Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Decisions: Tomatoes for 2009

As most of you are aware, there are literally thousands of heirloom tomatoes to choose from, not to mention all the other veggies out there. One day there will be a tractor to help me with the garden, but in the meantime I have to be realistic about how many varieties I can grow in any given season. I’ve had numerous strategies for this in the past, once including dropping almost everything else so there was more room for tomatoes… Each strategy has had its drawbacks. This coming season will probably prove no different.

Nonetheless, I have devised a new plan for deciding which ones will make the cut, based on lessons of the past. Foremost amongst the pertinent lessons is to choose based on what is likely to thrive, or at least survive, in this little nook in the Ozarks. There are numerous enemies of healthy and productive organic tomato plants here, but the big two are heat and foliar diseases.

The typical tomato plant requires somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 days from transplant to produce fruits. That puts the average plant beginning production in the middle of July, when temperatures are just climbing above what most tomato plants can produce in. That leaves me two options if I want to beat the heat: early producing types and heat tolerant types. So those are two qualities high on the list.

As for foliar diseases, they can kill or seriously reduce production of a tomato plant. And the longer the season goes on, the worse the condition gets. So here again, early production is a good quality to look for.

Two qualities that rate equally high are flavor and production. Without these, what’s the point?

When I got this far, I realized that some of the things that were important to me in the past don’t have room for consideration without excluding otherwise excellent matches from my lists - things like size, shape and color of the tomatoes. Those won’t be part of the process.

So now I have a new system. I made four headings labeled Flavor, Production, DTM (days to maturity) and Environmental Suitability, and listed under each the varieties that I know either from experience or from research go into that category.

Environmental Suitability for me means Heat Tolerance (and disease tolerance), but for you it may mean cold setting ability – just depends where you live. Disease tolerance is harder to get information on with heirlooms because nobody wants to pay to find out exactly what these tolerances are, whereas with hybrids (which are generally derived from heirloom parents) the breeders will pay these testing fees for the sake of advertisement – but this is a generalized statement, there are exceptions. I know from experience that very few tomato plants are tolerant enough to foliar diseases to make much difference here, but some are susceptible enough to go off my list.

The fun part begins when you find a particular variety under multiple headings. When I completed the list, I found a few under three of the four headings – I call these Triple Threats. My Triple Threats are: Black Krim, Granny Cantrell’s German Red, and Sarnowski Polish Plum. Another surprise came with the very short list under my main environmental concern, Heat Tolerance. Heat tolerant varieties and Triple Threats go to the top of the list. Unfortunately, none of the Triple Threats are also heat tolerant… It will be interesting to see how these two classes compare over the course of the growing season. Also just for the sake of comparison, I’m going to grow the hybrid Talladega, which is considered heat-tolerant.

Then there are those that have two out of four qualities, and those that I just want to try for other reasons. Here’s my list of potentials for 2009, likely to grow or evolve before seed-starting time…

1884 Purple, Andrew Rahart’s Jumbo Red, Arkansas Traveler, Azoychka, Berkeley Tie Die, Big Boy OP, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Black Plum, Black Sea Man, Brad’s Black Heart, Brandywine OTV, Carbon, Chapman, Cherokee Purple potato leaf, Creole, Dora, Fireball, Floradade, Gary’O Sena, German Giant, Granny Cantrell’s German Red, Homestead, Japanese Black Treifele, Liz Birt, Mano, Marianna’s Peace, Marizol Bratka, Opalka, Purple Russian, Sarnowski Polish Plum, Sioux, Stupice X, Sungold hybrid and some variations, Talladega hybrid, Tee Mo Or, Thessalonika, Toedebush Pink, Vorlon, Watermelon Beefsteak potato leaf, and Wes.

From these varieties, many of which I’ll be growing for the first time, I hope that several prove to be ideally suited to this environment. I like surprises, but also I’m curious to see how well my selection method performs.

I will be trying my hand once again at breeding new tomatoes. I believe I waited too long last year to begin my attempts, which is what led me to a better understanding of the effect heat has on tomato flowers and pollen. This year I’ll start early. Since I won’t be able to wait and see how well the new (to me) varieties respond to this environment, I’ll just have to make guesses as to which ones to work with. I already know how well the ones I’ve grown before perform here, so I have a few repeats in mind already.

Of great interest to me is breeding some of the Heat Tolerant list with some of the Triple Threat list. Nothing firm in mind yet, but some possibilities might include Black Krim X Arkansas Traveler, or Granny Cantrell’s X Creole, or something along those lines. The hope being to breed a Quadruple Threat!

Breeding for flavor complexity is another interest of mine intensely influenced by Keith Mueller’s selections from crossing Brandywine and Cherokee Purple. I got a taste of his work last year when I grew Purple Haze F1 (and some F2s), which is a mixture of Brandywine, Cherokee Purple and Black Cherry. This was a new experience in the potential for flavor – WOW! They were everybody’s favorite.

I have found two other open-pollinated tomatoes that had either Brandywine or Cherokee Purple as one of the parents, Marizol Bratka and Vorlon. I would like to breed those back to one or more of Keith’s Brandywine/Cherokee Purple stabilized crosses - Dora, Gary’O Sena and Liz Birt. The intent is to do some back breeding where I get a line that’s mostly Brandywine and a line that’s mostly Cherokee Purple, and where each will have picked up genetics from other great varieties along the way.

After breeding Vorlon X Liz Birt, (for example,) I would have an F1 hybrid that is more or less ½ Cherokee Purple. I would then breed the F1 with Cherokee Purple to get a hybrid that was about ¾ Cherokee Purple. I would grow several plants from that seed, (F2s,) and select the ones that were most impressive to me. Seeds from those select F2’s would be the basis for the F3 generation, and so on for 2 or 3 more generations. Eventually I’d have an open-pollinated twist on Cherokee Purple that was particularly well suited to this environment along with whatever other good qualities arose. And the same goes for a new type of Brandywine: Marizol Bratka X, say, Dora = roughly ½ Brandywine; resulting hybrid bred back to Brandywine; resulting in roughly ¾ Brandywine; make selections for a few generations, voila.

