Don’t even think about tomatoes

By Jill Severn

A very enthusiastic gardener wants to know if it is already time to plant tomatoes.

Nope! Don’t even think of tomatoes.

It’s not because it’s not snowing, hailing or freezing this week that we can now count on good weather. We might get lucky, but don’t bet on it. Just because every garden service and nursery stocks tomato plants doesn’t mean it’s safe to plant them outdoors.

Don’t even buy tomato plants now, unless you have a sunny enclosed greenhouse or porch to keep them for a while. Wait until mid or even late May. Ditto for other horticultural plants such as squash, cucumbers, basil, eggplant and peppers. These are all plants that love warm soil as well as warm air.

In the meantime, there are plenty of other vegetables you can and should plant now: spinach, lettuce, arugula, potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas (although really, who wants rutabagas?), radishes, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, Swiss chard, peas, celery and collard greens.

That should be enough to keep you busy and out of trouble, and take your mind off your tomato fixation.

The gardening enthusiast’s next question was one I couldn’t answer: What varieties of tomatoes should he grow?

And even though we shouldn’t be thinking about tomatoes, this question got me thinking about tomatoes.

The choice of tomato varieties becomes more complicated from year to year, mainly because there are more of them. The advent of loosely defined “heritage” varieties is one reason; the continuous work of plant breeders who produce brand new hybrids is another.

Here are two things to know:

  • Most new varieties are more likely to be resistant to various terrible diseases that can destroy your crop and infect your soil.
  • Heirloom varieties are often tastier – sometimes much tastier.

Thus, the risk and reward profile should be taken into account in our choices. Last year I threw caution to the wind and planted two heirloom varieties. One was Cherokee Purple, and the other, whose name I already forgot, was a large beefsteak tomato. Both did well and remained disease free. Both also kept me waiting; they ripen quite late in the season. And the risk of disease made me nervous every time a single leaf seemed to be having a bad day.

This year, I may take a more cautious approach. The heirloom steak I grew last year didn’t taste any better than the newer varieties, so I think I’ll grow one of the newer disease resistant ones. And while I liked Cherokee Purple, I think I’ll go for an earlier, safer choice this year, and splurge on a Cherokee Purple once in a while at the Farmers Market.

Researching tomato varieties can be a very complicated project. The scientifically educated gardener may want to understand why heirloom varieties, which are certainly not native species, behave differently from modern hybrids. Aren’t heirloom varieties just older hybrids? It’s a mystery to me. If you save seeds from heirlooms, we are told, they will produce exactly the same plant characteristics as the parent plant, but if you save seeds from modern hybrids, they will revert to either of their parents. Is it because the heirlooms were natural hybrids rather than man-made hybrids? And why would that make a difference?

If you can explain why, do so.

In the meantime, we ordinary gardeners will do our best to maximize flavor, lengthen the harvest season, and minimize the risk of terrible plant diseases. And we hope, in the coming year, to come across reliable and simple sources of explanations in English for puzzling garden phenomena.

But first, we’ll get our knees wet and muddy planting and tending all those early, frost-hardy vegetables, and pulling out the weeds that are already growing among our early plantings.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversations between gardeners. Start one by emailing him at [email protected]

Aubrey L. Morgan