Posts Tagged tomato varieties

To graft or not to graft?

Do the advantages compensate for the extra cost?

Do the advantages compensate for the extra cost?

Actually, I’m not planning on grafting my vegetables myself. Spending time grafting annuals for a small home garden is not efficient for my situation. However, everywhere I turn — in catalogs and gardening magazines — the big buzz is about the advantages of planting grafted vegetables.  All the catalogs want to sell me these higher priced darlings.

If you use your favorite search engine to learn about the advantages of grafted veggies, you will get many, many results. A quick perusal on my part this morning was instructive. Apparently, the Japanese, especially greenhouse operations, have been grafting melons, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers for quite some time. Fruit production is supposed to be higher, as is the length of productivity — more fruits over a longer period.

For those unfamiliar with this ancient horticultural technique, grafting usually involves putting together two different cultivars of the same species. Fruit growers have been doing this for centuries. They look for a tree with a vigorous root system and less-than-spectacular fruits and a tree with great fruit quality but perhaps weaker roots. They take a cutting from the top of the tasty plant (called a scion) and plug it into the lopped-off top of the plant with vigorous roots (called the rootstock). When done correctly, the two pieces grow together nicely, leaving just a bit of a scar line where they join. The grafted fruit tree scion generally becomes able to produce more, healthier fruit, because it is growing on the vigorous rootstock.

Often, rootstock plants are more resistant to diseases than the tasty fruit plants, so when the rootstock is able to impart this advantage to its grafted top, fruit production improves. This propagation process makes perfect sense to me for long-lived perennials and trees. But for annuals in a home garden? I’m just not sure, which is why my 2013 garden will feature an experiment.

Tomato growers are hyping grafted heirloom plants as the solution to heirloom tomatoes’ notorious susceptibility to diseases, most of which linger in the soil for years. They claim that an heirloom tomato growing on disease-resistant rootstock will give growers much more vigorous plants, and prolonged crops of tasty Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, etc.

For some situations, this may be true. For example, if your garden space is so small that you can’t manage to rotate your crops each year, grafted veggies may help you. When you rotate crops, you avoid growing members of the same plant family in the same spot every year. I am blessed with a large garden area. I only grow the same plant family in the same spot after growing other plants there for the previous two years. This may not eliminate every vestige of lingering disease spores, but I think it helps a lot.

Squashes are members of the cucurbit family.

Squashes are members of the cucurbit family.

For those who may have forgotten, squash, melons, and cucumbers are all members of the cucurbit family. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes are all members of the Solanaceae family, and peas and beans are legumes. Rotating where you grow these family groups makes it harder for their diseases and predators to lay in wait for them.

I have also read research that suggests that stressed plants produce more chemicals that make them less appealing to bad bugs and diseases. Grafting does stress plants, in that it requires them to allocate resources to heal the graft wound. Maybe this revs up the plant’s vigor?

The only way to learn more is to try some of these new-fangled plants, so I have ordered two grafted plants: a Brandywine and a Goliath. I have never had much success with seed-grown Brandywines in my garden. I usually get a few nice fruits, then the plant is overwhelmed by disease. I usually pull them out of the garden before the hybridized, disease-resistant tomatoes are halfway done. If the grafted Brandywine I plant this year really performs better, I will be a believer in the concept, although I’m still not sure it is enough of a return on investment to justify the cost.

The other grafted variety I’m trying is Goliath. This hybrid, disease-resistant tomato has always produced magnificently for me from seed-grown plants. I cannot imagine that grafting will improve its productivity in my garden, but it will be interesting to see.

Of course, I must have control plants to measure against the grafted ones, so I’ll also grow Brandywine and Goliath tomato plants from seed as usual. I’ll plant them at opposite ends of the trellises to minimize any cross contamination. May the best tomato win.

Fans of grafted tomatoes wax positively poetic about how disease-resistant rootstocks will prevent diseases from overwhelming tasty, disease-susceptible heirlooms. I am a doubter for my garden, because the root systems of all my tomatoes are always vigorous, and <knock on wood> I don’t have a nematode problem in my garden soil.

