Fabulous and Fantastic Heirloom Tomatoes to Plant Again


Of the 87 varieties of heirloom tomatoes that I planted this year, these were my favorites. Now keep in mind, I am on the Central Coast of California, and I raised these all to my own varying standards of benign neglect, erratic watering and occasional obsessiveness in pruning. Most of them turned out well, and at least half I would consider planting again. But here are my absolutely favorites, and where to order seeds if you are so inclined.

Aunt Ruby’s German Green (Giant)AuntRubysGreenGiant
Ruby Arnold of Greeneville, Tennessee grew these tomatoes from heirloom seeds that her grandfather brought from Germany. Fortunately, her niece passed on the seeds. The flavor is an outstanding balance of sweet, tart and refreshing.
Where to buy seeds: http://www.territorialseed.com/product/Aunt_Rubys_German_Green_Organic_Tomato_Seed/organic_tomato_seed

German Red Strawberry
This was the first gigantonormous tomato of the season, and it was spectacular. Sadly, it was an early variety, and I didn’t manage to get any photos of the lush, red, strawberry shaped, 1 pound plus beauties. Which is why I have to grow it again next year.
Where to buy seeds: https://store.tomatofest.com/German_Red_Strawberry_Tomato_Seeds_p/tf-0189.htm


Ananas NoireAnanas Noir
This is Cynthia Sandberg’s (of Love Apple Farms) favorite tomato, and that woman knows more about tomatoes than I could ever hope to learn. Huge fruits are streaked with green, rose, orange and yellow colors inside and out. Nice sugar to acid balance produces excellent fresh flavor as well. According to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, “This unusual variety was developed by Pascal Moreau, a horticulturist from Belgium.”
Where to buy seeds:  http://www.territorialseed.com/product/Ananas_Noire_Organic_Tomato_Seed/organic_tomato_seed

Hawaiian Pineapple
Another huge fruiting variety with yellow orange skin and flesh. The taste lives up to the name.
Where to buy seeds: http://www.restorationseeds.com/products/hawaiian-pineapple-tomato

Mark TwainMark Twain
Ok, you got me, I am a sucker for a well named tomato. In defense of the Mark Twain, this variety is a huge and lovely red tomato with gently fluted lobes. This is a late season Big Red Tomato that takes over when German Red Strawberry starts petering out.
Where to buy seeds: http://www.redwoodseeds.net/products/mark-twain-tomato

Grandma  Viney Yellow and Pink
Really productive producer of huge yellow to red fruit, that taste like fruit, so sweet. Great for slicing and salads. According to Tatiana’s TomatoBase,  This is a family heirloom from Grayson County, Kentucky, grown for many years by Melvina Puckett. Maria Stenger of Sonora, Kentucky got the seeds from Melvina Puckett’s granddaughter at Joe’s Nursery in Clarkson, Kentucky. First introduced in Seed Savers 2009 Yearbook by Neil Lockhart of Oblong, Illinois (IL LO N) and Maria Stenger of Sonora, Kentucky.

Where to buy seeds: http://gianttomatoseeds.com/tomato_seeds.html
(Not organic seeds. If you have a desperate need for organic seeds, send me email. I saved a bunch)

Paul RobesonPaul Robeson
This Russian heirloom was named in honor of Paul Robeson (1898-1976) who befriended the Soviet Union. Athlete (15 varsity letters at Rutgers!), actor (played Othello in the longest-running Shakespearean production in Broadway history!), singer (world famous for his vibrant baritone renditions of Negro spirituals), orator, cultural scholar and linguist (fluent in at least 15 languages!), Robeson was an outspoken crusader for racial equality and social justice. Revered by the left, reviled by the right, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and beyond, harassed by the FBI, his passport revoked for eight years, his career stifled. He died broken and almost forgotten, his life a testament to lost opportunities in 20th-century American history.” – Fedco Seeds

The tomato itself is a gorgeous deep red brick color with a fantastic sweet and smokey flavor.
Where to buy seeds: http://www.fedcoseeds.com/seeds/search.php?item=4060&search=paul%20robeson



Indigo RoseIndigoRoseOnTheVine

The showstopper, the freaky beauty, the one vine everyone stops at when they walk through my tomato field to gawk. This tomato was bred by Oregon State University to have extremely high anti-oxidant levels. The fruits start out a deep plum color with green bottoms than ripen to rose. Mid-sized fruits grow in long clusters that look a bit like giant concord grapes.
Where to buy seeds: http://www.johnnyseeds.com/p-8711-indigo-rose-og.aspx

