The FAQ Series: Tomatoes

People think of tomatoes as a summer crop – as in June and July summer. And perhaps you live in a Magical Land of Elves and Unicorns (hello, Florida and southern California!) where field-grown tomatoes are available virtually year-round. Here in western Colorado, however, field-grown tomatoes don’t come on strong until August and September – but of course all the food blogs and magazines are telling us that it’s now time for apple cider and winter squash and pumpkin spice everything. It’s a confusing period, this shoulder season.

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Seed packets offer plenty of information – and if it’s an heirloom, they’ll be sure to mention it.

There is no debate that tomatoes are the star of the garden. They’re by far the most popular crop for home gardeners as well as the biggest seller at farmers’ markets, and more tomatoes are grown each year than any other fruit in the world – including apples and bananas. There are more than twenty thousand known varieties of tomatoes, and new cultivars are developed every year.

Like the word organic, the word heirloom gets thrown around a lot in reference to tomatoes. But what is an heirloom tomato, exactly? And why do they cost five dollars a pound?

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Our ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes, sadly still unripe even in early September.

The word heirloom doesn’t have any sort of legal definition in the U.S. when it comes to crops. In terms of plant botany, however, it’s generally accepted that an heirloom is a particular variety that’s existed for fifty years or more (World War II is the most common demarcation line), and is often one that’s been passed down from generation to generation. Decades and centuries ago, people immigrated to other countries with very few possessions; if they had seeds, they were often treated as precious jewels – sewed into skirt hems and luggage linings – because those seeds represented the start of a new food source and a new life. We obviously don’t treat seeds nearly as well today, but there still exists a small subset of gardeners who save seeds with the express purpose of keeping certain obscure plants alive. An heirloom by its very definition is not hybridized and non-GMO.

The ‘Indigo Rose’ tomatoes above aren’t a true heirloom, although they will be eventually. This tomato was developed by Dr. Jim Myers at Oregon State University (go Beavs!) as part of a breeding program searching for higher anthocyanins in fruit. That gorgeous, glossy dark purple color means the tomato has more antioxidants; it’s open-pollinated, so while not old enough for heirloom classification yet, the seeds will breed true if saved.

(For clarity’s sake, know that in plant breeding, hybrid does not necessarily mean GMO; there are no GMO tomatoes available commercially as of this writing. That is subject to change in the not-too-distant future.)

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The uniformity makes these hybrids perfect for grocery store displays.

Hybrids, on the other hand, have been developed through years and years of plant breeding for very specific reasons, and flavor is rarely a consideration. Ripe tomatoes are dangerously perishable, so commercial tomato growers want to pick hard, unripe, green tomatoes and let them ripen en route to market or at the store, courtesy of ethylene gas treatments. Grocery stores and food-service outlets demand symmetrical, uniform tomatoes of identical shape and size, both for shipping and displays. And consumers have long demonstrated by their consistent purchases of tasteless grocery store tomatoes that they don’t care about flavor, either – they just want perfect red tomatoes. This has obviously created an ideal market for bland, mealy ‘tomato-like fruits’ seen everywhere from fast-food hamburgers to caprese salads in January. What is the point, really, of eating something that looks like a tomato, but tastes like nothing? If we want better, we should ask for it.

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Not at all uniform. Delicate and easily damaged. Not traditionally attractive. But the flavor? Unreal.

When it comes to heirloom tomatoes, we have actually started asking for better. Certain high-end grocery stores now stock heirlooms seasonally, and small-scale growers do a roaring trade at farmers’ markets. These precious delights usually can’t be shipped far; they have thin skins and are picked as close to ripeness as possible, which means that they’re subject to damage. They’re also wildly inconsistent in size and shape and color, and they often show seams and cracks that may deter standard perfection-focused shoppers. For people doggedly in pursuit of flavor, however, there is simply no comparison. Heirloom tomatoes, depending on the variety, might be sweet or acidic or spicy or tangy or smoky and absolutely dripping with sultry juice. They taste like the past, in the best possible way. They taste like a tomato should taste.

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Eaten for supper at our house three to four times a week, when available.

