2013 Varieties, Preliminary

With the first two waves of seeds planted already, I’m well behind in updating lists and ordering information.  Pending crop failure, here are the tomato plant varieties that are confirmed for availability this spring.  If you’re looking for something which is not on this list, now is the time to ask for it.


Pepper will be listed in a forthcoming post.

So Many Varieties!

Planning which seeds to plant next spring is, in some ways, the most enjoyable activity of the year.  I get to review all of my records and relive biting into each flavor and texture.  I get to reread what my customers have told me and feel good about helping them.  And I get to dream about new experiences and flavors to try next year.  On the other hand, disposing of plants that didn’t sell because I misjudged the market is easily the least enjoyable activity of the year.  I use a few different strategies to mitigate this issue, but experience and customer feedback are my most valuable assets.

I’m only going to discuss tomatoes today, since I expect to be long winded enough without adding the complexities of peppers, herbs, and perennials.  Don’t worry, though–peppers will have their own post, and I have exciting news about herbs coming up, too.

Having a broad selection of varieties is not only one of the core value propositions of the nursery, from a business standpoint (that is, I attract and retain customers partly by offering a broad selection including varieties no one else has), but it is also one of the core missions for which the nursery was started.  I wanted to give people options that they didn’t otherwise have, to grow varieties that they didn’t otherwise have access to, untreated by chemicals.

However, there are definitely favorites among my customers, both in specific varieties and specific types of tomatoes people are always looking for.  People want sweet cherry tomatoes, old fashioned, “tomatoey” cherry tomatoes, and grape tomatoes similar to the ones they find in stores.  They want big beefsteaks, high producing slicers, and drier Roma types for saucing and canning.  Many people ask for tomatoes with “old-fashioned” or acid flavor. Red is the runaway favorite color.  Often they’ll pick up one or two oddballs with stripes or unusual coloration.  And everyone wants to know my own favorite varieties, as if I could choose absolute favorites among the thousand or two varieties that I have tried over the years.

So I put together a small list of main line varieties that I grow in greater numbers than the rest.  These will be my go to varieties, to fill such requests and recommend to those who are timid about trying anything too strange, or just to hand to those who are completely overwhelmed by the selection.  These tomatoes have proven themselves in different local gardens across many years in the area and can be counted on to produce.  Old standbys on this list include Kelloggs Breakfast (or KBX), Cherokee Purple, Sioux, Sungold, Chadwick Cherry, Marianna’s Peace, and Opalka.  Newer additions to the list include Kosovo, Aunt Gertie’s Gold, Gardener’s Delight, and Beauty King.

After I’ve filled all of the basic tomato types, colors, shapes, and ripening seasons in the main line, I’ll fill shadow varieties into the second line.  These are varieties that fill almost the same spaces as the mainline, and even could be substituted for them in many cases.  This includes Amana Orange, JD’s C-Tex, Traveler, Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, German Johnson, and others.

Third, I add in all of the types that I’m personally excited by, usually because of their potential to unseat the mainliners or fill a niche that wasn’t previously well covered.  This year I’m particularly impressed by San Marzano, Santorini, Heidi, and the new dwarf indeterminates that have recently become available in every size and color from the Cross Hemisphere Dwarf project that I’ve been participating in.

Finally, I fill out all of the minor niches with greens, whites, blues, currants, hearts, etc.  I also grow a number for my own trials, and often make the extras available.  I’m very responsive to special requests, because either I’ve grown them, and therefore have seed already, or I haven’t, and want to know what they’re like.

Drop me a line and let me know what you’re looking for this year.  We can grow it together.