Michael PollanMichael Pollan
I did not stuff the writer in a hole and squeeze him to cough up fresh tomato juice and pundritry, promise. This is a gorgeous variety, obviously related to green zebra, but with a point little torpedo shape.
Where to buy seeds: http:/y /www.rareseeds.com/michael-pollan-tomato/
(Not organic seeds. If you have a desperate need for organic seeds, send me email. I saved a bunch of this one too)

Jersey DevilJersey Devil
Yup, they look like hot pepper devils, guaranteed to make people laugh on site. A generous plant with prolific fruit, I think this variety is a better substitute for Romas or San Marzanos as a paste tomato.
Where to buy seeds: http://www.territorialseed.com/product/Jersey_Devil_Organic_Tomato_Seed/organic_tomato_seed

Costoluto FiorentoCostolutoFiorentino
This is the most elegant, the most refined, the most stylish tomato of the collection. OF COURSE, it’s Italian, and therefore demands pronunciation in a cheesy Italian accent.
Where to buy seeds: http://www.localharvest.org/tomato-seeds-costoluto-fiorentino-organic-C27452

But Wait, There’s Always More

I have heard rumors of perhaps 5000 heirloom tomato varieties. I am only familiar with a mere 100 or so.

I found another favorites list, with only a few cross-overs above. I am planning on ordering a few from this list for next year myself: http://www.heirloomtomatoplants.com/Heirloom_tomatoes-ah.htm

And then there are a few sites where you can go deep down the rabbit hole and look at 100s of other tomato options. Here’s a few, but don’t blame me if you end up trying to grow 500 tomato varieties next year on your balcony.

Tatiana’s Tomato Base – 717 varieties, very well organized.

TomatoFest – 600 varieties, great collections, instructional videos and growing information.

Post Script

I kept extensive notes in a spreadsheet of the 87 varieties I trialed this year. If you are interested in reading the full spreadsheet, send me email and I will send you back a copy.


So much new to report here, after a long hiatus from the blog.

We have a new name for the farm – Birdsong Orchards!
The orchards part is admittedly aspirational, but the daily birdsong that wakes me every morning has been one of the great joys of moving to the country.

We are now certified organic! That is a whole post unto itself, but thank you CCOF.

And we have tomatoes, OMG do we have tomatoes. Our experiment in planting 87 varieties of heirloom tomatoes succeeded beyond my hopes, and then some. We have harvested around 2000 pounds so far, and they keep coming. I will do a follow-up post on my favorite varieties, but for now, here are some pictures.












Winter Cover Cropping

All of this earth moving we have been doing is to get ready to plant our winter cover crop. We are late in doing this, but the winter rains are late in arriving, so the fates are smiling on us in a weird sort of way.

Cover crops are essential to organic farming for a few reasons. The basic point of a cover crop is to plant seed, not for harvest, but to improve the soil. Cover crops are generally planted and then just tilled under a few months later. This process adds organic material to the soil, fixes nitrogen (an essential nutrient for plants), and prevents erosion. We had originally planned to plant a mix of vetch, legumes and oats, but when I spoke with the guy at the seed store, he highly recommended we just plant organic cayuse oats at first to crowd out competing weeds.


So, right now, we have 750 pounds of cayuse oat seeds sitting in our barn. It’s a lot of seed, not particularly exciting in some ways, but it is the first thing we will actually plant on this property, which makes me do a little happy dance of joy. Before we actually plant this seed, the nicer guys with big machines will disc our property with this amazing looking machine:



The point of discing is to open up the soil for oxygen and water penetration and till under any existing weeds.

Next, they will rip our property with this even more impressive machine.

ripper ripping

Ripping is hopefully and probably not something we will have to do often. But right now, there is a clay pan, essentially a hard layer of impenetrable clay, sitting right under our 6-12″ of topsoil. This clay pan will make it hard for tree roots, water or nutrients to penetrate down deep into the ground unless we break it up first. So ripping is a specific farm implement and process for braking up this clay pan.

It’s funny, before we actually moved here and started getting more knowledgeable about soil workings, we were all excited to buy a tractor. And we STILL might buy a tractor. But we have quickly learned that we are surrounded by folks with Serious Machines, and it is easier and cheaper just to rent these machines and operators. It would be silly for us to acquire all of this machinery for our little acres and just use them once or twice a year. Again, I am so glad we moved to an area when agriculture has been a way of life for 100 years.

If you are interested in learning more about cover crops, I found these resources useful:

Cover Crop Basics from Wikipedia
Cornell University has a Cover Crops Micro-site
Winter Cover Crops from Purdue University


Soil is Not Dirt – Dirt is Not Soil

Hey, we live on a farm now, and it’s rather cool!

