On one level, the 2017 was just plain confounding....the crops that are always "easy" for me provided the biggest challenges. Those that can be the most problematic were simply stellar. The stars were the dwarf tomatoes (on which I will report next). The trouble children were the peppers, basil.....and indeterminate tomatoes.
My strategy was to grow some of my favorite eating varieties, as well as some newly acquired family heirlooms, in either straw bales or 10 gallon containers, in order to maximize the yield. The taller growing plants needed to be located where they would not shade the dwarf tomatoes, eggplants and peppers; placement along the driveway edge would also allow for tall stakes, driven into the lawn for many of the plants.
I used 6 straw bales, alternating with the large pots around the rear and side driveway edge. The bales held the following pairs of plants: Little Lucky and Caitlin's Lucky Stripe, a par of Cherokee Purple, a pair of Cherokee Chocolate, a pair of Sungold, Violet Jasper and Egg Yolk, and Not Vintage Wine and Amethyst Cream.
Grown in large containers alternating with the bales were Cherokee Green, Swokla's Pink Heart, Green Giant and Mexico Midget. A row of large containers about 4 feet in front of the rear row held Uncle Joe, Mama's Huge Orange, Lucky Cross, Anna's Kentucky Heirloom, Lillian's Yellow Heirloom, Abraham Brown and Brandywine. That all added up to 23 indeterminate tomato varieties.
I experienced 2 general, unexpected issues. In half of the bales the plants did not thrive; in fact, the Sun Gold bale plants looked half dead pretty much all season, with wilting occurring only a few weeks after transplant into the bales. Little Lucky, Amethyst Cream, and Egg Yolk never looked particularly healthy, with persistent wilting early on. I strongly suspect presence of persistent herbicides in those particular bales. Cuttings of Sun Gold rooted and planted in containers later on did (and continue to do) great. This exemplifies one of the major risks of straw bale gardening....having trust in the quality of the bales.
The second unexpected issue was the amount of blossom end rot that several of the container varieties exhibited - particularly Green Giant, Anna's Kentucky and Brandywine. My theory is that the plants grew so well and vigorously so quickly - rapid vertical growth, blossoming, fruit setting - that they experienced stress; the potting medium and my feeding regimen may have been too much, pushing the plants on to do too much too soon, which caused the stress. later in the season the BER stopped. Interestingly, I had no BER issues with any of the dwarfs, or any other indeterminate varieties not mentioned above.
Tomato spotted wilt virus impacted a few of the indeterminates (but none of the dwarfs). Mama's Huge Orange, Lillian's Yellow Heirloom and Anna's Kentucky were severely impacted, leading to very poor performance.
I was also a failure at plant topping, and made the conscious agreement to not top out of necessity. Topping works great to control plant height, but it is important to ensure that there is adequate fruit set on clusters below the desired topping point. Due to blossom drop on many of the varieties on lower clusters and incidence of BER on others, I decided to "just them them go". It worked out fine - the plants yielded well for the most part.
One last observation in relation to the location of the rear two rows of the indeterminate plants - reduced direct sunlight due to overhang of and growth of trees around the driveway. I suspect this led to some of the issues I had with the more shaded indeterminate varieties. Once again I am reminded of how many variables impact the results of our gardens.
Let's take it plant by plant.
Cherokee Green - grown from seed purchased from Johnny's Selected Seeds, which provided a good test for their seed stock, since Johnny's introduction was from seed I sent them when they expressed interest in carrying it. The plant lives on, was healthy all season and yielded well. Tomatoes were in the 8-16 ounce range, slightly oblate, and ripened to an amber yellow color. The green fleshed tomatoes were all that I expected, simply delicious.
Little Lucky - grown from seed saved in 2016, which was F12 seed. This is now a well stabilized variety. The plant struggled with wilt, though the foliage was fine; I attribute it to herbicides in the bale. Despite that handicap, Little Lucky produced lots of medium small, round yellow tomatoes with a red blush in and out. It had a wonderful flavor, rich and sweet.
