Variety portrait

Another tomato for winter storage

This past season we tried Ruby Treasure, another winner from Peters Seed and Research.

Now, if you’ve read many of my posts, it may seem like I’m in the business of promoting Peters Seeds, so a disclaimer is in order. I have no affiliation with Peter’s except that I’m an unabashed fan of their breeding work. What can I say – some people idolize rock stars, I idolize plant breeders.

Ruby Treasure tomato

Anyway, this tomato is for short term storage, 2-3 months. They were picked in September. We still have a few left, and they look like they would probably at least make it to Winter Solstice, except that we will eat them all up very soon because they are too hard to resist, even in the name of scientific inquiry.

The culinary quality is way superior to Golden Treasure, but of course, this one won’t last through the winter like GT. Both of these storage tomatoes suffered severe damage from disease this past season, which was abominably wet, the worst I’ve ever seen. It didn’t help that I mostly don’t stake tomatoes, and leave them sprawling on the raised beds. Usually I get away with it, but I’m sorry to say our harvest this year of both storage tomatoe varieties was pathetically small.

There’s always next year, and we’ll definitely be growing both of these Treasures, and maybe another storage variety or two to trial. I can’t say enough good things about storage (aka keeper) tomatoes for cold climates. Talk about a tiny carbon footprint – all you have to do is pick them carefully into a shallow box and stash them in a cool place out of direct sunlight, then put a few at a time on a sunny window sill a couple of days before you plan to eat them. No greenhouse, no canning jars, no stove, no freezer nor fridge burning up kilowatts – and very few ergs of energy required from me to prep them and keep them in storage.

Through the long cold months, there’s something about a side of fresh tomato with homegrown sprouts (alfalfa, kale, whatever) that keeps the winter larder satisfying to the palate.

Seed companies Seed saving organizations Variety portrait

Overwintering cabbage

I worry about brassicas and onions. They are such important plants, and very few seed savers are working with them. The rate that the commercially available open pollinated varieties are disappearing is really scary. Brassicas and onions can be pretty fussy to grow seed and maintain purity, so it’s not hard to figure out why seed savers grow lots of tomato and bean varieties, but very few cabbages for seed.

I have a couple of good strains of kale I’ve been working with for about 10 years, and have had some success growing broccoli seed, though not consistently. I haven’t had any success with growing seed from heading cabbage – I can’t seem to maintain the plants in a root cellar over winter in good enough condition to get healthy seed the next year. So, I have had a strong interest in finding a hardy enough heading cabbage to overwinter here in the garden. The bummer is, I’ve finally found one, and now I can’t find a source for the seed in the US or Canada. The most recent edition of The Garden Seed Inventory has it on the no longer commercially available list. Yet, there seem to be plenty of commercial offerings for this variety in the UK.

cabbage July 2007

Cabbage Offenham July 2007. It was the only seedling that survived the first winter from an in situ sowing August 2006. The plant yielded one nice, sweet, medium sized conical head in October 2007. (Sorry, I forgot to take a photo of it.) The heads have a strong resemblance to Early Jersey Wakefield, though Offenham plants are larger framed.

cabbage July 2008

July 2008, the plant had survived a second Vermont winter with no protection. I was impressed. I then expected it to bolt in 2008, but low and behold, it made 5 or 6 lovely little pointed heads this September and October, and it is continuing to throw shoots up from the roots and stalks.

cabbage Sept 2008cabbage multi head detail

Over wintering cabbages are also called spring cabbages. In warmer climates than ours, they are sown in August for heads in the late spring, and the smaller heads cut again in the fall. So, I’m wondering if I hadn’t cut the first head (in Sept. 2007) if it might have sent up a seed stalk last spring. It’s kind of a moot point because there’s only the one plant. (I like to have at least 6 plants for brassica olearica seed production). One way or another, I’ll have to find some more Offenham seed to plant next August…

Seed companies Seed saving organizations

Most valuable gardening tool

No, it’s not my hand forged digging fork or my flame weeder, much as they are practically extensions of my body when the snow’s off the ground. I have to give #1 status to The Garden Seed Inventory, compiled and published by the Seed Saver’s Exchange. The reason is this – in my opinion, if you don’t have plant varieties that are suited to you and your garden, nothing you do with any other gardening tools is going to matter anyway.