Most of the diseases that hit my tomatoes correlate with weather — hot humid summers breed fungal plagues — and insect infestations — spotted cucumber beetles, stink bugs, and other sucking insect predators insert diseases into plants when they suck out their juices. Unless the act of grafting in itself is the key to such improved vigor that even insect-introduced diseases are repelled, I doubt I’ll see much, if any, difference between my seed-grown controls and grafted test subjects.

Similarly, many of the soil-born wilts reach leaves when they are splashed up off the ground by watering or heavy rain. If you use organic mulch around your tomatoes, as I do, eventually soil-based fungi will find their way onto lower leaves, then work their way up from there. I don’t see how a disease-resistant rootstock will save a grafted heirloom in that scenario.

One more point for those who may have read about my tomato-planting technique in previous posts. I always dig a deep hole, maybe 8 inches below ground level, so that I can plant tomato seedlings deeply. The newly buried length of stem almost instantly begins to sprout roots, which may explain why my tomato plants always have vigorous, plentiful root systems.  However, for the grafted plants, I won’t be able to do this.

If I buried the grafted plants so that the graft line was below soil level, the buried stem of the scion (top part) would sprout roots. Because those roots would be from a plant that is less disease-resistant, any advantage conferred by the graft would be negated. This is another reason I’ll be surprised if the grafts win the productivity race. Their root systems will almost certainly remain smaller than their seed-grown competitors. If roots are the key piece of this puzzle, my money is on the seed-grown, deeply buried plants.

I’ll keep you posted as the season progresses. I’ve ordered all my seeds and plants, and I’ll be prepping my greenhouse soon for seed production mode. It will be most interesting to see the results of this experiment.

Have you ordered your seeds yet? If not, get busy. Seed sales are up as more folks are trying to grow some of their own food. To get the best selection, ordering soon is your best option.

Don't forget the herbs and flowers when you order your veggie seeds. A diverse garden is always healthier.

Don’t forget the herbs and flowers when you order your veggie seeds. A diverse garden is always healthier.

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The Agony of Success

Lovely, aren’t they? Due to a childhood filled with perpetually pink gifts from a well-meaning grandmother, I’m not usually a big fan of pink. However, these daffodils were freebies from the same company that gave me the pink hyacinths I showed you here.

Both sets of bulbs have prospered. And in my fantasy garden land where I stay on top of all my chores, they would have been divided and spread around several years ago to prevent the crowding that inevitably leads to diminished blooms. These bulbs are rapidly approaching that limit. Will I get to them? Unless friendly garden elves suddenly appear to help me, probably not.

Most days on my five acres, I am so besotted by the beauty I encounter at every step that I manage to ignore all the to-dos clamoring for their turns. Today, as creaky joints and aching muscles protest my every move, the beauty is being outshouted.

I spent the last two days finishing the initial planting of the spring vegetable garden. I was pushing hard to exploit a window of absurdly mild, dry weather that preceded today’s morning rain (a mere 0.28 of an inch). This weekend, temperatures will dip a bit below freezing — not enough to slow my well-watered and tucked in spring veggies.

Remember the greens I started that needed transplanting? I last showed them to you here. Now they are all tucked into their final destination:

Mulched greens

I was delighted by the number of earthworms I annoyed as I prepared this bed on Wednesday and planted it yesterday. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you can just make out the wire hoops over the bed that support the weight of the garden fabric that you can see here:

No varmints or cold spells will bother them now

I realize the cloth isn’t exactly draped elegantly. The wind was blowing in a cold front, so I settled for functionality and disregarded aesthetics.

After I got them in, I direct-sowed seeds of beets, two carrot varieties, two more lettuce varieties, a package of mixed mesclun greens, and another spinach variety. They don’t look like much yet, but here they are freshly buried and watered:

And here:

You can see that I am not compulsively neat. Functionality is my concern. I’ve found that these crosswise initial planting rows usually work well. I sowed the seeds relatively thinly, but if the plants germinate well, I’ll need to thin them. That’s why I left spaces between the planting sites. If I end up not needing the space for greens, I’ll tuck in flowers and herbs there.

The greenhouse looks much emptier without its crowd of robust greens. But the remaining seedlings are — mostly — doing well. I always start six plants of each tomato and pepper variety. I plant out two, and find good homes for the rest. That’s never a problem; I’ve found that few folks say no to free tomato and pepper plants.

