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the heirloom garden

March 15, 2010 in gardening3 comments

why start your own seeds?

eva purple, black krim, pink brandywine

Three years ago, I discovered an amazing heirloom tomato variety entirely by accident, one that I’ve grown both with great success — that first year — and terrible failure— last year, which was too cold for tomato growing.

I had gone to a litte no-name greenhouse just outside of town. We call it Werner’s but to be brutally honest, I’m not even sure that’s its name or the name of the people who own. it. To get there, you turn from the state highway into a tree-choked, winding, rutted dirt drive, and follow that claustrophobic ribbon about 1/8 of a mile until it dead ends at the greenhouse complex.

There, the land opens up a bit to reveal a rustic wood shed with a few large U-tube greenhouses next to it. Once inside, there’s also a greenhouse attached to the shed, which is a display/checkout area. It’s in this greenhouse behind the shed that I was first truly exposed to heirloom tomatoes. The walls were lined with vegetable and herb plants, and the center tables held dozens of varieties or more of tomato plants alone.

Overwhelmed, I asked the helpful owner for assistance. I wanted some plum/paste, and could she recommend a good eating tomato? She led me to Amish paste, which I’m going to tell you right now was a disappointment, but more about that in a later post, but she also led me to pink brandywine, also known as Sudduth’s brandywine.

dad and a brandywine plant, 2007

That summer was nearly perfect for tomatoes. I put the brandywines and Amish pastes and a few other varieties in the ground and watched them grow. And grow they did, to nearly six feet tall, thanks to their round cages made of concrete reinforcing wire. And let me tell you —

Those pink brandywines were the best tomatoes I’d ever tasted. Gigantic — two pounds if they were an ounce — and fleshy and with a rich, complex flavor. It’s difficult to describe the flavor any better because the memory has lightened and dissipated. I no longer recall detail, just that it was the taste of a perfect, straight up tomato.

The next year I went back to Werner’s for more pink brandywines.

They were out.

No other greenhouse in the area grew as many heirloom varieties as Wener’s. Most grew none. We were SOL.

I realized I couldn’t count on greenhouses to start the plants that I wanted them to. My growing tastes had changed. I wanted obscure heirlooms, plants grown for taste and not markets, tomatoes that were huge and bulgy that got cracked shoulders on their misshapen fruits, all flaws that were instantly forgiven at the first, mind-blowing bite from them.

why to start your own seeds

It’s all about control, baby.

grow unique and rare varieties

Your local greenhouse probably doesn’t start Opalka plum tomatoes or Thai basil. But you can.

less reliance on greenhouses

Maybe your greenhouse does start Opalka plums and Thai basil. That doesn’t guarantee it’ll be in stock when you get there.

control the health of your plants

Greenhouses are plant lovers like you and me. However, you don’t know whether they are dumping all sorts of fertilizer on their young plants to get them to grow quickly. You don’t know if the greehouse is suffering a breakout of any number of diseases young plants are susceptible to. You can often tell visually how a plant is faring, but starting your own seeds gives ultimate control.

Of course, there’s the danger of a fungus or other nasty infecting your little plants as they grow at home, too, just so you know.

have plants ready on your schedule

Grow microgreens in January or a bushy pot of basil in the fall. It’s your choice.

All you need is some light, containers with growing medium, and moisture, and you’re on your way to starting your own seedlings from scratch. Tomorrow’s installment will explain in step-by-step detail how.

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  1. Those tomatoes look to die for!!

    • Amy says:

      They make me sigh in longing! It was last fall. I thought it was a horrible harvest at the time. Right now I’d kill for such tomatoes!

  2. Soma says:

    Those are gorgeous.. I have started sowing little somethings now that it started warming up. need to find something as gorgeous as these yet.

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