After a few long tedious months of remodeling and moving, packing and unpacking,  we are now actually living on the farm – whew. It’s, well, it’s wonderful. We wake up to birds singing, cows lowing, tractors on the horizon. The weather has been hot and dry, not ideal from a farming perspective, but a warm welcome to country living nonetheless.

Our farming neighbors have been dropping by to say hello and welcome us to the neighborhood as well. I find some comfort in being surrounded by old farming families who have worked this land for generations. So far, none of them have mocked our newbie farming plans, at least not openly, but rather have been full of genuinely helpful advice, recommendations and contacts. Pascal took off on an unsupervised romp around the neighborhood a week or so ago, almost giving me a heart attack, but ended up visiting the nearby Gizdich Ranch. The extremely nice owner Vince and manager Linda caught him for me, so we have been patronizing their delicious pie shop, perhaps more than we should.

Escape Artist Extraordinaire
Pascal – Escape Artist Extraordinaire

Now, after almost a year of thinking, planning and plotting, it’s time to truly start farming. Our very first challenge is, we bought 5 acres or so of dirt, but dirt is not soil. To transform our dry brown fields of clods into healthy rich soil is going to take no small amount of work and time.

Dirt, We Got It
Dirt, We Got It

We have been talking to folks far and wide about the best course of action to increase our soil fertility before planting, and this is our current plan. First, we need to cut down the weeds and break up some of the clods, which is accomplished through discing. Discing, for the uninitiated (like myself, just a month or so ago), involves a tractor with a serious attachment of steel ‘discs’ that break up the soil and till in weeds.

Tractor Discing – Photo by Chris Billman on Flickr

Next, and as soon as the winter rains begin, we will sow a cover crop for the winter. Cover crops are nifty, and a basic element in organic farming. The basic idea is to grow a mix of fast growing annual plants, then till them under in the Spring, to add nitrogen and organic material back to the soil. A cover crop also prevents erosion and further nutrient leaching by winter rains and run off.  We will probably be planting a mix of lana vetch, bell beans and cayuse oats, a seed mix we can purchase ready to for just this purpose.

After we till our cover crop under in the Spring, we will then do something called “deep ripping.” This is another tractor technique to break up compacted soil. Since our fields have a clay base,  years of tractors and other heavy machinery have created something called plow pan, which is a layer of hard compacted soil right under the surface. We will need to break up this hard pan, so that our tree roots can get down deep to water and nutrients. Then, another cover crop next Fall, another round of discing, and in the Spring of 2015, we will actually be ready to plant our orchard.


Dirt, Up Close and Textural
Dirt, Up Close and Textural

We also collected soil samples last week, and sent them off to the lab for analysis. We are hoping to learn about the general chemical composition of our soil as it is now, the Ph, and amount of organic materials. This will help us decide what kinds of organic fertilizers and other soil amendments to use when it does come time to plant.


Patience, definitely not my forte, so originally I was a bit disappointed to learn we are more than a year out from planting an orchard. Thinking about it a bit more though, I have to admit I am relieved. We now have far more time to decide exactly what tree varieties we want to plant and where. We also have more time to work on that other crucial part of the puzzle, our irrigation system, which is such a mystery of confusion, I am saving it for a whole ‘nother blog post. And in the meantime, I can plant a small veggie bed in the spring, once the first cover crop is tilled under, and I am very much looking forward to it.

Many thanks to Jim Leap from CASFS and the entire FarmReach community for helping us come to soil fertility plan.

Next up … Pipes are Not Water

More Photos from the Farm

We were back at the farm on Thursday to do the requisite inspections before closing escrow.  After writing large checks to the building, termite, septic and well inspectors, we learned, quel surprise, there is a lot of broken to fix. Not shocking when buying a 50-year-old farm-house, but, sigh.

Here are some more pictures of the place I took while we were there.


Apricot Glow
The apricots, still going strong

Back of House
Back yard

Moving irrigation pipes around – my future.

Front of House
Front of the house.

Front of House 2
See that empty pool in front? I have always wanted to grow water lilies and lotus.

Antique incinerator, to dispose of the evidence I suppose 🙂

Massive Monterey Cypress
There are a few huge old Monterey cypress on the property that cast some delicious shade.

Water Tank
Water tank is rusty but the well produces a whopping 60 gallons a minute. In California, living on top of an aquifer is pure gold.

Apricot Sun Flare
Forgive me, I have a soft spot for sun flares.