We save as much of our own seed as much as possible, and have a quite a few on-going long-term relationships with particular vegetables… This may sound very frugal, which it is in a sense, but I’ve been known to spend as much on seed and plants in a year as I do on clothing. Frugality isn’t the point, for me. By saving your own seed, you can have plants that get better year after year, but you’ve got to find those plants somewhere to get started… and for me it’s an ongoing quest. Every year we try out new varieties along with our tried and true.

So, how do you find the vegetables of your dreams? Here’s a clue: getting your plants from the seed rack at Walmart is like looking for a potential spouse in the local bar. Sure, you can do it and it might just work; however, to put the odds of future happiness more in your favor, I would suggest some other sources:

1. Other gardeners in your area can tell you what varieties have worked well for them, and if you’re lucky you’ll find that some of them are seed savers who may even swap or give you seed or plants. Get yee to your local farmers market or gardening club and ask around…

2. If you’re really serious about becoming a steward for endangered garden plants, join the Seed Savers Exchange, or Seeds of Diversity (Canadian) and consider adopting some varieties offered by members who garden in a climate similar to yours. Heck, even if you don’t want to commit to actually growing and maintaining rare and endangered plants yourself, become an unlisted member, just to support the very important work being done by these non-profit organizations.

3. Buy plants and seed from specialised seed companies. The good news is, there are a lot of fine seedhouses out there, and a lot of different varieties to choose from. The bad news is, getting hard copies of all the relevant seed catalogues, or perusing them online, and going through all their listings would be very very time consuming.

This is where the Garden Seed Inventory comes in. The Inventory lists only non-hybrid seed, which is what you should start with. Each variety listing includes all the catalog description info available for that variety.

For instance, I’m looking for a new-to-me sweet bell pepper to trial in the 2009 growing season. First and foremost it must be early because of our short growing season and cool climate (USDA zone 4a). So, I skim the pepper/sweet/bell listings (about 5 pages) for the earliest maturity dates, less than 60 days. I find 7 listings of interest. Then, I assess the varieties individually.

Bull Nose, for instance, is listed as 55-80 days maturity. The high end on this range, 80 days, raises a bit of a red flag. I check out the seed companies listed as sources, and the 5 seed houses are all based in mid Atlantic states and Indiana. This does not necessarily mean that’s where the seeds were grown or bred, but it ‘s another red flag for me. 55 days in the growing season of Virginia or Pennsylvania are a lot different than 55 days in my garden in northeastern Vermont. I choose to pass on Bull Nose – it could be worth a trial, but there are other candidates that are more promising.

Earliest Red Sweet comes up next – but we ‘re already growing it, having found it through this same process in the 80s. It’s one we grow nearly every year, and it’s a good performer, though the flesh is on the thin side.

Now, King of the North has a very promising name and description: “type for short season area” and “prolific, cold tolerant.” It’s listed as being carried by 18 seedhouses, including Fedco, High Mowing, and Rex’s in Minnesota, so I would say it has some cold climate cred as cold climate is the specialty for these three companies.

Frank’s and Montana Wonder look interesting – each is unique to the Sand Hill Preservation Center, a company specialising in heirlooms, and which grows its own seed in Iowa. The climate’s close, but still on the warm side compared to us. However, I check their website and see that this is the project of Glenn and Linda Drown. Glenn has been a hugely active member of Seed Saver’s Exchange since its beginning, and I have to say the Drowns are among my heroes of breeding and genetic diversity. They also list King of the North, so I will order all three varieties from them next year.

Granny Smith is a unique offering from Totally Tomatoes in Wisconsin, however, when I go to their website, it is no longer listed. (This latest edition of the Garden Seed Inventory was published in 2004) . So, you can no longer buy this one. Perhaps it will be re-offered… or not.
Finally, Morgold. The only seed company listed for it is Garden Medicinals located in Virgina, however the description says it was bred by the Morden Experimental Station in Manitoba CA in 1952. This tells me that it would be well worth trying here, as the Morden breeding program was for seriously cold climates.

I know this may all seem a bit time consuming, but I’ve found the quest for excellent varieties to be well worth the effort. Using the Inventory I’ve discovered some fabulous plants and seed houses that I never would have otherwise found. Besides, supporting small regional seed companies and heirloom projects is really good karma – it’s a direct way for anybody to promote genetic diversity in the plant material available to gardeners and farmers.