Indigo Rose only yielded two excellent seedlings and a puny-looking third — 50% germination. I’ve sowed new seeds in the spaces that didn’t produce. Here they are sitting by themselves in the germination chamber:

Indigo Rose germination disappointed

However, Super Marzano — my other new tomato variety this year — yielded a 100% germination rate. For some reason, I lost my mind and planted twelve seeds. Here they are with my four reliable tomato varieties, all of which also germinated 100%. The Super Marzanos are the big ones in back that had a two-week head start over the others.

The peppers and basils did not disappoint me either. Here they are raring to go on the greenhouse shelf beside the tomatoes:

Note the purple-colored Amethyst basils at the top right.

The Super Marzano tomatoes will need to be upgraded to individual pots very soon. And it’s almost time to sow more flower seeds in the greenhouse. In fact, it’s probably time right now. After the upcoming chilly weekend, next week’s temperatures are predicted to soar into the upper seventies, with nighttime lows not dipping below forty. That’s crazy talk for mid-March; much more what I’d expect for middle to late April.

The good news? I am well-prepared with an abundance of enthusiastic veggie seedlings to try to wrest spring and summer veggies from too-warm, too-dry soil. And as soon as I am able to once again walk fully upright without limping or groaning, I’m going to get right on that.

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Racing ahead of the vernal equinox

See those little green sprouts just peeking up through the soil? Those are the Sugar Sprint Snap Peas I planted two weeks and four days ago. A few peas have been up for several days, but this morning I counted 24 pea sprouts. When the warmth returns day after tomorrow, I predict that at least that many more will appear. I like peas. I planted a lot of seeds.

Although I thought I had watered them well, I think the peas were waiting for a significant rain event, which we finally got this past weekend. My rain gauge reported 1.1 inches of rain for the two-day event. My creek actually rose and got silty! The floodplain held puddles of rainwater for over 24 hours. That hasn’t happened in so long that I can’t remember the last time it happened. Ten years ago, the floodplain was usually puddle-covered most of the winter. Of course, it helps to actually have a winter season, something we didn’t get this year.

Which brings me back to those enthusiastic peas. Most years, I’m just thinking about planting them, and this year they’re up and running. Did I mention how much we love the flavor of snap peas? They freeze well, so no pea is ever wasted.

It’s not just the vegetables that aren’t waiting for the vernal equinox to start their spring shows. Check out the blooms on my Chinese Redbud:

Chinese Redbud

Not all the blooms have opened, but enough now display their lavender radiance to brighten that corner of my winter landscape.

The native spicebush is covered in diminutive yellow flowers that make their visual impact by their sheer numbers — especially effective against a winter sky:

Lindera benzoin flowers 

The crimson flowers of the red maples are morphing into equally vivid seeds — samaras, the botanists call them.

Acer rubrum flowers morph into winged crimson seeds

Many of my ornamental stars are rushing full tilt into spring bloom. Check out these pink hyacinths:

My beautiful Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’ is cracking open its petals. I’m hoping they’re still closed enough to avoid getting zapped by tonight’s predicted temperatures in the low twenties.

Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’ showing hints of yellow

There’s more, which I’ll show you soon. Every time I walk our five acres these days, something else is taking a headlong leap into a spring that hasn’t officially started yet.

Meanwhile in the greenhouse, all the tomatoes I sowed last Wednesday have germinated; most achieved 100% germination. Viva Italia, Early Goliath, Sweet Treats, and Big Beef are all up; these are my old reliable varieties, and I’m not surprised they’re raring to go. Indigo Rose seedlings began showing up a day after the first sprouts of those other varieties, and now all but one of the seeds I sowed has sprouted. My primary supplier of tomato seeds sent me a freebie package of mixed heirloom tomatoes, which I couldn’t resist. Most of those have germinated now, responding in about the same time frame as Indigo Rose.

With the impending explosion of tomatoes in the greenhouse, it is imperative that all spring veggie starts get planted out into the garden ASAP. My goal is to get them all tucked in before predicted rains return this Friday. I’m also hoping to direct-sow all the other spring garden veggies: beets, two carrot varieties, and many varieties of salad greens. Before I can start, I must pull winter weeds and crimson clover off of two large beds. I see a tired body and cranky joints in my near future.

