Gardening Tips: Tomato-Mania

What to do this week

It’s about time to start tomato seedlings inside to have them ready for transplanting at the beginning of June. Each year I agonize over the wide variety of colors, textures and sizes available. I grow more than 50 different varieties for seed on a rotating basis, which you would think would give me plenty to choose from, but each year I greedily look to add more to my collection.

Monitorpop at English Wikipedia [CC BY 2.5 (]

Heirloom tomatoes (Photo by Monitorpop at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5)

Varieties saved for seed should be planted at least 25 feet (10m) apart, but varieties grown for eating I put in a single bed we call the mongrel garden. This is also where I put new varieties I am trialing to assess before going to all the work of a proper growout.

With thousands of kinds of tomatoes to choose from, trialing is an endless process, but over the years, I find I keep returning to several main themes. As always, I am constrained by the challenges of the Cape Breton growing season.

First, I don’t usually put a lot of love into the beefsteak varieties. Oh, I keep trying them, but these prima donnas are very demanding — needing perfect soil and growing conditions. If they don’t get what they want, they pout, develop blossom end rot, or refuse to ripen before frost leaving me with nothing but too many jars of chow. In Cape Breton we get those perfect conditions hardly three years out of five. And I definitely shy away from the ruffled Marmande types like Brandywine and its ilk. Those crinkles and folds are just a haven for bugs and fungal diseases here.

I also don’t grow a lot of indeterminate plants either. Even determinate tomatoes will often benefit from some caging or trellising but I simply have too many plants to take on this chore on any scale. Beginner gardeners too will do best to stick to the smaller-growing varieties like Stupice, or Moskvich. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing and growing and while they may be more productive per plant, they need attention to stop them from getting overgrown and dragging on the ground.

Determinate tomatoes can often be grown in containers, which is an added bonus for those with limited space. There are a few — like Tumbler or Tiny Tim — that are even small enough for hanging baskets. I find they have a thick skin and not the sweetest flavor but they still make a nice addition to a deck or patio.

If, like me, you have discovered the wonderfully complex taste of black tomatoes, you will find, alas, that most are indeterminate. The exception is Black Sea Man which is semi-determinate. I grow those as well as Black Cherry and Japanese Black Trifele for my fix of that sweet, smoky black tomato taste.

Because I love ripe tomatoes and not just chow, I make sure I always grow some cold-tolerant varieties. Many tomatoes will sulk and even drop their flowers or green fruit if the temperature dips below 10C. My personal favorite, Sprint, will keep going until killed by frost and not even show a little late blight. It is no longer commercially available, but new varieties like Latah or Glacier are almost as good. Glacier and Sprint are both potato-leaf varieties. You might also try Silvery Fir Tree which has beautiful, lacy foliage and is very ornamental as well as producing delicious, red, slicing tomatoes.

Cherry tomatoes are everyone’s favorite garden snack, but they tend to have a long season, being more closely related to the wild types. They also have a vigorous, indeterminate growth habit and will definitely need a cage. Most varieties are also sensitive to moisture stress – which means they will crack and spoil in the autumn rains. You can mitigate this somewhat by growing them in large containers and making sure they get regular and sufficient watering.

U.S. Department of AgriculturePreston Keres/Office of Communications-Photography Services Center [Public domain]

Heirloom tomato venders. (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Preston Keres/Office of Communications-Photography Services Center, Public domain)

I also grow a selection of sauce or paste tomatoes. These are not really for fresh eating, with the exception of a few dual-purpose types like De Barao or Principe Borghese. They tend to be dry, with little juice and seeds. Not what you want in a salad or sandwich, but they shine in a salsa or sauce since they don’t turn to water when cooked. Roma is the best known for our cool climate, but for the best flavor, I grow either San Marzano or a Canadian variety called Ropreco. Since I love tomato sauce almost as much as I love fresh tomatoes, I grow a lot of different sauce varieties like Mayan Indian, Opalka or even Banana Legs and Tegucigalpa for both the flavor and in case one or another succumbs to our inhospitable climate. It’s my way of ensuring tomato food security.

Being a seed saver, the tomatoes I’ve mentioned by name here are all open-pollinated (OP). This means that with the proper technique, you can save seed from them. There are many hybrid varieties as well which, while high-performing on the mainland or other, more balmy regions, are not really Cape Breton-tough. Over the years, I have found the OPs a little more resilient when faced with our crazy, changeable weather, though they may not be as productive in a good year. And their taste is out of this world.

You can get seeds for these, and hundreds of others, from various companies that specialize in heritage seeds. Heirloom Tomato-mania is now so widespread that even the larger, mainstream catalogs have a section devoted to them. Or you can join a seed-savers exchange organization like Seeds of Diversity Canada. Often there is no obligation to re-offer the seed yourself. (In fact, we’d rather you didn’t until you know what you’re doing.) Growing tomatoes from all around the world is a fun and educational way to get involved in this exciting and tasty pastime.

Featured image by Gary Stevens, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.



Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.





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