As the founder of the Taos Seed Exchange in New Mexico, I receive a lot of interesting seed donations for our annual seed swap. One year, tomato seeds came in from High Ground Gardens in Crestone, Colorado, a few hours’ drive north of my organic nursery in the Rocky Mountains.
Owner Bryon Pike breeds short-season and cold tolerant tomatoes outdoors at elevations between 7,000 and 8,500 feet. I was excited to receive his donation, because I too live and garden in a short-season part of the Rockies. From Pike’s seeds, I grew and sold a handful of ‘Super Tomato’ starts with the understanding that the buyers would return fresh seed for the seed exchange. One plant went to a woman who had just moved to the Rockies from Florida. That year, we had an unusually late frost on June 23 that killed all of her tomatoes except the ‘Super Tomato.’ It was untouched — not even tip burn. Super, indeed!
After that, I began to look more deeply into short-season, cold tolerant tomatoes, and have discovered other cultivars that are nothing like the original tomato from South America
The origins of the beloved tomato are a little fuzzy, like the stems and leaves of the plant itself. A wild relative, Solanum pimpinellifolium L., can be found in the Andes Mountains of South America in Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. The fruit is about the size of a blueberry. This species is believed to have moved north into Central America, where it became semi-domesticated — a mix of wild and cultivated genetics. Its fruit is larger, the size of a modern cherry tomato. The species continued to migrate north, into southern Mexico, where it became fully domesticated and the size of our modern slicing tomato. Today, its botanical name is S. lycopersicum L. var. lycopersicum.
Hundreds of years of selective breeding later, many of us grow tomatoes in our home gardens. Gardeners can choose from a huge variety of tomatoes, each bred for qualities we desire, such as flavor, color, shape, and (the subject of this article) earliness and hardiness.
Whereas most heirloom and hybrid beefsteaks are ready to harvest in 80 to 90 days, a short-season tomato ripens within 50 to 70 days of transplanting — plenty of time to produce a good harvest in a cold climate. These are my favorite short-season tomatoes, based on my gardening experience in the Rocky Mountains, where we’re lucky if we have 90 frost-free days some years! If you garden in a short-season area, consider these tasty cultivars to fill your belly and your pantry. Not only do they ripen early, but they’re also tolerant of cooler temperatures in spring and fall.
My first selection isn’t yet available, but may soon be offered by its developers at High Ground Gardens. As a market farmer, Pike was disappointed with the performance of most commercial cultivars in his growing conditions at high elevation in the Rockies — strong winds, intense sun, large temperature swings, alkaline soil, and late and early frosts. Poor yields don’t equal good business sense, so he began selecting seeds from plants that performed well in his farm’s difficult environment.
Through experimentation, observation, taste testing, trait selection, intuition, breeding techniques, and patience, Pike developed well-adapted seeds in just a few years. One is ‘Super Tomato,’ originally a volunteer in his greenhouse, that he’s bred to grow in harsh conditions.
Although ‘Super Tomato’ isn’t on the market as of this writing, other cultivars with the same qualities are available. The earliest is ‘Sasha’s Altai,’ ripening in just 60 days. The seed was originally collected in Siberia, Russia, by Bill McDorman of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance.
I’d heard several times that ‘Moskvich’ was a reliable and popular tomato for market farmers, so when High Mowing Organic Seeds donated seeds to the Taos Seed Exchange, I had to grow it myself.
‘Moskvich’ bears the most flavorful fruits I’ve ever eaten — rich, deep, and sweet, and almost concentrated, like a high-quality tomato paste. This cultivar is my new favorite slicer, however, it’s also great for canning.
‘Moskvich’ is ready to eat 60 days from transplanting, and bears 4- to 6-ounce fruits that are uniform in size and shape, and resist cracking. The semi-determinate plant produces well at low temperatures. It was developed in the 1970s at the Institute of Plant Industry in Moscow. “Moskvich” is a Russian word that translates to English as “person living in Moscow.”