But the pain will be worth it when I’m dining on just-harvested spring salads. My timing is good. The full moon will be smiling down on the newly planted garden this Thursday while Spring Peepers and American Toads chorus in the swamp, and the eerie territorial calls of Screech Owls (heard for the first time ever yesterday) echo among the still bare trees.

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On the Cusp of Tomato Season

Happy Summer Solstice, everyone! My region is welcoming in summer with a Code Red Air Quality Alert, thanks to a southerly wind that is blowing forest fire smoke directly on top of us.  I am blessed with strong healthy lungs, but even I am coughing a bit indoors as the smoke saturates Summer’s arrival. Yuck.

I managed to get in two hours of gardening this morning just after sunrise before the smoke arrived, and I am delighted to report that I believe the first tomatoes from our garden will be fully ripe tomorrow — the first entire day of Summer. They will be our cherry tomato variety — Sweet Treats. Here’s one of the nearly ripe beauties that I photographed yesterday.

A nearly ripe Sweet Treats cherry tomato

I expected the cherry tomatoes to ripen first. After all, they are smaller fruits, which gives them an advantage. However two other tomato varieties are showing signs of ripening: Ferline and Purple Russian. You may recall that I sowed the seeds of these two varieties in my greenhouse two weeks before the other varieties due to space limitations. I chose these two varieties because their catalog descriptions said they’d take the most number of days to produce ripe fruit. That two-week head start has allowed them to near ripeness first. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the other varieties to catch up. Here’s a Ferline tomato starting to color up.

Ferline tomato showing some color

Ferline is my tomato experiment this year. I chose it based on its catalog description that touts its resistance to late fungal blights, which always destroy my tomatoes as the season progresses. The plants have been impressive from the moment they sprouted. Thick, almost burly vines stand so tall and straight that I’m mostly tying them to the trellis to support the weight of their abundant medium-sized fruits. They are gorgeous, profoundly robust plants.

However, all seven tomato varieties are performing spectacularly so far this season. Wonder Spouse built me two magnificent tomato trellises this year. He attached seven-foot-tall deer fencing to eight-foot tall posts. We thought this would be the year the tomatoes didn’t reach the top of the trellis and tumble over the other side. I’m thinking we were wrong about that. Here’s a shot of one end of one trellis that I took yesterday. See the white top of the metal post at the left top of the picture? See the fencing material coming off the top? Now note the height of the tomato vines. Have mercy!

Tomato Trellis nearly topped!

This weekend I’ll be buying some kind of step stool that I can use in the garden to reach the top of the trellis. Even Wonder Spouse is having trouble reaching the top to tie these enthusiastic vegetables.

You can see the size of the deer fencing mesh in the Ferline picture. It’s working pretty well. We’ve only had to liberate a few fruits that grew stuck into the squares. The plastic mesh is easier to manipulate than the wire trellises we had been using previously. I think the tomatoes prefer this trellis. They seem to weave themselves through it without any prompting from me. As I said, I’m mostly tying the increasingly heavy fruiting branches to try to prevent the weight of the fruits from breaking the tomato vines.

I’m going to try to keep a running count this year of how many of each variety I pick. However, as all sixteen (yes, I know I’m overenthusiastic) plants begin producing, my ambitions may be cast aside in the name of efficiency. They aren’t the only vegetables I’m growing, you know. The beans — pole and bush — are flowering now, as are the cucumbers, and I’ve been picking zucchinis for a week; they’re just approaching serious production mode.

As long as the shallow well we use to water the garden holds out, I’ll continue to water. However, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees Farenheit predicted for the next few days, I’m worried that my garden may shrivel and die just as it begins to produce significantly.

Here’s hoping that Summer’s searing start will soon be softened by abundant, frequent rain.

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Brrr! And Greenhouse Updates

Sweet Alyssum Hordes

It is 38.5 degrees F outside as I type this — and it’s almost noon! In the North Carolina piedmont in late March, that’s unusual — not unheard of, but unusual.  What is usual, alas, at least lately, is that our precipitation amounts fell far short of the amounts promised by the meteorologists.

