New and Improved!

Johnny's Seed Catalog on the PillowThe seed catalogs are landing in my mailbox. I’ll read them all with a mix of professional interest, curiosity, amusement, and horror. If you will consider seed catalogs to be a form of literature for a moment– a sub-genre of fantasy, perhaps– then I’ll volunteer to be a literary critic. What? You think they’re nonfiction? Seed catalogs sell a fantasy of summer, and what better time is there for that when the chilly winds of winter blow? In fact, the first catalog to arrive this year was Totally Tomatoes, which is as focused on summer as any catalog can be and I’ll get to it in a moment, but first, a few words about love and cigars.

There are so many varieties of love; romantic love, unrequited love, lost love, maternal love, and the love we have for our pets, just to name just a few. The writer who takes on love as a subject has an endless amount of material to work with. I’m not saying that love is easy to write about. We all experience love, even when we only feel it as a hunger, so every reader is potentially as much an expert as any author. Writers who choose to explore more technical subjects, like cigars, face a different challenge. I don’t smoke, but I have found myself reading Cigar Aficionado Magazine from time to time. “Cedar notes? With accents of autumn leaves?”  I like to see how the editors labor to present cigars anew, month after month. I look for the rhetorical tricks that are employed to get readers like me to smell the cedar. Writing for an annual seed catalog with over 30 pages of glossy photos and mini essays dedicated almost entirely Solanum lycopersicum, must be a difficult task.

In catalog world, novelty sells. “New and Improved!”  But tomatoes, like their close cousins, the tobaccos, were first cultivated by Pre-Columbian Native Americans, so what can possibly be new? For 2012 Totally Tomatoes presents for the very first time “Tasti-Lee™ Hybrid tomato with up to 40% more lycopene than other leading varieties of tomato.” Lycopene is a red pigment with antioxidant properties. According to some preliminary scientific findings there is an inverse relationship between eating a lot of tomatoes and cancer risk, especially prostate cancer. As a tomato grower I’d like this to be true, but I’m not “sold.”

Before I put any credence in any scientific claim any catalog makes I read it from cover to cover and look for the most egregiously manipulative and fraudulent claim. “Aha!” I say when I find it. “This is how low they’ll go!”  On page 25 Totally Tomatoes presents the “Peron” tomato, billed as “The world’s only sprayless tomato, requiring no pesticides.” I never use any pesticides on any of my tomatoes. Just for good measure Totally Tomatoes also says that Peron has 2.5% more vitamin C than the other leading breeds. I suspect that catalog writers twist “recent studies” into creative ad copy whenever the variety that they’re writing up doesn’t give them anything more concrete to work with.ripe green cherokee tomatoes

Names count for a lot in catalog literature. A good product name evokes the values that the buyer treasures. For a gardener the size of fruit may be important, as well as the earliness of the harvest, and the potential profitability quotient. Throw in an appeal to ethnic identity and timeless family values and a catalog writer has all the bases are covered. Totally Tomatoes doesn’t disappoint; the reader gets “Goliath,” “Early Goliath,” “Goldrush Goliath,” “Italian Goliath,” and – I kid you not- “Old Fashioned Goliath ™ Hybrid VF.” Don’t you hunger for the “good old days” when peasants named the hybrid fruits of their labors after their Biblical heroes, then trademarked their creations and used their profits to hire lawyers?

But let’s not forget color. Getting paid to write for a catalog where you need to say something unique and appealing about hundreds of different kinds of red ball-shaped is enough to make a poet out of a person; in Totally Tomatoes there are descriptions of fruits with “red,” “deep red,” “bright red,” “shiny red,” and “intense red.” It must be a relief for the writers that there is so much contemporary consumer interest in heirloom tomatoes with their oranges, greens, purples, yellows, and stripes. I give Totally Tomatoes credit for carrying many heirloom varieties. Crafting the story lines behind these antique, open pollinated breeds of tomato that have been passed down through the generations gives the catalog’s writers some room to stretch out and tell a good tale. One quibble with the storyline though; “Old-Fashioned” is not a flavor, it’s a rhetorical crutch, a phonetic catalyst designed to evoke sepia toned nostalgia for better times that probably never existed. But that’s ok. I’m not looking for Steinbeck in the seed catalog. The appeal to “Old-Fashion Values” is only the flip side of “New and Improved” which plays to our utopian hopes of a shiny, bright future.

So what do I look for?

funny shaped cherokee purple tomatoAs a grower I want to know if the tomato variety is determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes set almost all their fruit at once. This is a convenient trait for large-scale growers who harvest their crop with machines. I prefer to harvest more modest amounts of fruit by hand every week over a long season, so I look for indeterminate varieties. Growing indeterminate tomatoes allows me to find markets for my harvest, even out my cash flow, and keep my crew gainfully employed for months.

I’m always curious to know what the disease resistance of the plant is. I don’t use fungicide, so I’m always looking for crops which are resistant to pathogens. That’s been the problem I’ve had with some Italian heirloom tomatoes I’ve trialed with disappointing results. Each heirloom tomato evolved under different conditions with different amounts of humidity to contend with, different soils, and different pests. Some varieties work here, some don’t. I don’t expect a catalog like Totally Tomatoes with ambitions of a continental reach to be able to tell me what will grow well on my farm in San Benito County. Trial and error is my best guide.

Flavor is important. “Old-Fashioned” may not mean anything, but before I try a new variety I do want to know what the acid/sweet balance of the fruits is. I like to know what the texture of the fruit is like too and how uniform the fruit size is too. Size is important, but bigger is not necessarily better. Huge fruit can be hard to pack, and if a crow takes one peck out of a huge tomato I lose a lot. I prefer a plant that gives me a lot of smaller fruit, so Mr. & Mrs. Crow can wet their beaks without leaving me broke.

Flavor has a lot to do with cultural practices, so I like to know if a particular variety of tomato tolerates “dry-farming.” By not watering the tomatoes the plants are forced to reach deep into the mineral earth for their water, and in so doing they gain access to all the trace elements and micro-nutrients that make for good flavor. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or NPK, might be the most important fertilizers for vegetative growth, but it’s all the trace elements that give character to flavor. Some tomatoes will tolerate dry farming conditions and some won’t. Because successful dry-farming is so dependent on local conditions national catalogs can’t really honestly address the issue. Most, like Totally Tomatoes, don’t even bring it up.

So, will I buy anything from Totally Tomatoes?

Yes, I will. “Early Girl” is a hybrid tomato offered by Totally Tomatoes that is indeterminate, disease resistant, flavorful, and adapted to dry-farm culture and I will buy 15,000 seeds. The rest of my tomato seeds I will either save from my own crop, like Principe Borghese, or buy from Johnny’s Seeds. Johnny’s Seeds doesn’t carry Early Girl but they are sensitive to the needs of small-scale organic and specialty growers and they offer many varieties of tomato. For the record, the Johnny’s catalog is the clearest, most informative one out there. I keep it by my bed.

copyright 2011 Andy Griffin ||  all photos by Andy Griffin ||  Tomato Recipes, of course!


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1 Response to “New and Improved!”

  1. 1 Pamela Jasper

    Hello! Totally Tomatoes? I’ve gotten their catalog but never ordered from them. What was the draw for you?

    I’m very surprised you didn’t mention Seed Savers Exchange, especially for heirloom tomatoes. If you get the chance, try growing some of their “Trophys”…I did for the first time last year and they were wonderful!

    Love your newsletter!

    Pam Jasper

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