The first wave of 850 seeds for the new year were sown yesterday.  Many exciting things coming.  Here’s how things are shaping up:

  • Dwarf Varieties AvailableI’m planting the indeterminate dwarf tomatoes early this year in order to sell them at a more mature size.  I was very impressed by these little plants last year, which do well in pots, standard tomato cages, or square foot gardens.  Unlike determinate tomato plants which remain small and deliver all of their crop at once, these continue to produce tomatoes all season, while remaining small and manageable.  I have all of the varieties released by the Cross Hemisphere Dwarf Project that I could get my hands on, plus a few heirlooms like New Big Dwarf, Dwarf Champion Improved, and the diminutive, determinate cherry Tiny Tim, which has been a regular customer favorite.
  • I’m also planting the peppers earlier and growing them hotter to give them more size than the puny things I grew last year.  I’m changing the tagging, using red tags for hot peppers and green tags for sweet.  Hopefully that will clear up some of the confusion.  I have
    • red, orange, and yellow bells
    • a sweet cherry pepper
    • Giant Aconcagua, which is one of my children’s favorites
    • Jimmy Nardello, a very sweet frying pepper
    • Jalapeño M, a very mild, though not heatless jalapeño.
    • Aji Dulce, a very mild habanero that ripens red
    • Habanero, the classic orange flamethrower
    • Bhut Jolokia, the Ghost Chile, currently the Guiness record holder for heat.
    • a beautiful, variegated Fish pepper plant, often planted as an ornamental, though edible (and hot).
Red Zeppelin onion culls, excellent in salads early in the season.
  • I’ve committed to providing the following onions, starting March 3rd until sold out.  As last year, $2/30 and $3/60.  The bundles were very generously packed last year, with up to 80 plants in a 60 plant bundle.
    • Walla Walla Sweet, of course
    • Ailsa Craig, a very large sweet heirloom
    • Copra, which was quite popular last year
    • Red Zeppelin, a big sweet red
    • Redwing, totally new to me
  • There are 120 varieties of tomato on the grow list this year, which I’ll publish as soon as it’s finalized.  With a new hoophouse to provide better spring weather protection, and several process improvements, we’re on track to have over 3000 plants for sale at the end of April, with a final production wave showing up mid-May.  Larger, stronger, healthier plants than last year is the goal.  And everything tagged and separated ahead of time, thanks to a change in the transplant process.  Still no chemicals, no pesticides, no substances that are not organic.
  • More exciting announcements to come!  Stay tuned, and let me know if you have any feedback from last year, or there’s anything you’re looking for.  I’m paul@midcolumbiagardens.com.

Preparing for 2012

December is the month of seed preparation and orders.  I’ve reviewed the information I collected in 2011 on which varieties did well and what kind of feedback I got from people who grew them out.  Despite the bad weather and poor condition of some of my inventory, there were some good success stories:

Kosovo was the most productive variety in the gardens of many people that I spoke to.  It had beautiful, large, flavorful tomatoes and really made a place for itself in my standard lineup.  I was very impressed by this large heart shaped pink.

Opalka continues to impress.  I also grew several other paste tomatoes, including Heidi and Sarnowski Polish Plum, but Opalka was the one I heard about from new customers.  All three of these will be in the standard varieties again for 2012.

Sungold is always a winner for cherry tomatoes.  Nothing beats this unique, fruity, sweet sensation.  Everyone ought to try this one.  It will convert even non-tomato lovers.

Dwarf Tomatoes from the Cross-Hemisphere Dwarf breeding project proved to be very robust.  Tasmanian Chocolate, Rosella Purple, and Dwarf Beryl Beauty were strong growers that produced large sized tomatoes in containers, with a little support.  I’ve pulled in seed from all of the new dwarf releases from the project for 2012 and hope to do some comparison.

Peppers, especially the sweet ones, were very popular with customers, despite the small size of the plants I had available.  For 2012 I will have more varieties of sweets, but more importantly I will be starting them earlier, with more heat, to hopefully get better size on them.  Although I’ve been growing large numbers of tomato plants for over ten years, I had never grown so many pepper plants, and 2011 was a terrible year to start with its record cold spring.  I’ll also be back with more Bhut Jolokia Ghost Chiles, for the most adventurous heat loving fools (like me).

Onions, which I brought in on a whim, flew out the door so fast they were mostly spoken for on the day I announced them!  I can get them in again, at $3-4/bunch of 50, but I need to get a quantity order in soon.  Most of the varieties performed great for me, but I’d like to hear more from those who bought them.  I’m also going to take another run at seeding onions, on the advice of a couple local growers I spoke to.

Was there anything that did particularly well for you, or that you’d like to see me offer this year?  Let me know, here in the comments, or at feedback@midcolumbiagardens.com.  I’m looking forward to a great garden in 2012!

