The Good Seed: Summer Tomatoes

Lynn Coulter
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heirloom tomatoes

I say, “tuh-may-toe,” you say, “tuh-mah-toe.”

It doesn’t matter how you pronounce it, because most gardeners agree that homegrown tomatoes, ripe from the vine and warm from the sun, are just about the most delicious things you’ll ever eat.

I like my tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper, while my neighbor eats hers with a dash of sugar. The perfect summer sandwich, in my opinion, is thick-sliced ‘maters on fresh whole wheat, buried under a blanket of lemony mayonnaise. Onion is optional–unless you’re out of mints and have a meeting in close quarters, in which case you’re wise to skip it. (The onion, not the meeting.) Bonnie Plants tomato plants

Tomatoes, like fine wine and small children, can’t be rushed. You’ve got to wait until the air temperature and soil are reliably warm before planting tomatoes, whether from seeds or starts. Our spring this year was cold and wet, so I’m just now putting out seedlings. It’ll be weeks before my fruits are ready to harvest (and yes, tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables. We know because botanists say so, despite an 1880s Supreme Court ruling declaring they’re vegetables, and therefore subject to import duties. Seems the taxman wanted a bite out of them as much as the rest of us.)

If you think you don’t like tomatoes, then I think you’ve never tried one grown in your backyard. You were probably ruined by one of those pale, watery, flavorless imitations plucked before its prime and trucked across country that tried to pass for the real thing.

Gardening friends, I urge you to reconsider and plant one of the delicious varieties below.

If you don’t enjoy your tomato harvest, give the fruits of your labor to Plant a Row for the Hungry (PAR), a public service initiative of the Garden Writers Association. PAR encourages gardeners to plant an extra row of produce each year and donate the surplus to a local food bank, soup kitchen, or other service organization.

So if you don’t like tomatoes, grow them anyhow and give ‘em away. If you do like them, plant enough for yourself and a hungry neighbor whose name you may never even know. Even if you don’t feed your stomach—you will surely feed your soul.

Try These Tasty Tomato Varieties: Bonnie Plants tomato assortment
(Look for these as plants or seeds at your Home Depot Garden Center. Selections vary by store.)

‘Mortgage Lifter’ – This heirloom tomato was developed by “Radiator Charlie,” a West Virginia radiator repairman who never had a formal education. Charlie crossbred tomatoes for years, until he came up with a variety that had all the flavor and growing characteristics he wanted. Legend says he sold his seedlings for $1 each, eventually earning enough to pay off the $6,000 mortgage on his home. Charlie passed away at the ripe old age of 97. His juicy tomatoes are ripening in gardens still. My fellow Garden Club blogger, Michael Nolan, loves ‘Mortgage Lifter’ for its “incredibly large and flavorful fruits.”  

‘Brandywine’ –Like ‘Mortgage Lifter,’ this tomato is an heirloom, or a variety that’s been around for 50 to 100 years or longer. While some heirlooms are no longer widely available as plant starts, and must be grown from seeds, ‘Brandywine’ has remained popular. The fruits are a bright red-pink and have a rich, sweet flavor.

‘Better Boy’ – This modern hybrid has a classic tomato flavor and a great balance of acid and sugar. It grows well almost anywhere and is one of Bonnie Plants’ best sellers. Grow this one if you want a good slicing tomato for sandwiches.

‘Celebrity’ – An All-American Selections Winner from 1984, ‘Celebrity’ produces clusters of big, meaty ‘maters on disease-resistant vines.  It’s a semi-determinate, a variety that stops growing after it reaches a certain height (about 3-4’ tall), but bears until frost.

‘Green Zebra’ – It’s not easy being green, especially if you’re a tomato with lime and chartreuse stripes and a sweet yet sharp taste. Don’t let that scare you away! Slice and serve these unusual beauties as an appetizer with fresh mozzarella cheese and extra-virgin olive oil. Or never mind serving them as appetizers. Eat a plate-full, and be done with it.

‘Matt’s Sweet Wild Cherry’ – I first encountered these tiny tomatoes, sized somewhere between grapes and cherries, at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. These are the tomatoes to grow to sustain you when you’re out working in the garden and hunger calls. Just pick a handful, toss them in your mouth, and relish the sweetness. A modern alternative is Burpee’s ‘Super Sweet 100.’

Want a sampler of terrific tomatoes to grow? Try a Bonnie Plants assortment of 4 varieties. Even if you don’t have space in your garden for tomatoes, they’ll flourish in containers, too. Learn how to grow them here.

 Top image: Shutterstock/Candace Hartley

Center and bottom images: HD/Bonnie Plants

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