I ate the last of my garden tomatoes in 2010 on the fifth of November. Now that may not seem so extraordinary if you live in Alabama and if you live in western MA that is very unusual. We had our first frost at my house on November 2. We also had our second and third immediately following. Some of the last tomatoes were Lambert’s General Grant, a fairly rare heirloom variety, large and red, well formed, with very good taste, much like the old Jersey tomatoes. Now this wasn’t a tomato I picked fully green and left on the window sill or in a paper bag to ripen. It was a tomato picked with a fair amount of ripeness, showing plenty of color and it kept for several weeks. Which means I picked it in early October, already an aberration for growing tomatoes in Zone 5. Normally we can expect a frost here around September 22. In recent years we’ve gotten as far as Oct 6 or 11. For the past thirty years I’ve been paying attention it is only recently that first frosts have occurred so late. Surely this November frost must be a record. I don’t know if this is another example of global warming and many gardeners have observed and speculated upon this. It is the latest frost I’ve seen in forty gardening years.
We had a number of different frost warnings after the beginning of October so I picked several batches of tomatoes that were close to ripening, only to have the frost pass us by. Along with General Grant I was still picking Trucker’s Favorite, Indian Moon, Eva Purple Ball, and a couple of Russian Blacks that were still hanging on plus lots of paste tomatoes. Indian Moon is my favorite orange tomato, eight ounce size, fairly globular, supposedly of Navajo Indian origin, and very tasty for an orange tomato. Earl of Edgecomb is similar. I’ve heard that Indian Moon is now available commercially. Look for it.
All through October I was eating more or less vine ripened tomatoes along with accumulating bowlfuls of paste tomatoes. I had to keep a close watch on all the varieties as sooner some would begin to mold or collapse from the inside with rot. Generally however most of the kept well for weeks at room temperature, especially the paste tomatoes. I’m always amazed how long tomatoes can keep if unblemished. This was simply a waiting game of per centages. I wanted to keep eating fresh tomatoes throughout October and in doing so I lost some to rot, and gained a long season of eating pleasures. My unproven theory here is that since we had a very dry year for our region of the Northeast, verging on drought for most of the summer, and the tomatoes had less moisture, they were able to be more rot resistant.
In any case many of the paste types will keep fresh much longer due to their higher solids content and lower moisture content, which is why they are more efficient to use when making tomato sauce. As usual I was growing a few odd and rare varieties. One was Purple Pear, a medium size pink pear, Northampton Italian plum, a long tapering “carrot type” tomato—in this case from Northampton, MA. These are typically late ripening, very meaty with very few seeds and sometimes green unripe shoulders. While you won’t find this variety in a catalog you certainly can find versions of these long tapering paste types. The last paste variety I grew was one which I suspect may have been selected from the carrot type tomatoes but is much fatter and a little less elongated, called Berkshire Polish. These tomatoes literally came over “on the boat” in someone’s grandfather’s pockets from Poland early in the century. Of course it was at least the second transatlantic trip for that variety, having originated somewhere in the Americas. Imagine the value those seeds had in order to be considered valuable enough to carry with you on the long journey in steerage. That’s why they call them heirlooms.
Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsmen and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a principal of DandelionGardening Arts. He's an expert on heirloom vegetables, and a seed preservationist with an avid interest in herbs, spices, food, cooking, kitchen and ornamental gardens. His newest project revolves around sacred tobacco and its redistribution to native peoples. You can find him on Google+.