In fact, I’ve just about had it with the meteorologists. They stand confidently in front of their maps, showing off their myriad computer models, assuring viewers of weather events about to occur. And — at least for my yard — they are always wrong. I must live in some kind of weather netherworld, because my temperatures average ten degrees cooler, except on very windy days, and my precipitation amounts are a joke compared to the numbers reported for areas just 30 and 40 miles away. I am trying not to be paranoid, but it’s hard not to suspect a conspiracy — at least not on gloomy, cold days like today.

To cheer myself up, I dug my winter coat out of the closet and visited my greenhouse. I was not disappointed by what I saw. The germination chamber in the back of the top photo is full of six- and 4-packs planted with tomato and basil seedlings. I tucked the freshly planted pots into the chamber on March 23, and today, all but one pack has visible seedlings popping up — not bad for a little over three days.

The basils actually started sprouting after two days. I’m growing four kinds. Two are culinary basils, rich in aromatics — pesto magic. They are called Aroma 2 and Nufar. I’m also growing lemon and cinnamon basils this year. If you’ve never tried these, you should. The lemon basil adds a citrus-basil zing to salads and just about anything else you try it in. Cinnamon basils are gorgeous plants, and I find them wonderful in desserts. They dress up everything from vanilla ice cream with fruit to my favorite pound cake recipes. I’m getting hungry just thinking about them.

As for the tomatoes, two varieties are already sprouted and out of the germination chamber. I sowed them earlier, because they require the most days to produce fruit. They are Purple Russian and Ferline. Here they are with Sweet Alyssum and Fernleaf Dill seedlings.

Purple Russian and Ferline & Friends

You may want to click on the above photo and check out the plant in the pot at the top. It’s a Chinese Asarum that I got years ago at a plant auction. That purple-maroon blob beneath the leaves is its very cool-looking flower. The long strappy leaves in the pot are yellow Zephranthes volunteers. This little bulb seems to self-sow very enthusiastically in my greenhouse.

As for the tomatoes just emerging in the germination chamber now, Viva Italia was first and most numerous. But Sweet Treats, and Early and Italian Goliath seedlings are also now well up.  Late to the party is Big Beef, which is still showing no evidence of germination. But it’s only been a few days. I’m not worried.

I described all these tomato varieties in an earlier post here if you want to read more about them. If you’re wondering about the crowd of seedlings beside the tomatoes, those are the Sweet Alyssum seedlings that I never managed to transplant into individual pots. I told you about them previously here. You can see that their enthusiasm has not waned.

The first photo shows some of the Sweet Alyssums that I did manage to transplant. They are big enough to put into the garden, just as soon as I am sure we are past freezing temperatures for good. That will likely be another couple of weeks.

In the meantime, I’ll be watering the seedlings every few days with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion and seaweed extract to help them remain vigorous.

The spring veggies in the garden are also doing well. I’ll update you on those another day.

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Greenhouse updates

It was a busy week away from the garden, and now I’m paying for it. My to-do list is growing exponentially while my done list hasn’t changed. This happens to me every spring. In my defense, the insanely hot weather limits the time I’m willing to work inside the greenhouse. It’s just too hot in there for delicate work, and sowing tiny seeds in tiny pots constitutes delicate work in my book.

Theoretically, tomorrow morning will be cooler. I hope so, because I need to transplant the mesclun mix seedlings into their permanent beds in the garden. Thanks to a little watering with dilute fish emulsion/seaweed mix, they are raring to go. See for yourself:

Of course, the tiny seedlings in the top left corner are not ready for prime time yet. They are petunia seedlings. I’ve never grown petunias from seeds before. In fact, until last year, I’d never grown any petunias at all. They seemed rather uninteresting to me.

But last year, I bought a hanging pot of some electric purple petunias that looked fabulous all summer despite the searing afternoon sun that hammered them daily. The hummingbirds loved them too, so I decided to try my hand at growing them from seed. Thank goodness I started them early, because it will be a while before they’re ready for their hanging pot.

I started my chive seeds early too, because they are notoriously slow to germinate, and often germinate unevenly. Not this time. This time germination was nearly 100%, I like the way the long seedling leaves hold on to their now-empty seed hulls — like little sporty caps:

Chive seedlings

It’s not a great picture, but if you click on it to enlarge it, you can see the little black seed caps I’m talking about. This picture is 4 days old, and in that time, many of the chive seedlings have begun pushing out second leaves. It will still be a while before they’re ready for the garden, but I’m happy with their progress.