I say roughly a lot. Mendelian genetics show that after a simple F1 hybrid, future generations (F2, F3, etc.) segregate in many directions…

Grand gardening plans are easy in late December.

The point I was taking my time getting to is that choosing x number of varieties from a >x list can be made easier and more satisfying by taking your environment into consideration.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Catalog Season

Some of you might find it hard to decide what to grow next year. I recommend you make two lists: one list of all the veggies you want to grow, and a second based on your grocery receipts. You might be surprised at the volume or actual price (or both!) of some of the produce you buy regularly. Cross checking the two lists will get you going in the right direction.

You see the question on gardening forums around the ‘net. “Where should I get seeds?” There are plenty of local sources: department stores, feed stores, hardware stores, nurseries, of course. It’s always good to buy local, but you may find the selection limited. Here are some highly recommended places to buy garden seeds:

http://www.nativeseeds.org/v2/default.php Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwest Endangered Aridlands Resource Clearing House) - Definitely check them out if you live in a dry, hot environment or are Native American.
http://www.jlhudsonseeds.net/ J.L. Hudson, Seedsman - A vast and sometimes bizarre collection of rare plants, including vegetables.
http://www.psrseed.com/ Peters Seed and Research - good selection and some exclusive varieties.
http://www.richters.com/ Richters Herbs
http://www.bountifulgardens.org/ Bountiful Gardens
http://www.nicholsgardennursery.com/ Nichols Garden Nursery
http://www.fedcoseeds.com/seeds.htm Fedco Seeds
http://rareseeds.com/seeds/ Baker Creek - Vast selection of heirloom and open-pollinated varieties.
http://www.seedsavers.org/Content.aspx?src=buyonline.htm Seed Savers Exchange
http://www.tomatogrowers.com/index.html Tomato Grower’s Supply - Good selection of heirloom and hybrid tomato, pepper and eggplant seeds.
http://growitalian.com/2007catalog,web.pdf Seeds from Italy – European sources, things you might not find elsewhere.
http://www.mariseeds.com/ Marianna’s – specializing in heirloom tomatoes.

Now you should be able to find almost anything you might be looking for, and plenty you didn’t know you were. Please keep in mind your location when making decisions, as it can mean the difference between a successful harvest or a meager one. Also, realize that some companies are still in the process of finalizing their 2009 catalogs.

You can save a lot of money in the future if you save seeds to grow again. And for the price of a few envelopes and stamps, you can trade seeds online through your favorite gardening forums and have plenty of new varieties to try the following year. If you order quickly, you might have time to do some trading before it's time to plant your seeds.

Weigh the eco-ethics of also getting paper catalogs in your own mind… but it sure is nice to curl up by the fire with pictures and descriptions in hand and dream of gardening on those cold nights. Happy reading!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Inbreeders and Outbreeders

Corresponding with readers is enjoyable. Sometimes we trade seeds, sometimes we just talk about gardening. One man I recently sent Cherokee Long Ear popcorn seed to sent me a thank you card and a donation. I sincerely appreciate that! I gave advice to a woman recently about which kind of Brussels sprouts to grow. A few days later I was reading Carol Deppe’s Breed your own Vegetable Varieties, and I realized I had left out some important information. I apologize!

She was looking for a compact variety to grow in her attached greenhouse. I suggested Jade hybrid because it is compact, and has been around a while. I hope it’s not too late to also recommend Long Island Improved, an open pollinated variety, which is also compact. But open-pollinated versus hybrid is not the problem. I told her she could save seeds and select for the compact traits in future generations, which is true, but probably not true for someone with a small amount of growing area, not for either variety. Most Brassicas are outbreeders.

This is a point that I was vaguely aware of, but I hadn’t a clear list in my mind of which classes of vegetables were outbreeders. I knew corn was one. I’ve been working with corn for some time. I knew spinach was another. I hadn’t tried breeding Brassicas before, at least not intentionally, so it wasn’t on my mind that they suffer inbreeding depression. Last year I let kale and collards flower at the same time, and saved seeds from each. I was hoping to find a cross, but since I’ve been reading up on it, I now realize that I should have had a larger population of collards than five plants. I might luck out with the kale, because there were several growing at once. In fact, I know there were at least some viable seeds, because there are volunteers growing. There are a few collard volunteers here and there as well, but it remains to be seen if any of them will be vigorous plants, because they might suffer from inbreeding depression. There might or might not be any crosses, but that’s beside the point.

Let’s say I am just growing one variety of Brussels sprouts. These plants don’t produce good seed, if any, from self-pollination. They need pollen from other Brussels sprouts plants nearby. In fact, if you intend to save seed and grow more of them next year, you’ll want probably close to a couple of dozen plants or more. It’s best to grow them in a sort of block rather than in a row for better pollination, just like corn or spinach. If I did save seeds from a population of two or three plants, then next year’s plants would all be close relatives, and the problem would compound the following year. Each generation grown in this manner would be more inbred, and the plants would suffer more and more until they were worthless.

Vegetables like beans, lettuce and tomatoes are natural inbreeders. They do not suffer inbreeding depression. You can save seeds from one plant and expect perfectly good plants to come form them.

Back to Carol Deppe’s book, I want to point out that while it sounds like something for plant breeders only, it is a great book to have on hand for any seed saver. I also want to stress the importance of reading Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed for any seed savers. It is a must-read. You can save yourself a lot of mistakes and head scratching by doing a little reading.