The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm


July 18th, 2009 · 10 Comments · Posted in garden

Cherokee Purple tomatoes with fresh mozarella cheese and basil

Cherokee Purple tomatoes with fresh mozzarella cheese and basil

Were you one of those kids who used to sit in the garden on a hot summer day with a salt shaker, gorging on ripe tomatoes? I was. So I guess I am just rediscovering my youth, growing 12 tomato plants in our front-yard kitchen garden here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House.

What you see in the photo was breakfast, a big, fat Cherokee Purple tomato making nooky with fresh mozzarella cheese and basil, all drowned in extra-virgin olive oil, a little salt, a little pepper. Is there a proper time to eat a tomato? I think not.

Cherokee Purple is our favorite because it seems to be so well adapted to our conditions and always produces loads of big, juicy fruit. The tomatoes aren’t really purple. They’re dark and blotchy. The plants are extremely vigorous and will continue producing all the way into October. We also love Dr. Carolyn, a golden cherry tomato that also is an heirloom variety, meaning it dates back a few generations and wasn’t hybridized. You can reproduce it from its own seed. It was named for tomato expert Carolyn J. Male, who wrote 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden. That’s the book that got us started growing heirloom tomatoes. These little tomatoes are so delicious they rarely make it into the house: We eat them right off the vine.

We also keep a couple of Roma tomato plants for canning. These are average-sized plants, but they produce an incredible number of oblate tomatoes. We still have not used the last of the tomatoes we canned last year. And from the look of things, this year’s will be another bumper crop.

Finally, we are in our second year of growing Mortgage Lifter tomatoes. This variety gets its name from a perhaps apocryphal story of a man who did so well selling these tomatoes he was able to pay off his mortgage. Mortgage Lifter last year was awfully susceptible to the usual diseases that cause tomato plants to shrivel and wilt. This year we purchased a more resistant variety from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. It seems to be doing better. The fruit are more like the classic beefy, red tomatoes most gardeners aim for.

Is four varieties of tomato too many, or not enough? Last year on my wife’s urging we tried Green Zebra, but the plants just collapsed and we never saw any real fruit. Sometimes I think variety is overrated. Why take up valuable garden space with untested tomatoes if you’re happy with the ones you have? But I could be wrong. What is the correct number of different tomatoes to plant? And which are your favorites? Do you think you can convince me to grow one of them?

I dare you to try.

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  • kevin

    I like the flavor of Cherokee Purples, but they are the ugliest damned tomatoes you can grow – they look like zombies.

  • fastweedpuller

    EVERYONE has tomato opinions!

    Me, I am a bit of a nut and grow about 20 varieties.

    Tell Wifeypoo Green Zebras are one of my favorites, though my fussiest. This is the one plant I nurse along.

    But yeah, I have my favorites. I would say my all-time fave is called Flame/Hillbilly Potato Leaf. It’s big, it’s a riot of colors (gorgeous sliced on a plate) and is terribly tasty. Trouble is, they’re as fussy as Green Zebras.

    Good news though: I have red on 8 tomatoes!! They’re my new favorite, a determinate tomato called Bellstar Paste. Determinate, early tomatoes? Sign me up…

    But I might have you save me some seed of those Cherokee Purples. I seem to be able to grow big tomatoes pretty easily here.

  • keri

    i planted several varieties this year in hopes of a staggered effect: 2 early girls – one extremely large at purchase and the other a seedling when i planted them. the big early girl has given me a little fruit every couple days for the last week and a half. the other early girl isn’t doing as well, but has some fruit on it which is still very green. i’m afraid my tomatillos drown the light from it (whatever, they’re not the best tomatoes anyway)

    i’m growing japanese black and russian krim (black), brandywines, mr. ugly, zebra stripe, some commercial variety the csa gave me in lieu of vegetables the first week and a mr. stripey.

    i have no idea which will do better this year, but it’s only my 2nd year of gardening and they’re all pretty much flourishing. some are much later than others, so i’m hoping to have tomatoes for a better part of the year as opposed to last year where they all sort of came at once.

    last year i fermented some of my seeds to sow this year, but i don’t think i did it properly. do you have a tested method?

  • De in D.C.

    Our family has decided on a few favorite tomato varieties over the years that we always make sure to plant, even if we decide to try a few others. These are Sprite, which is a wonderful grape tomato, and Southern Nights, a fabulous purple determinate. The SN has amazing depth of flavor, and being determinate, give us enough of a crop at a time to make large batches of salsa to put up for the fall (it never lasts through the winter).

  • Sylvie

    I am with El on that one. There is always another tempting tomatoes out there.