I also had room to plant two tomato varieties, so I started with the two that take the most number of days to produce fruit: Purple Russian and Ferline. The heirloom Purple Russian germinated first — 100%. Ferline was a few days slower, and also gave me 100% germination. Peppers always take longer to show up to the party. Finally today, all my Carmen seedlings are poking up. The Apple seeds — as of this morning — had not yet appeared. They may well have by now. The heat is really cranking up productivity in all the plants, regardless of their size.

I’ve also got Fernleaf Dill seedlings just up as well. The package says it’s best to direct-sow these in the garden, but I have better success and control using the greenhouse method. Tomorrow morning after I transplant the eager seedlings pictured above, I’ll be sowing as many more of the tomatoes as will fit in the germination chamber.

If room permits, I’ll squeeze in some basil seeds too. I like them to get to a good size before I plant them out. And I’ve promised some basil plants to several friends, so I need to plant extras. Frankly, I’ve found that there’s no such thing as too much basil in a garden.

In the vegetable garden itself, my only success is the peas, which are well up now. However, the heat and drought are starting to take a toll on their enthusiasm. There’s not much I can do about the heat, but I can continue to water — at least until the well goes dry.

I’m trying not to worry about that while spring is making all the plants and animals in my yard bright and busy.  One day at a time. One to-do at a time. And constant, fervent prayers for precipitation.

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Tantalizing Tomatoes

I confess I have self-control issues when it comes to choosing tomato varieties. Okay, spouse is laughing at me, because, let’s face it — I have self-control issues when it comes to choosing any plant variety. I want them all. But it’s worse with tomatoes.

I blame the seed catalogs. They arrive in late December/early January when the days are dark and cold and the ground is frozen. Full of pictures of plump, ripe fruits and glowing descriptions of their flavor and productivity, how can I resist?

My impulse control issues escalated after spouse built the greenhouse — an entire room designed for growing plants. We enlarged the vegetable garden to what I realize in retrospect were probably ridiculous dimensions. I justified it by providing a summer supply of produce to nearby kinfolk without garden space.

And I went a little nuts when I ordered tomato seeds that first year. I think I ended up with fourteen (it might have been sixteen) different tomato varieties. Because I was accustomed to the less-than-optimal germination rates of my pre-greenhouse days, I planted eight seeds of each kind.  Of course, almost every single seed enthusiastically germinated. You do the math. That’s a lot of tomatoes.

I was able to give away some seedlings, but I couldn’t bring myself to compost the excess. I planted all of them. Everyone we knew that year enjoyed our bounty. We carried tomatoes to work, where they vanished from breakrooms in mere minutes. We gave some to food kitchens. We made tomato sauce and froze it. And we ate tomatoes every day, usually twice a day.

Since then, I have gradually exerted more self-control, and this year, I only ordered seven different kinds of tomato seeds. I’ve also learned to rely on near-100% germination rates, so I only sow four seeds of each kind. We plant out two of each variety and give the excess seedlings to friends. I know — that’s still fourteen tomato plants. Baby steps, but still, steps in the right direction.

This year’s varieties are Early Goliath Hybrid, Big Beef Hybrid, Sweet Treats Hybrid, Viva Italia Hybrid, Italian Goliath Hybrid, Ferline, and Purple Russian. The first four are repeats from previous seasons. We’ve decided we can’t live without them.

Purple Russian is also a repeat from last year. This tomato breaks my rule against growing heirloom varieties, and its lack of disease resistance did bring them to a relatively early demise. But before the plants succumbed, they produced the most amazing deep purple plum tomato fruits we had ever devoured.

Spouse wanted to try Italian Goliath, because it produces later than the Early Goliath we’ve enjoyed so much. Goliath is actually a series by a tomato breeder, and we’ve come to trust the brand.

Ferline is a total unknown. I chose it because the catalog description claims it is highly resistant to the late blight fungus that usually plagues my crop as summer begins to wane. I’ll let you know if it lives up to its hype.

And in case you’re wondering where I find all these varieties, you should know that entire seed catalogs devoted to tomato and pepper varieties exist to tempt you. Links to two of my favorite sources are below.  But when you find yourself ordering a dozen or more varieties, don’t blame me. You have been warned.



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