Wednesday, November 25th, 2009
Late blight on Pixie, August 18
The summer of 2009 was a disaster for our tomato crop. It was consistently wet and cold until the end of August, and late blight showed up the first week of August. We had over 70 tomato plants, comprised of 16 different varieties. I always try a “new” variety or two, but this year I had decided to run more extensive trials for tomatoes with storage potential. (More about that another time.) Once late blight hit, I spent a lot of time “grooming” – picking off affected tomato and potato foliage, and burning the trimmings with the flame weeder. I was hoping to stave off the disease long enough to get a few tomatoes ripe of each variety to at least collect seed, and maybe get some sense of the new varieties’ storage potential. Seed for many of the varieties is not readily available.
I don’t know if my grooming efforts were really worth it. It was a lot of work. Late blight is very deadly, but we were able to get ripe fruit and therefore at least some seed from all but two varieties. On the bright side, I got to see how all these responded to every tomato and potato grower’s worst nightmare.
Colander of ripe Pixie tomatoes
The two varieties that held out the longest and were able to mature a decent amount of fruit (considering) were old friends, Kelley’s Pixie and Red Currant. Both have been evolving in our gardens for more than 15 years. Pixie produced enough, combined with the odds and ends of more heavily afflicted tomatoes, for us to can about 12 pints of thin tomato sauce, which is better than nothing. There were also enough Pixies and Red Currants for us to have a daily fresh tomato ration into November, without getting into the real storage tomatoes.
Pixie was originally a very popular hybrid released by Burpee in 1971. Burpee no longer produces it. I got the seed in 1993 from SR Kelley, a market gardener in Derby VT, on the Canadian border. He “true-lined” the Pixie hybrid, meaning he saved seed from it, and grew out successive generations so that it became a stable open pollinated variety.
There are gardeners who think hybrids are evil, but that’s a simplistic view of the issues around creating and maintaining genetic diversity in the garden. I avoid buying hybrid seed for many reasons, but I can appreciate hybrids as works of art, not to mention potential genetic material to play with.
Kelley’s Pixie has larger fruit than the catalog descriptions of the Burpee hybrid, but the same rugose leaves, and very heavy stemmed, compact plant architecture, which makes it a good candidate for container and greenhouse growing. It is determinate, cold tolerant, among the earliest, and is the best tasting very early full sized OP tomato we’ve grown. It has a nice sweet complex flavor, and tastes pretty good even in years when our lack of sun and warmth causes other tomatoes with ambrosial flavor potential to taste like cardboard.
Both the plants and the fruits are very uniform, and quite bullet-proof, late blight not withstanding (NOTHING is immune to late blight). Pixie has no cracking, cat-facing, or other fruiting vices. I break all the rules with them, and get away with it. I don’t stake them. I grow them in the same place year after year. (They do each go into a big hole filled with compost).
Some years I mulch Pixie with grass clippings if we have enough, but it’s a trade off because an organic mulch makes the soil cooler, and here growing tomatoes is mostly about beating the cold. But, with no staking, the fruit lies on the ground, which can be really asking for trouble in a wet year, so a cushion of mulch insures a crop of nearly 100% unblemished fruit. I no longer use plastic mulch for growing. Plastic does work well for tomatoes, but I’m always trying not to buy stuff, especially petroleum stuff that will soon end up in the landfill. I do still use black plastic in the compost area on the large pile of weedy things that need to be killed before going into the compost pile.
Pixie’s fruit is moderately firm and moderately juicy. It’s great fresh, and it also keeps well short term, say 6-8 weeks after picking; and we can them. This is an all-purpose tomato, an “old reliable” in our garden, and I’m quite grateful to SR Kelley, who knew a good tomato when he grew it.