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by Garrett Pittenger

Because many of you will be making plans for your 1997 garden this winter and getting ready to order seeds, I would like to draw your attention to the possibilities of heritage varieties, available from many seed catalogs.

Tomatoes are North America’s most popular home garden crop and the selection of tomato varieties offered by many of the larger seed companies is increasingly focused on hybrids that are widely marketed across North America. Favorite standard varieties, often those adapted to specific locales and markets, have disappeared from the catalog pages in step with the increase in hybrid listings. A positive countertrend is the appearance of more heritage varieties offered by the smaller or "alternative" seed companies such as Salt Spring Seeds, Prairie Grown Garden Seeds and Terra Edibles here in Canada. Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine has featured over the last few years a growing selection of heritage types oriented toward the northern United States and Canadian markets.

When I first started gardening at my present site near Palgrave, Ontario almost 20 years ago, I was challenged to find flavorful varieties that would succeed with my short growing season and cool night temperatures. I was disappointed by ‘Sub-Arctic Maxi’ and other determinate (dwarf) tomatoes available commercially. Through Seeds of Diversity Canada (formerly Heritage Seed Program) and the Seed Savers Exchange in the United States, I obtained and tried several of the older varieties that caught my interest in their seed listings. Not all of these worked out for me but those that succeeded under my conditions became mainstays in my garden. Among these varieties, the large, dark pink ‘Pruden’s Purple’ proved outstanding for its size, flavor and earliness. This one came to me from Alex Caron, one of the founders of the Heritage Seed Program. It’s distinct "potato-leaf" foliage and open growing habit set it apart from other tomato varieties. Another superior large tomato for me has been ‘Yellow Mortgage Lifter’ from COG member Phil Mathewson. This variety produces large and comparatively dry-fleshed golden fruit rather later in the season and has remained a favorite year after year.

Both of these varieties are indeterminate in habit, as are many of the older types, growing continuously and producing foliage that provides nourishment for the fruit crop. Determinate varieties have a poor foliage-to-fruit ratio and consequently, a lack of flavor. The older staking tomatoes are still suitable to home garden conditions although they may no longer suit the conditions of modern field production.

In addition to commercial sources, the growers' network of Seeds of Diversity Canada members will be offering over 500 distinct tomato varieties in the upcoming 1997 seed listing, available to member subscribers. Our objective is to make these varieties, often ones not obtainable anywhere else, available to others to try in their gardens and to reoffer the following year. The Seeds of Diversity annual seed listing is sent out with the January issue of the magazine to those with current subscriptions. The varieties being offered by member growers cover the entire spectrum of tomato genetic diversity: from large fruit to small; from dwarf plants suitable to container culture to large-vined stakers; from ivory, yellow and gold to pink, red and even "black" or green-when-ripe fruit color. Consider becoming a SoDC member and enjoy access to this gene bank of heritage tomato varieties maintained by member growers. Try some in your garden this summer and see the difference for yourself.




Copyright 1997. Garrett Pittenger

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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