Caitlin's Lucky Stripe - This is an interesting mystery in a few different ways. In 2008, one plant of Little Lucky growing at Coon Rock Farm produced medium round yellow tomatoes with very slender pink stripes running vertically stem to blossom, clearly some remaining instability in the Little Lucky line (the original parent in the bee-blamed cross was striped). I've grown it a few times, but the current latest generation of Caitlin's Lucky Stripe is a small to medium round pink tomato with stripes; I've lost the yellow. I returned to the very last seeds saved in 2008, but alas, the plant exhibited an odd lethal gene that occasionally shows up in this line (as well as the Lucky Cross line). The plant looks fine early on, then exhibits thread like leaves and twisted, unhappy looking blossoms that simply do not set fruit. I will have to go back to seed saved in 2009 to do a wider search at some point.
Cherokee Purple - Both Cherokee Purple plants that resided in a straw bale were from seeds saved in 2016 that were only a few generations removed from the original seed sent to me in 1990 by J D Green. Using my code, the 2017 plants (seed saved as T17-6 and T17-7) were from T16-104. That plant was grown from T02-3, which came from T91-27, which was grown from seed sent to me in 1990. I like to check on some of my most prized heirlooms to confirm the performance, appearance and flavor. The ones I grew this year were only four generations removed from the original, which is as close as I can now get....germinating T91-27, with 26 year old seed, though not impossible, would be very iffy. I am happy to report that Cherokee Purple was one of the stars of the 2017 garden; prolific and as delicious as I had expected, and hoped. The plants are still alive, and neither experienced any issues this season.
Cherokee Chocolate - The Cherokee Chocolate plants grown in a bale this summer, seed saved as T17-8 and 9, were grown from T16-120. These originated with T03-21, which were grown from the original discovery of Cherokee Chocolate, T95-47. So, once again, I was able to check on how Cherokee Chocolate is doing vs what is seen today from catalog seeds, or fruit available in farmers markets. As with Cherokee Purple, I had two healthy, trouble free plants that gave us plenty of wonderful, representative tomatoes.
Sun Gold - It is a strange season indeed when a weed-vigorous tomato like Sun Gold fails. Alas, the straw bale that held the plants was most certainly embedded with persistent herbicide residue. The plants began to wilt pretty much all day long when they reached just a few feet tall. They recovered a bit overnight, then returned to a wilty mess during the day. I took a cutting and rooted it, and it is now thriving in a large container. I thought we would be overwhelmed with Sun Gold fruit having two plants in a straw bale...but it was not to be.
Green Giant - The plant grows on, we actually harvested a very few delicious tomatoes, but blossom end rot hit it hard and often. This is the first time I've had issues with Green Giant, and I blame not only its location, but perhaps the overly rich early planting medium and perfect conditions that led to vigorous growth, and, undoubtedly, plant stress.
Swokla's Italian Heirloom - This is the second year of growing this wonderful family heirloom sent to me by Walk Swokla - it originated in Italy and made its way to the US in 1917. One of the best large fruited pink heart shaped tomatoes of my experience, it performed very well for me. Hopefully it will be more widely available, as I sent some seed to Mike Dunton, owner of Victory Seeds.
Violet Jasper - Seed of this variety was shared with me by Matt Ross of Longwood Gardens. Growing in a suspect bale aside Egg Yolk, the end came soon with what looked to be bacterial wilt. I did manage to pick one small, purple tomato with green stripes - the flavor was nothing to write home about, but it in no way had a fair chance.
Egg Yolk - As one of my new favorite cherry tomatoes, I was hoping for a big yield, but instead, found that this bale was herbicide impregnated as well. Those we did harvest were delicious, but there were far too few.
Not Vintage Wine - I love garden mysteries. Vintage Wine is a potato leaf variety with large gold striped pink tomatoes. Last year a garden friend Ralph brought me a medium sized purple fruit with green stripes that originated from his Vintage Wine plant; something was clearly amiss. I save some seeds and grew out one plant this year. Wow - the plant yielded very well, producing large smooth oblate chocolate colored tomatoes with green stripes, a dark crimson interior and superb flavor. Who knows what will come of the saved seed, but this is a promising lead.
Amethyst Cream - A friend shared seeds of this relatively new cherry variety, accompanied by a strong recommendation. Alas, the bale in which it was planted had persistent herbicides and though I got reasonable growth and production, the season was cut short. It was actually fine though....the small ivory colored cherry tomatoes developed dark shoulders when exposed to the sun (this is a tomato that was bred to show the tell tale purple shoulders of the high anthocyanin gene). When very ripe, the color turned slightly pink. I found the texture too soft, and the flavor a bit on the cloyingly sweet side and lacking balance.