Spring Garden Day

Today I attended the WSU Benton County Extension Spring Garden Day.  There was a good turn out and I think everyone there came away with new knowledge and a greater appreciation for gardening.

I gave a presentation on tomatoes, which I think went well, though I regret not having been able to get to everyone’s questions.  I covered maybe half the material I had prepared, but given the time we spent in questions I hope it was the half everyone was looking for.  If you have questions about the presentation, or are just looking for more information on growing tomatoes in our area, please feel free to comment below, or write me at tomatoes@midcolumbiagardens.com.  (That would also be the address for tomato plant preorders and questions.)

Thanks to everyone who attended, and the the County Extension for having me as their guest.

Tomato Plants are Ready!

All of this warm weather has readied my tomato plants sooner than expected. The last of them should be ready to go by this weekend. With that in mind, these are the varieties that are available, $1 per plant:

  • Kelloggs Breakfast Kelloggs Breakfast Tomatoes

    Large, orange tomato. Meaty, very juicy beefsteak with excellent flavor. Tomatoes can be one to three pounds each, 4-8”, on vigorous indeterminate vines. Larger tomato varieties take longer to start bearing, and then produce large quantities until frost. This is one of my favorites for everything from sandwiches to orange spaghetti sauce.

  • Ildi
    Yellow grape tomato. Early, flavorful, and prolific, this is a good alternative to the famous yellow pear tomato which I have such fond memories of as a child, but which I found bland, mushy, and prone to splitting as an adult.
  • Marianna’s Peace
    Large pink tomato. Dependable producer of one to two pound tomatoes with good, balanced flavor. Potato leaf foliage is less finely cut that typical tomato foliage. One of a class of excellent German pink tomatoes that deserve a spot in your garden.
  • Black Cherry
    Purple cherry tomato. Dark like the Cherokee Purple, in a typical cherry tomato size, with an added fruity zing. Unlike any tomato I’ve tried, and very addictive.
  • Gardener’s PeachGardener's Peach Tomato

    Small fuzzy pale yellow tomato. Known by various “Peach” names, this tomato has a fuzzy feel to it that is hardly noticeable when you actually eat it. These extremely juicy tomatoes are typically a bit larger than a golf ball and are some of my children’s favorites. Very productive throughout the season.

  • Azoychka – Sold Out!
    Medium yellow tomato. Ripens earlier than most, with a unique flavor described variously as mild or citrusy. A good slicer or salad variety.
  • Chadwick Cherry
    Red cherry tomato. Typical to large cherry size on vigorous, productive vines. The tomato isn’t as sweet as many of the common modern cherry tomatoes, but it has a very robust large tomato flavor that’s hard to find in such a small package these days.
  • White Queen
    White medium tomato. Yes, it’s really white, though it develops a yellow blush on the skin which helps determine ripeness. Makes a great pale tomato sauce and contrasts nicely when cut up with other varieties. This variety was selected for it’s stronger flavor relative to other white types.
  • Giant Green
    Ripe Green Tomatoes
    Ripe Green Tomatoes

    Large green tomato. A meaty beefsteak variety which stays green even when ripe. Like White Queen, it develops a yellow, even amber blush, especially on the blossom side, when it is ripe. Excellent flavor, one of my favorites. Also has potato leaf foliage.

  • Opalka
    Long red paste tomato. Looking like an elongated roma, almost pepper shaped, this variety has a stronger flavor than typical paste varieties.
  • Cherokee Purple
    Medium purple tomato. Darker than a typical red tomato, both in the skin and the flesh, this celebrated variety has an added flavor component that is ofter described as smoky or dark. Recommended.
  • Aunt Gertie’s Gold
    Large yellow tomato. One of the best yellow tomatoes available, with full flavor and texture. Potato leaf foliage.
  • Sungold (Hybrid)
    Sungold (Hybrid)
    Sungold (Hybrid)

    Orange cherry tomato. The only hybrid tomato variety I grow, Sungold is very sweet and very flavorful. Consistently a favorite of everyone I share it with.

