TOMATO TIME // the local food report

Andrew Spollett is in charge of sixteen acres of tomatoes. Sixteen! I am responsible for ten plants. He's the vegetable production manager at Bartlett's Farm on Nantucket, a farm famous for his tomatoes. So when I visited the island a few weeks ago, I decided to ask him about all things tomato—what varieties he likes, where to plant them, and how to take care of them once they're in the ground. Here's what I learned.

For varieties, in general he likes heirlooms. He says they tend to be juicier, prettier, and in general more flavorful than hybrids, which are often bred for vigor, blight resistance, producing a lot of fruit, and long shelf life. These are all good qualities, but when it comes down to it, he picks beauty and flavor. (For a full discussion of the differences between heirlooms and hybrids, check out this article.) His favorite varieties are Cherokee Green and Cherokee purple, both with low acidity and a smoky flavor; Brandywine, a slicing variety that yields huge pink fruits; Sweet Orange Cherry (the name pretty much says it all!); and Celebrity, a hybrid with excellent disease resistance that Andrew says is perfect for stewing and canning.

For obvious reasons, Andrew likes to keep careful track of what varieties do well and which plants are in which fields. But he says this is also what makes gardening interesting for him. He tracks which varieties perform the best, what the flavor is like, how much fruit he gets from them, and which ones have problems with diseases or pests. He says even in a home garden, this kind of record keeping can tell you a lot. (According to my records, at least the photographic ones, Sun Gold Cherry tomatoes are consistent winners in our house. They produce a lot, and are clearly appreciated by consumers big and small.)

Finally, he has some planting tips. Tomatoes like full sun, so a nice sunny spot is important. They also like to get some fertilizer when they go in the ground—compost or a fish emulsion are both nice. You want to stake them—good, high cages are best to support clusters of fruit. (I have yet to spring for these, but one of these years I am going to either buy or build a 6 foot cage. The 3-4 foot ones simply aren't high enough!) And finally, he says you really don't want to water tomatoes from above. Getting the leaves wet is a good way to encourage fungus and blight, and it's only the roots that need the water. The best system is some sort of drip irrigation or soaker hoses, but if all you have is a sprinkler, he says just water in the morning instead of at night so the sunlight dries off the leaves over the course of the day.

Now's the time to plant—soil temperatures on the Cape are averaging about 65 degrees, which is well above the 55 degree minimum that tomatoes like. If you didn't start your own plants, I've seen tons at local farmers' markets and nursery centers, so it's not too late! And just think: only two months til the first fruits are ready for harvest.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.