The name itself tells gardeners that this tomato will do well in cooler weather and shorter seasons. I first discovered ‘Glacier’ when a friend of mine gifted me with one of the plants a couple of years ago. It was bearing fruit when I transplanted it in early June, and the first tomato was ready to eat on June 27. This early producer doesn’t sacrifice flavor, texture, or sweetness to bring us our favorite garden produce while other tomato plants are only flowering.
This potato-leafed, semi-determinate tomato will produce all season long. The 2-foot-tall plants are compact and suitable for container gardening. The fruits produced by ‘Glacier’ weigh 1 to 3 ounces, and are ready in 55 days. Last year, my friend started some ‘Glacier’ seeds for me on March 23, and I ate the first fruit on June 29.
‘Glacier’ was popularized by Ron Driskill, a horticultural teacher in Calgary, Alberta, who knew short-season, cool weather crops. Fedco Seeds praises the rich tomato flavor of ‘Glacier’ as superior to “every other tomato in the same class that we’ve tried.”
I discovered ‘Camp Joy’ during my first year as a retailer for Renee’s Garden Seeds. As soon as I grew it, I understood why this cherry tomato is a bestseller for many seed companies.
‘Camp Joy’ is the first ripe tomato in my garden, ready in 70 days. This tomato is indeterminate, and disease- and crack-resistant. The plant doesn’t mind the cool days of spring and fall. The flavor of its fruits is tomato-y and deep, not overly sweet as with most cherry tomatoes. I pop them in my mouth as a snack every time I pass the 7-foot-tall plants in my garden. Two ‘Camp Joy’ plants are so prolific that I can freely eat them fresh, give them away to friends and neighbors, and still dry dozens to use in soups and chili in winter.
This tomato is also known as ‘Chadwick Cherry’ after its developer Alan Chadwick, a biointensive gardening pioneer in the 1970s. John Jeavons of Bountiful Gardens seed company was Chadwick’s student, and Camp Joy Gardens was the California farm maintained by Bountiful Gardens. As this cherry tomato was grown out at Camp Joy, it seemed fitting to name the cultivar ‘Camp Joy.’ Renee’s Garden Seeds popularized it, and now it’s a bestseller at many seed companies.
A friend gave me a ‘Sunrise Bumblebee’ tomato plant a few years ago, assuring me it was hardy, and the fruits would be beautiful and tasty. Fred Hempel of Artisan Seeds developed this cherry tomato in Sunol, California, where he’s been growing and breeding tomatoes on Baia Nicchia Farm since 2006.
‘Sunrise Bumblebee’ is a yellow cherry with pink marbling inside and out. The more visible the marbling, the riper the tomato. This large, reliable indeterminate vine produces in 70 days. ‘Sunrise Bumblebee’ is one of seven striped cherry tomatoes in the company’s Artisan Tomato Collection, and is proclaimed to be the sweetest of the lot. Artisan Seeds describes the flavor as “bright, sweet, and tropical.” I agree. This cherry tomato is a refreshing snack on hot summer days.
Nan Fischer is the founder of the Taos Seed Exchange in New Mexico, a free community service by which home gardeners swap seeds.
GrowArtisan, 510-384-2716; ‘Sunrise Bumblebee’
High Ground Gardens., email HighGroundGardens@gmail.com; ‘Sasha’s Altai’
High Mowing Seeds, 866-735-4454; ‘Glacier,’ ‘Moskvich’
Johnny Seeds., 877-564-6697; ‘Glacier,’ ‘Moskvich,’ ‘Sunrise Bumblebee’
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, 417-924-8917; ‘Camp Joy,’ ‘Sunrise Bumblebee’
Renee’sGarden, 888-880-7228; ‘Camp Joy’
Tomato Fest, email Info@TomatoFest.com; ‘Camp Joy,’ ‘Glacier,’ ‘Moskvich,’
Victory Seeds503-829-3126; ‘Glacier,’ ‘Moskvich’