  • Traveler
    Medium pink tomato. Also known as Arkansas Traveler, this round medium tomato is known for its performance in hot, sunny weather.
  • Sioux
    Medium red tomato. A beautiful round red tomato which continued to produce tomatoes for me through the heat of the summer last year, when all of the other large varieties took a break from setting fruit.
  • Brandywine OTV – Sold Out!
    Large red tomato. A descendant of the famous Brandywine lineage, this tomato is more productive and better suited to the heat than the others. Brandywines are renowned for their flavor.

Finishing the tomato plants

Hardening off tomato plants
Hardening off tomato plants

For the last week I’ve been moving plants out during the day and back into the greenhouse at night.  With a solid forecast of high nighttime temperatures I left 20 flats of tomatoes on the benches outside tonight, likely never to return to the greenhouse unless the weather turns nasty.  Another five will probably be moved out later this week.  Besides the flats that I’ve already sold off, that leaves 40 or so in the greenhouse for the next wave.  Each year I aim to have:

  • An early selection available in mid April for the people who just can’t wait to get them
  • The bulk of the tomatoes ready at the end of April for the last frost date
  • A set of stragglers for those who procrastinate, kill off their first plants, or come back for more.

It looks like I’m on track this year so far.  A warm spring has made it easy to keep things in the greenhouse happy and growing, allowing me to keep the temperatures in my target zones of 45-55F nights and 80-90F days.

Time to get tagging all of the tomatoes, take an updated inventory (I expect a 10% loss from germination to full-size maturity, but I’ve always come out well ahead of that) and start producing signage and explanatory material.  Also, I’m back to obsessive weather watching.

Tomato transplanting

tomato seedlings closeupTomatoes germinate for me in 2-10 days, depending on the temperature and freshness of the seed.  It is imperative that they get under lights immediately after they hatch or the stems will quickly become very long.  I use metal halide lamps with a daylight (blue) spectrum, which lets me cover a large area without needing the plants right up against the lamp, and additionally provides heat.  I’ve had better results moving the seedlings outside from metal halide illumination than from flourescent as well.

I usually wait to transplant until I can see the beginning of the second set of leaves.  This generally happens at four weeks from the time of sowing, but really it varies with the variety of tomato and type of leaves as well.  I can get away with this anywhere from 2-6 weeks, after which the seedlings start to deteriorate.

Tomato TransplantsI flood the trays with water about one hour before transplanting which loosens the soil and makes the seedlings easy to pull out.  They are planted in 1801 deep flats and buried as deep as possible without covering the leaves.  I use Promix BX for this, which has given me the best results of anything I’ve tried.  I can hand transplant about one tray every 5 minutes, which still adds up to 12 hours of work for the 72 flats I did this year.

Currently I don’t fertilize, spray or use any chemicals at all on the tomato starts while they’re in the greenhouse.  The inserts and soil are new and reasonably sterile and I’ve never had issues with tomato fungal infections in the six years I’ve been growing large numbers of seedlings at my present location.  I’ve thought about using an organic fertilizer, but really I don’t know what I would want to gain from it.  My plants are strong, vigorous and sturdy at the time they’re ready for sale.

Tomato seed sowing

Tomato seed flatsSeed sowing for me starts in January.  At the beginning of January I sow the the Tiny Tims and other very dwarf varieties.  Tiny Tim can produce hundreds of tomatoes throughout the season on a bush as small as a foot high and as wide.  By giving it an extra month, it will be almost as big as the other tomatoes when I’m ready to sell them, but be much more mature, producing tomatoes already in their little pots.

The next batch of seeds starts in the second week of February.  Most of my staples (those that I’m producing  72–four flats–or more of) are started at this time.  The last set of tomatoes is started by the beginning of March, and these are my new, novelty, and trial varieties, which I mostly grow for myself.  I aim to have tomato plants ready to sell by the middle of April, but I recommend that people wait until April 30th, our last frost date, to plant.  Last year there was a hard frost at the end of April and many people lost their new veggie gardens.  My own plants will not go out into the garden until May for this reason.

Seeds are started in small containers, 5″ x 5″, with up to 200 seeds each.  These are covered until sprouts appear, and then placed under lights.  This year I used disposable plastic containers because they’re cheap, easily sterilized in the dishwasher, have tight lids and fit nicely (4×2) into my 1020 nursery flats.