Monday, March 11, 2013

Hybrids - the Mutts of the Tomato World

I planted tomato seeds today. This was, in fact, not at all what I planned to do. Not today, not this winter, not even this year. The biggest reason I was surprised to find myself planting the tomato seeds is because we were in Mexico yesterday. And I have to go to work tomorrow. And, well, with only one day to sulk in the weak New York sunshine before heading back to a day of good, bad, and ugly work emails, I figured that I would remain on my back in bed, that my biggest achievement would be going to the store to get milk so that I could make myself a single cup of coffee. And yet, while I stood at the back door in my pajamas, watching Camper sniff around the yard, I noticed that the snow crocuses were opened up and bathing in the sun in a small patch, right next to a pile of dog poop and an upside down Adirondack chair that we hadn't righted since the hurricane last October. And something in me, not quite as lavender and perky as the snow crocuses, but not as beat down as that Adirondack chair, wanted to make things right. To move forward, to do better. I don't think this had a thing to do with Mexico and a week of relaxing. I don't think it had a thing to do with the nonstop pico de gallo that we shoveled into our mouths on tortilla chips, or my ravenous urge to grow my own tomatoes to go in said pico. I think it had to do more with the fact that the first day of daylight savings saves my soul each year, and that I cannot imagine a year going by where I do not plant tomatoes. Win lose or fail, I love my damn vegetable garden. To not try try again, that just wouldn't be me.

I should probably back up a minute and explain my failures. For the last two years, our tomatoes have sucked. On the brink of ripened victory, the leaves have turned yellow, always starting at the bottom, and then a wave of brown works its way up, as though many sets of strong, weathered hands are strangling the neck of the main stem, leaving the branches and leaves lifeless and bone dry. It's depressing as all get out to watch. After some research two years ago, I came to the conclusion that we had some sort of fungus, most likely verticillium wilt, which can live in the soil for years and years. Last year I thought I would outsmart it and resorted to using wooden baskets from the grocery store to make a container garden, but the plants stayed leggy and weak, the stems never turning that ugly shade of dark green that signifies robust health in tomato pallor. They grew and they fizzled, nothing at all like the first year that we grew tomatoes in our yard. That year we hauled out one heirloom monster after another. I literally wrestled the bushes, emerging from between two plants smelling like I'd been having a steamy affair with a tomato leaf. My skin turned green as I roped up the trellises, and I loved every second of it. That, in itself, might be the problem. I know how good it can be when the tomato season is working.

After last year's fancy pants heirloom tomato crop failed, I decided I would just sit this year out. There's just not much you can do when the one section of your yard that gets proper sunlight is doomed with a killer fungus. But actually, there is something you can do. If you're the right mix of desperate and determined and you're willing to walk away from the heirlooms, you can always grow a hybrid tomato.

For the last several years I've avoided the hybrids in the seed catalog. They sound sinister and manufactured, and they often have meatier names (like Big Beef or Supersteak) instead of my loftier, fantastical heirloom names (like Black Krim or Big Rainbow). But as it turns out, these hybrids were produced for people just like me--people who can't grow a regular old heirloom tomato because of their growing conditions--or, I suppose, people who just want a safe bet. Hybrids are not, however, the product of a sterile laboratory. The main difference between heirlooms and hybrids is that heirlooms are strains that have been reproduced for generations without cross-breeding, while hybrids are a cross between two or more different varieties that are bred to take on the positive traits of the parent plants. Heirlooms are generally appreciated for a particular quality--striking color, a particularly sweet taste or meaty flesh--but much like a purebred dog, they are also a bit more fragile. If the conditions aren't quite right--not enough or too much water, a disease in the soil--they'll flop just like a shih tzu after eating a chocolate bar. The hybrids, however, are the mutts of the tomato world. They may not be as spectacularly cute and tasty, but they're tougher, more resistant to conditions, and if they happened to eat a chocolate bar, they might have a tummy ache, but it's not a big deal.

So today, I set out in search of seed packets with the word "hybrid" plastered across the front. I also looked for the codes on the packet that tell you which disease this seed is resistant to (check out this web site for more awesome info about how to identify plant diseases and all of that):
V Verticillium Wilt
F Fusarium Wilt
FF Fusarium, races 1 and 2
FFF Fusarium, races 1, 2, and 3
N Nematodes
A Alternaria
T Tobacco Mosaic Virus
St Stemphylium (Gray Leaf Spot)
TSWV Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus
In addition to going the hybrid route, I've decided I'm doing things a little different this year. Rather than filling up my individual plastic cups with dirt and planting seeds like I've done in the past, I grabbed a takeout container and poked holes in the bottom, filling it up with about an inch of dirt. I wetted the soil and dropped my seeds half an inch apart, and then I covered them all with a sprinkling of dry dirt and pressed them into place. A little straw marks each seed type, and plastic wrap keeps them cozy. They're currently on top of the furnace by my bed, but in about ten days when they germinate, I will place them under fluorescent light bulbs in the kitchen like a true gardening psychopath. This, supposedly, is where the magic happens. Where the plants become burly and thick and bushy and get that true ugly green that I'm looking for. There will be transplanting, and there will be more manufactured sunshine. And then, hopefully, many steps down the road, there will also be tomatoes. Uniform and sweet, red and unadorned, and God- (and fungus-) willing, plentiful. 


  1. But why, beautiful Liana, would you not consider purchasing tomato PLANTS to give yourselves a head start?
    We have killed many a tomato plant at my house but have had success by starting with plants and not seeds.
    Just a thought.

    1. Oh blackbird, I'm afraid that I'm a silly obsessed nature girl who can't get over the childlike fascination of watching a seed slowly turn into a plant. No joke, it's sort of my favorite part of gardening. Even though I KNOW I would do much better with purchased plants. Le sigh!

  2. Hi Liana! I admire your persistence. I tried tomato seeds once and the seedlings were so weak, I've always been too scared to try again. Good luck to your seeds!

    1. Thanks, Natalie! I need all the luck I can get!! :)

  3. Good luck, Liana!!! I hope to benefit from your tomato haul this summer :)

  4. Ah, Liana, it was your winter gardening posts that inspired me to get my own garden going last year. One large zucchini, 2 1/2 pattypans (the lawn mower got half of one, so sad), 2 pie pumpkins and a handful of cherry tomatoes under the belt*, and I figure I'm ready for the big time. You should see my spreadsheet for this year. The only reason I think I can handle 104** different varieties of vegs (besides being slightly insane) is because I just learned about Winter Sowing. Check it out! And good luck to you!

    *yes, that really was the extent of my harvest
    **no I'm not kidding

    1. Maureen, as always, you are a kindred spirit in handmade endeavors. I am so pleased that my post inspired you to start a garden last year! And that you are completely addicted, hook line and sinker, even though your yield was a bit meh! 104 different varieties, girl...I am blown away. But you know what? With all those varieties, something is bound to work. You'll probably wind up with like 1 watermelon and 3000 turnips, but whatever! It's so fun! OK, off to investigate Winter Sowing now...good luck to you, too!!

  5. There are no pictures of Mexico in this post.

    (And yes, OF COURSE you're trying again. Hahahaha good luck!)