Two very different articles about tomatoes caught my eye this week. One highlighted the 80+ varieties of tomatoes grown at Vikentomater in southern Sweden. The other was an excerpt from the new book “Tomatoland” that discussed indestructible bouncing green tomatoes on the side of a Florida highway. Sadly, most consumers at supermarkets in the US are only exposed to the latter.
Having always had access to fresh tomatoes – the summer after I moved out of my parents’ house for college, leaving them empty nesters, my mother planted 24 tomato plants, just because – I know the difference between a mealy, barely red, flavor-deprived tomato and a fresh ripe one right off the vine that bursts open on your tongue. There’s no contest. But I wondered how many types of tomatoes consumers actually have access to in a store, versus what they can get if they grow them on their own?
Surreptitiously checking out a nameless Big Box High End Organic Hipster Grocery Store after work today, I found lots of tomatoes, the majority red. There were two boxes of mixed heirloom tomatoes, some orange cherry tomatoes, and red grape, red roma, red ‘salad’ (beefsteak, I presume), and two different types of red, beefsteak-ish tomatoes on the vine. So at the Grocery Store that Tries Too Hard, there were seven varieties (and I’m being generous). Had I visited the standard grocery store, I suspect there would be a smaller variety. Prices ranged from $1.99/lb for the romas to $5.99/lb for the heirlooms.
In contrast, I have eleven intentional tomato plants in a raised bed in my backyard, and two stragglers who reseeded themselves from a stray tomato from last summer. A neighbor and I bought most of the tomato seedlings from Cross Country Nurseries, a small nursery in a neighboring state who use organic fertilizers and natural pest control. Out of the 130 varieties they offered, I randomly picked seven, mainly because of their names (who can pass up an Old German tomato? I know I can’t). We tend to like smaller tomatoes for garnish and for Caprese salads, so many of these are cherry or grape tomatoes:
- Early Wonder
- Grape (2)
- Mexico Midget (2)
- Old German
- Red Pear (2)
- Sun Gold
Along with my two indeterminate plants and one seedling from Grow Pittsburgh’s stand at May Market which I couldn’t resist (Dad’s Sunset, I think), I’ll have nine or ten different types of tomatoes in my backyard for about $50 in plant purchases. To break even, these plants will have to produce somewhere between 10 and 20 lbs of maters over the season. And they’ll come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, in contrast to the homogenous ones at the store.
Tomatoes are easy plants to grow – grab a cage, a piece of bamboo (6 for under $3 at your local garden center), or a random long skinny stick to tie it to, sunlight, some water, and you’re all set. You can enjoy the variety of non-industrial, non-indestructible, non-boring tomatoes all summer long.