If you are lucky enough to grow or buy heirloom tomatoes, I beg you to do nothing more than slice thickly, place on a deep platter, drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Sliced basil or red onion slivers can be added but are entirely optional. Let the tomatoes sit for a few minutes so the salt sinks in. Everyone serves themselves, with a few grinds of black pepper, if desired, and then the cook gets all the delicious juices that have accumulated at the bottom of the platter; bonus points if you’ve got homemade bread to soak those up. Heirloom tomatoes aren’t for cooking or canning or anything but eating raw and fresh, at room temperature, for as long as the season will allow. (And never, ever, ever refrigerate fresh tomatoes. It makes them mealy and horrible – not that you’d notice, if they came from the grocery store initially.)

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Saving tomato seeds is easier than you think.

Heirlooms are expensive because they are so fragile and so perishable, and because they generally don’t have disease- or insect-resistance bred in, so they’re more susceptible to loss. In my opinion, they’re worth all the effort and expense. There’s a time and a place for hybrids, too, even in the home garden – I buy hundreds of pounds of field-grown hybrid tomato seconds from local farms primarily for canning and preserving; in these applications, their consistency, productivity and yield makes up for the heirlooms’ fickle, prickly behavior. For sheer deliciousness, though, heirloom tomatoes cannot be beat.

If you’ve grown some spectacular heirlooms this year, save your seeds. Hybrid crops typically won’t breed true to type – such is the nature of hybridization – so it’s only worth saving seeds from tomatoes you know to be unhybridized. Place the seeds in a clean jar and add a little water. After a few days, the seeds will start to ferment – this mold actually helps protect the seed until it’s time to grow again next season. Once the seeds have fermented, rinse and separate them gently and store in labeled bags or jars in a dark, cool, dry place. You can even start a seed swap and trade with other gardeners for unique, hard-to-find varieties.

Do you have any favorite tomatoes you’ve grown or sampled? Please share in the comments below. (And then send us some seeds.)

P.S. Want to learn more about heirloom vs. hybrid tomatoes? Try this, this or this.

 

Small victories

In ten years of growing food, this is by far the most challenging season we’ve ever experienced. Between punishing hail, voracious deer, late snows, devastating winds, crafty rodents and ten million grasshoppers (I’m certain the locusts are on their way), we feel we’ve taken everything the world can throw at new farmers. We might be down, we might be bruised, but we’re not out yet. And in that spirit, how about we count up some wins?

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Thanks, sunflowers, for cheering us on with your bright faces.

Our farm is awash in sunflowers right now, not one of which we planted. They weren’t here last year when we moved in (historic drought?), but we’re so glad to see them this year. Hopefully they’ll continue to self-seed and their cheerful countenances will be part of every summer here.

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Farm update: July 8

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This is not some sort of newfangled organic fertilizer.

Welcome to high summer. It’s hot, dry and crispy here at Quiet Farm…except when it’s hailing. We’ve had three significant hailstorms so far; the one pictured above did some pretty severe damage to our vegetables. Between the late start, our overwhelming whistle pig infestation and this extreme weather, we’ll be thrilled to harvest anything this season. Growing food is not for the faint-of-heart.

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Farm update: June 10

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Still relatively safe on our west deck.

Why aren’t these plants in the ground, you say? Because our fence still isn’t finished. I know, I know…we’ve been going on about this game fence for what seems like decades; trust us, it’s twice as long when you’re actually building it. And we’re progressing, we really are – but it isn’t complete. And so these seedlings wait patiently on our sun porch, getting leggier and more rootbound every day. We’re glad this is a year focused on building infrastructure and learning, because if we actually had to harvest these crops on a specific schedule in order to make money, our season would already be shot. Most of them will thrive once they’re finally planted into raised beds, but some, like the pak choi, have already set flowers and are on their way to going to seed, so their life cycle is nearly complete. Had we known the pest pressure we’d face here, we would have started building the game fence last fall. Live and learn.

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Look carefully…there are at least four visible in this photo. And probably four hundred hidden in the rocks.

Speaking of pest pressure, our resident whistle pigs have had a wildly successful breeding season. Not familiar with whistle pigs? They’re part of the large marmot family (Marmota monax), commonly known as ground squirrels, and they’re related to woodchucks, gophers and prairie dogs. They do actually whistle to warn their brethren of impending doom (like when we stroll down the lane to pick up the mail) and they live amongst our extensive rock collection. While they haven’t done much damage to crops yet (mostly because there aren’t any – see above), we do believe they’re orchestrating a stealthy and coordinated campaign to creep ever closer to the vegetables. They are exceptionally quick despite their awkward bulk, and they have lush, glossy pelts – perfect for a fashionable winter hat! Right now we’re offering a special: come collect one rock, and you get a free whistle pig. (Some trapping required.)