    I am growing about 15: early ones, small ones, tiny ones, big ones, pink, red, dark (Cherokee purple is on the growing list – 1st year), yellow, bicolor (I grow Hillbilly too – no problems growing them in my corner of Virginia) and several paste type. I highly recommend San Marzano for confit, and cherry-type for drying.

  • foodperson

    Can’t have too many tomatoes. Period.

  • Ed Bruske

    Kevin, Cherokee Purples do look–color-wise–like they’ve been through 12 rounds with a bigger tomato. But I’ve seen tomatoes that are much gnarlier and what I’d call ugly. Cherokee Purples are not gnarly.

    El, I wonder how you deal with a “fussy” tomato. I gave up on Green Zebra because it just didn’t grow. It withered away. I figured it wasn’t built for our D.C. climate. I’m happy to save some Cherokee Purple seeds, but first I need to learn how to save tomato seeds. We certainly have no shortage of them. In fact, tomato parts are one thing I do not compost because the plants would be everywhere in the garden.

    Keri, Japanese Black and Russian Krim? You have my attention. Would love to know how those turn out. El is our resident seed-saving expert. Maybe she’ll share some thoughts on “fermenting” tomato seeds.

    De, I like the sound of Southern Nights. Have you noticed our nights lately have been less southern and more like New England lately? Love this kinder, gentler version of summer in D.C. I have yet to grow a determinate variety tomato. I wonder if I would miss the sight of the plant trying to climb out of its cage.

    Sylvie, 15 varieties? Which is your favorite? I came very close to growing San Marzanos but was discouraged by a comment I read somewhere that the Romas were better. We grow Romas and can enough of them to last the winter. I had not considered confit. Perhaps you’ve posted about it?

    Janet, there is a very strong temptation to plant too many tomatoes in the garden. This is one of the moral dilemmas that the gardener wrestles with each season.

  • Sylvie

    yes, 15 varieties, including some 5 varieties passed on to me by an old neighbor in Falls Church, now deceased (hence the seeds are even more precious, and I keep saving them), which I named after him: Mel’s Special, Mel’s German, Mel’s Big Red etc. Obviously I like those true heirlooms… First year for Cherokee Purple. I do like Wetsel’s cherry and Sungold. Trying more paste tomatoes this year: in addition to Roma (reliable – I have had Viva Italia, which I also like), growing Amish Paste – which promises to be a winner. That is A BIG Plant! I do like Flame (aka Hillbilly too). The only one is do not – so far – is Yellow Pear. Cute tomatoes, but pretty tasteless to me. However, I found out that if you freeze them, and make a sauce or soup (yellow – how pretty) from it, it’s quite acceptable, and since it keeps volunteering, I have it whether I want it or not.

    Tomato confit:
    Recommended keeping time in fridge is only a few weeks, but using no-shoulder mason jar, I store them in the freezer, and that works beautifully: the texture is preserved, since the tomatoes has been partially dried. For that, I prefer San Marzano selection El Redorto ( hands on.
    A recipe – always a winner at Pot-luck (hosts ask in the summer if I wouldn’t mind bringing it…) is here:

  • fastweedpuller

    Ed, I grow San Marzanos as well as Romas and Amish Pastes: they’re all lovely, but the SMs are very easy to seed because you just slice them and scoop the little seed blob out, pretty convenient if you’re going to make sauce.

    So, how to save tomato seeds? Slice a tomato in half and squeeze/scoop out the seeds into a glass bowl or quart-sized canning jar. Add water to near the top of the container, stir, and wait. The “bad” seeds and some of the pulp will float to the top; the “good” (viable) seeds sink to the bottom. Stir it once a day, and in about 3 days a nice green sludge of mold will appear on the top. This is a good thing, incidentally; you want the sludge as it breaks down that gelatinous case around each seed. Dump this outside into a fine-sieve strainer and blast with a hose, turning things over with your hands to get rid of most of the bad stuff. Spread out and dry on a paper towel. I label the towel and once it’s dry, I roll it up and store the seeds that way until next season. They usually stick to the paper towel so I just tear the seed with a bit of towel stuck to it and plant it that way.

    I have no idea why I can grow Green Zebras; they’re not terribly productive but they’re one of the best raw tomatoes out there imho…so, I fuss over them!

  • Ed Bruske

    Sylvie, thanks for those links. Drying tomatoes in the oven is on my list of things to do. The tomato tatin looks too good. I have to make sure my wife sees it. She loves making tatin.

    El, thanks for the tutorial on saving tomato seeds. You have just about convinced me to try San Marzano after I’d convinced myself I needn’t try. Our Romas are prolific, but this year the plants aren’t nearly the winners they were last year. Perhaps because I changed the seed source?