When I was a kid, my first tomato was a sun-warm, vine-ripened number that my dad plucked, brushed off on his trousers and handed to me. We were walking the family nursery’s tomato field together — the variety may have been Bison, but I’ll never truly know. What I do know is that the explosion of flavors literally tickled my taste buds, even as the juice ran down my chin and onto my white T-shirt. I had watched my dad snack on whole tomatoes often. I watched with fascination when for lunch he would slice several, salt them, and obviously enjoy himself immensely. And thus began my lifelong affair with this true “passion” fruit.
In the early days, I believed that all tomatoes were red, and that most were about 3 inches in diameter and roughly spherical. That’s because for many years our northern garden produced only those types. The colorful cans of tomato paste led me to believe that there were indeed other shapes — at least in other countries. By the time I got to college in Chicago, I was aware of at least a dozen red varieties and had even tried a few in the family garden. But during my third year in college, while working on a research project in the university’s greenhouse, the scope of my tomato world literally blew up.
The man in charge of the greenhouse operation was a retired old-school food farmer. He no longer grew truck crops for market, turning his attention instead to breeding African Violets and collecting and breeding colorful, flavorful tomatoes. Not only did I get a crash course in the variation one might find in tomato textures, shapes and colors, but I was also eventually able to experience tomatoes that didn’t taste like tomatoes. This generous man took me under his wing and sent me home with roughly 30 different kinds of tomatoes to grow on my vacant-lot farm. I wish I could find my notebook from that summer, and the summer after, because for the life of me, I cannot recall but a handful of the heirloom types I grew and enjoyed. Some were white, some green, many were striped with orange, yellow, purple and pink as the background color. Some of the fruits were spherical, others were fluted or flat. Then there was the whole subgroup with pear and plum shapes and the cherries.
The variation was almost overwhelming and, after a few years, I settled on about five workhorse varieties for my own home garden – all but the cherry were on the tart side, with real zesty tomato flavor. I grew Roma for canning, Bison and Early Girl for early eating, and Beefsteak and Mortgage Lifter for my main crop. I was the guy who folks eventually avoided in late summer because I was pushing tomatoes as others push zucchini. And now, with several more decades past, I was down to three primary varieties for my Kansas garden until this year. This year I succumbed to the temptation of trying some of my favorite heirloom types and a few colorful new open-pollinated types — all grafted onto a robust and disease-resistant rootstock. You’ve seen the testimonial photos. I don’t know how they will turn out, but I have great hopes for a bountiful and flavorful harvest — either way, I will let you know how well the experiment worked.
I know it’s still early, but I would love to know what kinds of tomatoes you enjoy growing and what experiences you have had with grafted tomatoes. If you keep a garden journal and would like to share it through a blog at GRIT or Capper’s Farmer, just let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org).
See you in May,
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.