Last month the USDA unveiled its newly-revised Plant Hardiness Zone map. Those of us who have been recently seen, for example, chopping metric tons of biomass off of our fig trees every spring instead of packing them with straw to keep them from dying back to the ground during arctic winter blasts, were not particularly surprised to find ourselves now categorized in a warmer zone. My zone 7 garden is now 8, or has been, I suppose, for some time now. After all, up until a few days ago I still had tomatoes flowering out there.
I enjoy planting the indeterminate heirloom varieties of tomatoes. Heirloom vines tend to sprawl in a less than elegant manner, taking up relatively large quantities of real estate and requiring a lot more support than the determinate, hybrid types that produce a certain number of tomatoes then die. The advantages to the heirlooms are the long growing season combined with a superior flavor. More tomatoes are always a good thing, and more tomatoes that are out of this world delicious is even better. Circling back to the zone changes, however, it would seem that in the future, I’m not going to have the luck I’ve encountered previously with certain cultivars. A few of the heirloom vines survived the extreme heat and lack of rainfall, and others withered having produced only a few fruit.
This year’s winner in the large, heirloom category was the German Johnson tomato. More seeds came up than any of the other varieties I planted, and the plants simply thrived on my exceptional combination of meticulous planting followed by benign neglect. I have never had one of these plants reach maturity in the past, and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the tomatoes. The flavor was rich and they have interiors that are more in line with what one might expect from a paste tomato than a beefsteak. There were few seeds, and a lot of flesh. A kitchen workhorse. Just gorgeous.
The Hillbillies and Brandywines get a C minus this year, as I am feeling generous. A few, small tomatoes have been harvested, but the vines didn’t get into their happy place until this fall, with the tomatoes beginning to ripen just in time for frost. Into the bin of seeds I will offer to others who want to give them a go will be the Black Krim (above), every one of which split, no matter the weather conditions. The Russian Purple (right), which is, apparently, Ukrainian, didn’t do well either, producing a few tomatoes after which the vines died from a wilt of some sort. The Master Gardeners would tell me that I should wait three years before planting tomatoes where the diseased vines grew. The Master Gardeners must have more gardening space than I do.
I had volunteer plants of Coyote and Matt’s Wild cherry tomatoes that I tied to supports early in the season, not knowing what they might turn out to be. These are two solid cultivars, but nothing in comparison to the Sunrise Bumblebee plant that cranked out kilos of beautiful little tomatoes and was still fruiting when the first freeze arrived. Plant breeders are making some of the new cultivars resistant to all sorts of pathogens that seem to have really taken hold with all the changing climate and weather conditions, and if the flavor holds up, I’m happy to give them a try. It is a hybrid, so I don’t believe I can save the seeds and have the same type of tomato next season (there are conflicting reports online), but I will definitely plant this one again. It is fantastic.
I will spend some time this winter looking through catalogs and other publications to see what may be better choices for the coming seasons, and I will keep resistance to diseases in mind. It is an odd feeling, heading back to read through the literature when I’ve been gardening in one place for fifteen years, but there it is. The climate, it is a-changing.