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An ode to kale

Kale had a moment a few years back; it was suddenly – without warning – on every restaurant menu and in every recipe. It was as though kale had just been invented. Now, of course, it’s been supplanted as the trendy vegetable du jour – first by Brussels sprouts, and now by cauliflower. (I sincerely wish I’d invented “cauliflower rice;” the mark-up on those plastic packages – just for throwing it in a food processor! – is shocking.)

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There are lots more varieties of kale than just what you see in the supermarket.

Like most Americans, I first encountered kale when I worked in the catering industry. Curly kale is so often a garnish on salad bars and buffets that we think of it more as decoration than vegetable. But its very hardiness – its ability to sit out on a buffet table for hours on end no matter the temperature, without wilting, is precisely what makes it so valuable both in the garden and in the kitchen.

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Farm update: May 6

It’s been mostly cool and rainy this week. We’re of course grateful for the moisture and lower temperatures, which might keep our snowpack in place longer, but the weather has literally put a damper on our excavator plans. Never mind, though; there are always plenty of other things to do!

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A male black-chinned hummingbird getting its sugar fix.

One of our most successful ventures recently has been installing hummingbird feeders around our house. We’ve been utterly astounded at the sheer number of hummingbirds that have appeared, including both the black-chinned and broad-tailed varieties. They’ve apparently informed all their friends that the bar is open!

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Farm update: April 29

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Spring is truly here and the Quiet Farm project list expands daily! The weather has been unusually warm, so much so that everyone is concerned about our wonderful mesa snowpack melting too quickly and flooding the creeks. This sunny (and windy) week alone, we received deliveries of soil, lumber, fencing and concrete. We hauled railroad ties, hefted 80-pound bags of Quikrete, wheelbarrowed soil, hammered in T-posts and more. Our farm muscles are coming along nicely, and we’re trying hard to remember to apply sunscreen and drink enough water. When people say farming is hard work, they aren’t kidding – especially when you don’t yet own a tractor.

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How to grow microgreens

We’re still firmly in winter’s icy grip here on Colorado’s Western Slope, and there’s no better cure for spring fever than growing something indoors. Let’s learn how to grow microgreens!

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Microgreens sound fancy and expensive, but really they’re just tiny versions of things we already eat, like kale, radishes and beets. They are packed with nutrition, super flavorful, quick and easy to grow with no special equipment needed and absolutely gorgeous on the plate. What more could you ask from an indoor crop?

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Farm update: February 18

Despite the snow on the ground, spring is in the air. We’re entering the freeze-thaw cycle (also known as mud season) and our quarter-mile driveway is the worse for it, but all around us, things seem to be softening and readying for growth. We’re excited for spring, friends. This winter has offered much more moisture than last year’s punishing drought, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our fields regenerate once the snows have disappeared for good.

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One of our favorite winter activities has been watching for wildlife across our land; the persistent snow has made tracks easy to see. We’ve spotted coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels and of course our nemesis, deer. We are trying hard to learn this land, to know what lives here now and what was here before us so we can figure out how to best live in harmony.

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Things that are great, vol. 2

Modern lives contain way too much negativity, a cycle perpetrated by a fear-mongering media looking to sell us stuff we don’t need. In the interest of combatting that mentality, then, we present our second “Things That Are Great” link round-up, highlighting news stories and trends that we think are worth celebrating. (Read our first positive link collection here!)

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Photo clearly not taken in Colorado.

If you had to guess at the largest irrigated crop in America, you might well assume corn or soy. You’d be wrong; however; according to a 2015 NASA study, lawns represent about 40 million acres in the U.S., or about three times as much land as corn. All this grass comes at a steep price: 9 billion gallons of water per day, plus hundreds of millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides and other chemical treatments, all of which eventually end up in our water sources. And yard waste, including grass clippings and leaves, represents the largest single occupant of our landfills, too. All this for a crop we can’t even eat? Ridiculous.

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Thankfully, though, forward-thinking companies are working to change that antiquated attitude. All across the country, edible landscapes are “unlawning” America. Converting pointless, thirsty lawns into healthy, local human food? Yes, please. These edible landscapers often face a lot of resistance from restrictive HOAs, but progress is still being made, albeit slowly. If you’d like to replace your lawn with native plants, check with your local extension agent – they’re often the best source of information for what will grow best and still look nice in your region.

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