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The First Muse Newsletter - Week 6, July 10
Written by Calliope Pappadakis   
Tuesday, 10 July 2012 00:00

Cherry TomatoesHello Friends!

I’m sure we're all feeling grateful for temperatures in the 80’s this week. Yesterday was the first day in over a week I could work out in the high tunnel.  I'm crossing my fingers for a few days of drenching rain. Our plants have survived the extreme heat on account of the misters, which have lowered the temperatures in the high tunnel, in addition to our faithful watering; but we have had some things bolt early and have been delayed in transplanting about 600 seedlings from the kitchen to the high tunnel, until yesterday. Tomatoes tend to abort their flowers in weather over 95 degrees; some of the top branches look like a lighter was held up to the plant and the blossoms are burned, but the plants will recover. The blossoms we lost this week, we know we’ll see double of that next week. Tomatoes seem to be in a race to climb the tallest and bear the most fruit. We love them for that. They keep us on our toes throughout the whole season.


Rainbow Tomato BlendSince we began gardening in our small plot in Hummelstown back in 2005, Jim and I have considered tomatoes a staple crop, one whose cultivation we wanted to become proficient in, particularly the heirloom varieties. These older cultivars are cherished for the rich, deep flavor, their unusual shapes and colors, and for the fact that they are original tomatoes in need of preserving. They’ve certainly made a comeback; however, not without challenges.

The heirloom tomato plants are much “wilder” and their vines take over the garden; combining several proven methods of pruning, I've learned to carefully bonsai them. During our first year of high tunnel gardening we decided to hang netting from the peak of the tunnel in order to “train” the tomatoes up the net. Some of you might remember that by July our plants had reached the 13 foot tall ceiling of the tunnel, and were looking to climb higher! We’ve since learned lessons in pruning and trellising, but the potential size of these heirloom plants is unbelievable.

2009 TomatoesAnother “obstacle” we’ve encountered in our adventures to grow these summer gems is that we’ve noticed the shoulders of our fruits are often green or white and don’t fully change to the intended color; in other words, the ripening is uneven.  Many studies have been done on this and it’s been attributed it to ‘not enough phosphorous’ (a common issue in organic gardening), ‘sun scalding’ when temps reach 95+, or perhaps a missing micro-nutrient. They are heirlooms after all, and have a reputation for being difficult to grow, but with a flavor that keeps us coming back for more. We’ve grown non-heirlooms and while they are usually picture perfect and ripen evenly, they are just ok in taste.  

Big matersWe found an article a couple of weeks ago about this very topic; you may have seen it in the news. The unripened shoulders of heirloom tomatoes and lack of flavor in hybrid tomatoes bred for uniformity isn’t such a mystery, so it seems. New research shows that a gene mutation to give tomatoes perfect color and uniform ripening has removed all of the amazing tomato flavor found in the older varieties!  “…the very gene that was inactivated by that mutation plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato” (Kolata 2012). Wow!  So we should actually expect our tomatoes not to always ripen uniformly and that “ring of green, yellow, or white at the stem end” is quite normal in heirloom varieties. We’ll take that any day over flavorless, uniformly red tomatoes intended to be shipped thousands of miles and doused in post-harvest preservative sprays. It’s also been a bit of a relief to know that there is a reason for this uneven ripening. We’ve had many conversations and done a fair bit of research about how to fix it, but perhaps we can’t! I guess we’ll leave that up to the experts (though I'd rather see the time and energy put elsewhere...). If you’d like to read more about this new study, here’s the NY Times article.

Kitchen Full of Maters 2009No surprise then that TOMATOES are the featured item in the baskets this week. Hooray! We are growing four heirloom varieties this year: Cherokee Green, Valencia Orange, Rose, Snow White Cherry, and a variety bred by Johnny’s Seeds called Five Star Grape, which is quite sweet. We are eating tomatoes at every meal and snack, and can't get enough!  Also in the basket are several varieties of summer squash. Today's harvest includes beets, kohlrabi, lettuce, radicchio, daikon, carrots, scallions, cucumbers, and flowers.

August HarvestKabocha Squash seems to be another prolific producer – it has dozens of softball size fruit on its vines. While I can’t think of eating hot soup now, hearing the first summer cicadas singing this morning gave me visions of autumn leaves, crisp evenings, baking apples, and hearty soup bubbling on the stove. Each year, I notice the overlapping of seasons more and more, how they gracefully blend into each other.

In the meantime, happy summer harvest!


Hope your week is off to a terrific start,

--Calliope & Jim