Mexico Midget - Never a disappointment (and always requiring extra patience to germinate), this variety took its traditional driveway spot, near the walkway so that snacking was immediately accessible. It thrives still, now following a string attached above a doorway, providing a tomato-producing arbor. One taste of this pea sized, tiny beauty draws consistent raves from all visitors to our driveway.
Uncle Joe - Seeds of this family heirloom were given to me a few years ago after an event in Leesburg, Virginia. My first attempt, last year, was unlucky, as the seed was the result of a cross (the small red heart shaped tomatoes were not at all what was expected). This year could have been more in line with the authentic variety, but I have to confirm my findings with the seed donor. Uncle Joe produced elongated red paste tomatoes, similar in shape to Opalka, on what was probably the most unhappy looking, wispy floppy foliage plant I ever saw. The tomatoes were excellent, however, with great rich flavor and a texture and structure perfect for sauce.
Mama's Huge Orange - This variety is another consistent disappointment. Seeds were given to me some years ago by gardening friend Samantha. The first year I grew it (on our deck), the tall growing plant never set any fruit. My next two attempts met with failure due to early death from disease. This year the plant grew well initially, yielding a few large oblate tomatoes, but then tomato spotted wilt hit and took the plant. No matter, the tomatoes didn't match the expected outcome based upon the tomato name. Rather than orange, the tomatoes were a typical red beefsteak type, and with unexceptional flavor. I suspect that this was from crossed seed....I will try again in the future!
Lucky Cross - This was an outstanding year for Lucky Cross, and it was a 2017 garden champion in terms of plant health, fruit set, yield, and flavor. The vigorous potato leaf plant had no issue with blossom end rot and provided many one pound or greater oblate deep yellow beefsteak shaped fruit with prominent red streaking. It was interesting to compare the color with Dwarf Caitydid, a dwarf bicolor. The yellow hue of Lucky Cross was a deeper shape than the more canary yellow hue of Caitydid, which was a new observation for me. I was delighted to find my views of the flavor of Lucky Cross reinforced yet again...it is simply the best large bicolored tomato of my experience. As to which generation seed I grew since naming, my seed source was T16-87, which is 12 generations removed, meaning that this is now a very stable selection.
Anna's Kentucky Heirloom - Alas, this variety is in a tie as my biggest tomato disappointment of the season. A lovely specimen of this variety was given to me at the Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival last fall. I saved seeds, and looked forward to growing it this year. A Brandywine lookalike (and taste-alike), being a potato leaf variety with large pink fruit, Anna's Kentucky Heirloom got off to a great start, growing tall and setting fruit. A nasty, infected thrip must have chewed on some blossoms, and Tomato Spotted Wilt hit the plant before any decent fruit set. I've got plenty of seeds, and will try again for sure.
Lillian's Yellow Heirloom - The other part of the biggest disappointment tie (see Anna's Kentucky, above), Lillian's was also hit by Tomato Spotted Wilt, severely stunting its growth and resulting in total failure.
Abraham Brown - Adjacent to a big disappointment comes this stunner. An heirloom variety given to me at a Mother Earth News fair in Asheville a few years ago, my first attempt at growing it (last year) ended with - you guessed it - tomato spotted wilt infection and total failure. This year things were different - what impressive tomatoes, and what a unique variety. The vigorous potato leaf plant pumped out lots of large, smooth, slightly oblate chocolate colored fruit (a yellow skinned black, as with Cherokee Chocolate) with a dense, meaty interior and outstanding flavor. I know nothing about the history of this variety, and haven't been able to get in contact with Mike Jones, the fellow who gave me the seeds. If you are out there and reading this, Mike, please drop me an email and share the history of the variety!
Brandywine - Nothing more really needs to be said about the superiority of Brandywine. Though it can vary in performance year to year, it must have been happy with this summer's weather. We got to sample lots of big pink tomatoes with that stunning, intense, so superbly balanced Brandywine flavor. In terms of distance from the seed originally sent to me in 1987, the plant this year was from seed 6 generations removed.
So that's it - it is not one of my brief blogs, but it tells a pretty detailed story of the highs and lows of my indeterminate tomato plantings.