Thursday, February 20, 2014

Heirloom Tomato Saga.

I have a treasure trove of seeds, a precious collection given to me by my generous brother-in-law when he left South Africa for the UK. I sorted them into  ten shoe- and ice-cream boxes, one for each family of plants: roots, brassicaceae, curcurbits, aliiums, solanaceae, flowers, herbs, lettuces, legumes, corn and miscellaneous. The solanaceae box alone has more than forty packets of tomatoes, peppers and brinjals. In early winter last year I carefully planned my Spring planting to maximise the use of  these wonderful seeds in our vegetable tunnel. 

In mid-winter we constructed trays of seedling pots from newspaper and sowed seeds in our own home-made seedling mix using sand hauled from the river bed, vermiculite saved from the attic and our own compost.  To thwart frost's dominion over our planting times, I placed the seed pots under lights in our sun room to germinate. 

Besides all the other types of seeds, I sowed 15 varieties of full sized tomatoes and 6 varieties of cherry tomatoes. Last Summer we didn't harvest enough tomatoes to see us through our year, so I planned to grow 24 regular and 12 cherry tomato plants this year. I had glorious visions of tomato sauces, dried and frozen tomatoes stored up for winter. 

I knew that I needed to sow more seeds than we needed in case of failure to germinate. Seed insurance. It's just as well that I did, as quite a few varieties did not germinate at all. From those that did, there were losses along the way, like the time I was ill and my family forgot to water them, and the time the cat thought the trays of seedlings would make a great kitty toilet. 

After months of indoor nurturing, the survivor seedlings were eventually transplanted into bigger pots and hardened outdoors until they were ready for planting in the tunnel. Only 3 varieties of cherry tomato and 8 varieties of regular tomato had made it to this point. However, I still had more than 36 plants waiting for transplanting. My two beloved men prepared the beds, doing the backbreaking work of digging in barrow loads of compost. Then I carefully set out and labelled the seedlings. 

The tomatoes grew fast and furiously. We built wooden trellises to support them. By December they were reaching for the sky and, laden with green globes, bearing promises of a bountiful Summer. We flanked them with borage, nasturtiums  and cornflowers to attract the pollinating insects, and basil to repel the chomping insects. 

Then in January we were away for three weeks. Our home and garden were left int he capable hands of Molly and Blantina. 

We arrived home after dark. We were tired and hungry.  

Baskets of tomatoes and a pile of eggs were a welcome sight. 

My tired brain mulled over the supper problem. What could I make, relatively effortlessly, using egg and tomatoes. There wasn't even any bread in the house. A frittatta was the solution. Fast food, farm style. 

The following morning I was stunned to see the change in our beautiful tomato plants after three weeks. 

They were falling over their supports, all brown and dying, fruit valiantly ripening on the wilted vines. Apparently, while we were in Cape Town,  our water pump was out of order for two of the three weeks, and in scorching weather. 

Over the next few days I rescued as many of the fruit as I could, picking them slightly underripe to prevent pest damage on top of their distress. I tied up, fed and watered the vines, yet we still lost about a third of the plants, with more dying daily. 

With my plans for saving seeds and preserving a year's worth of tomatoes dashed, as few of the tomatoes were still producing flowers, I did what I could to enjoy the wonderful, mostly heirloom varieties that had survived. My scientific nature kicked in. I sorted the tomatoes into their varieties as they ripened indoors and we had tasting contests, and I also experimented with cooking methods for the different varieties.

Here are some of my findings:


BLACK CHERRY (Heirloom, Living Seeds - original cellophane packaging*): Larger than  most cherries, firm and juicy, perfect for salads. Flavour tart and mild. Robust, prolific producer. 100% germination. 

BLONDKOPFCHEN (Heirloom, Living Seeds - original cellophane packaging*): Pretty bright yellow tomato, standard cherry size. Thin skinned. Sweet, tasty tomato. Lovely for drying, salads, and tomato tart. Prolific producer, vigorous vine. Good germination rate.

SWEETIE (Commercial, Kirchoffs): Tiny, bright orange, sweet, tasty cherry. Looks pretty alongside the yellow cherry in a salad or tomato tart. Succumbed to disease more quickly than other cherry types. 100% germination


MONEYMAKER (Commercial, Starke Ayres): Small red tomatoes, not quite cherry, nor regular size. They ripened completely to a good red. The plant had died by the time we were home, so only we had a few to try. Good for sauces and stews. Taste unmemorable.

TIGERELLA (Heirloom, Gravel Garden**): Two pretty, small, still green, striped tomatoes were left on the dead plant. They didn't make it to the kitchen. My chef friend says these are wonderful, and sought after, sadly though, not robust enough for our drought.  50% germination (No photo)


HEINZ (Commercial, Starke Ayres): Small to medium, delicious bright red tomatoes. Firm textured. Robust tangy flavour. Perfect for roasting and sauces (obviously). Determinate tomato. Died from drought, but would have died anyway. Short lived, early abundant fruiting. 100% germination.

HILLBILLY (Heirloom, Living Seeds - original cellophane packaging*): I rescued one tomato before the stressed plant succumbed to disease. Interesting yellow and pink markings. Large, boat shaped, well flavoured, juicy tomato. 50% germination. (No photo)

CHEROKEE CHOCOLATE (Heirloom, Living Seeds - original cellophane packaging*). Old style, large boat shaped, mottled orange/olive/brown unattractive colour.  Flavourful firm tomato. Tasty eaten raw or cooked. Suited best to ratatouille-type dishes. Valiant producer in spite of drought.  50% germination.

 ESTLERS MORTGAGE LIFTER (Heirloom, Living Seeds - new paper packaging*). I would love to know the origin of the delightful name. A winner. Abundant fruit. Fairly robust plants. Bright pinky-red, large, boat shaped. The ultimate richly flavoured, juicy sandwich tomato. This is what a home grown tomato should taste like. Great for cooking too. 90% germination.
*** Edited to add link to a different Mortgage Lifter tomato story. I love it.***

COSTOLUTO GENOVESE (Heirloom, Living Seeds - original cellophane packaging*): Medium to small Italian ribbed tomato. Ripens to a bright orange red. Susceptible to disease, not a strong plant, but absolutely the best tasting tomato that we have ever tried. Very decorative when sliced.  Savoury, deep flavour. Definitely wins the prize for most delicious of all. 10% germination.

 GOLDEN MONARCH (Heirloom, Gravel Garden**): Definitely the queen of the tomato garden. A survivor. Enormous bright yellow, old fashioned boat shape. Savoury, sweet and juicy tomato, best served raw, sliced on a plate with a sprinkling of salt. By far the best drought and disease resistance of all the tomatoes I planted this summer. Late, generous producer. Rampant vine. 20% germination.

In spite of all the setbacks and disappointments, I am looking forward to trying again with some different tomato varieties and some of my new favourites next summer. In the meantime, we have pulled up a third of our tomato plants, with more on their way out, and sowed lettuce and chicory seeds in their place to carry us through the rest of this summer.

Living Seeds is an excellent heirloom seed supplier in South Africa. I picked out their seeds to try from my collection that were the oldest (in their original cellophane packaging). Saved seeds are not usually viable for many years, so those that germinated well are a tribute to the variety and to the way they were saved.

** Gravel Garden is a delightful heirloom seed supplier in the Cape. We visited them in January


  1. What a marathon effort! Thanks for all the info. Definitely going to try one or two of these and keep fingers crossed that the baboons don't get to them first next summer!

    1. Nice to see you visiting here again. Maybe you could plant them in a cage of sorts.