom of the jar. Repeat this process until water being poured out is almost clear and clean seeds line the bottom of the container. Pour these clean, viable seeds into a strainer that has holes smaller than the seeds. Let the excess water drip out and quickly invert the strainer onto paper towel or piece of newspaper. Again, make sure to label this paper. Allow the seeds to dry completely (usually a day or two). Break the clumps up into individual seeds and properly label and store in a packet or plastic bag.


Selection Traits

The real rewards from learning to save your own seeds come from saving seeds from those plants that exhibit important traits. The process, known as "selection", is an important step toward breeding new tomatoes.

The traits that gardeners observe and select are caused by the presence (or lack) of individual genes or large groups of genes. In other words, traits can be characterized as individual or quantitative. Top on our list of quantitative traits is good flavor. Flavor is caused by any number of factors including adaptability to specific climates. A gardener does not have to understand all of the individual genes in order to select for a quantitative trait like flavor. Simply mark any plant in the back yard that produces unusually good tasting tomatoes. Other quantitative traits high on our list include earliness, cold tolerance and those plants that bounce back after a hailstorm or slight frost. One of our customers concentrated on selecting for the best tomato plant for a condominium, small deck environment.

Gardeners should look also for traits attributed to specific genes including size, color, disease resistance, and ripening.


Bibliography

Ashworth, Suzanne. Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for the Vegetable Gardener. Decorah, Iowa: Seed Saver Publications, 1991.

Deppe, Carol. Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

Horst, Ph.D., R. Kenneth, ed. Westcott's Plant Disease Handbook. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Publishing. 1979.

Raymond, Dick and Jan. The Gardens For All Book of Tomatoes. Burlington, Vermont: Gardens For All, Inc. 1984.

Yepsen Jr., Roger B., ed. The Encyclopedia of Natural Insect & Disease Control. Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press. 1976.