Seed Sowing: Strategies for the Winter-Weary Gardener, Part 1

Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)
Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

by Cyndy Crist

Now that February has arrived and the hours of daylight are lengthening, many gardeners I know are becoming restless to dig in the dirt and nurture green and growing things.  I am definitely no exception, and a growing array of potted primroses, forced spring bulbs, and flowers emerging from begonias being overwintered inside can’t quite scratch my gardening itch. So I’ve decided to try my hand at several winter seed sowing and growing projects.

I’m going to start with three variations of fairly typical indoor seeding projects and will soon start a fourth, an outdoor approach to winter seed starting that I learned about at a Master Gardener meeting recently.  I’ll describe today how I’m getting started on the indoor projects and will report in later on the outdoor project and the outcomes of all four efforts.

Indoor Seed Sowing Projects:

Oregano pot (by Cyndy Crist)
Oregano pot (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 1:  I have undertaken three small, indoor projects, all very easy and straightforward but each just a little different from the others.  I’ll be interested to see how the results compare. One is a darling little organic oregano growing kit given to me by my sister-in-law for Christmas. It includes soil, seeds, and a bamboo pot.  It’s pretty ingenious, even including three little feet to stick on the bottom of the pot to ensure good drainage and a lid that doubles as a plant tray.  The packaging was so great that it has been cute sitting on a shelf, but since the whole point is to grow some oregano, I resolved to do just that.  The pot has now been filled with soil, the seeds scattered on the surface and then topped with a little more soil, everything gently watered in, and a little plastic wrap settled across the top to create a mini-greenhouse. Now it’s safely ensconced on a shelf out of direct sun per package directions. Once the seeds sprout, I’ll remove the plastic, move the pot to a sunnier spot, continue watering, and wait to harvest my tasty herbs.

Parsley paper (by Cyndy Crist)
Parsley paper (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 2:  The second project comes courtesy of a recent find in the sale room at my neighborhood Anthropologie store.  The package includes organic parsley seeds embedded in a piece of paper accompanied by a plant stake made from an old teaspoon.  Part of the attraction for me, frankly, was the spoon stake that can be reused in my herb garden; I’ve also long been curious about this “seeds in paper” approach to growing, so this was my chance to check it out. Following directions on the card, I prepared a pot with soil, tore off pieces of the paper (looking for concentrations of seeds), laid them on the soil, covered them with a little more soil, and carefully watered them all in.  The stake is now in the pot, which is in a sunny space in my sunroom.  I only used a portion of the paper provided, so if I don’t give this first planting what it needs to grow, I can try again, either inside or outside.


Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)
Sown seed in the sunroom (by Cyndy Crist)

Project 3:  The third project was inspired by an article in the January 2013 issue of Martha Stewart Living. This one required me to assemble my own potting soil, container, and seeds.  Following the idea in the article, I retrieved a plastic container and lid from my recycling bin (a decent-sized box that had contained romaine leaves) and made small drainage holes in the bottom with an X-acto knife.  Next, I filled the container with potting mix and sprinkled a mix of lettuce seeds on top of the soil.  Per directions on the seed packet, I added about another ¼ inch of soil on top of the seeds and gentled watered them in.  The lid is now serving as a plant tray and the container is in one of the sunniest spots in my sunroom.  If all goes well, I’ll be able to harvest my own microgreens in the weeks ahead, either by gently pulling out small clumps of greens or by cutting them carefully.

Tips to remember about Seed Sowing & Growing:

  1. I know that two of the most important things about indoor seed starting are ensuring that the seedlings get enough sunlight and providing enough, but not too much, moisture.  I think all three containers are small enough that I can keep them in places that get sufficient light in or very near a window in my south-facing sunroom, but I know I will need to pay close attention to them to be sure they’re getting enough light on a consistent basis to grow well.  Today was a beautifully sunny day, so things are off to a good start, but I know I can’t count on the same level of brightness every day.
  2. Perhaps even more importantly, I’m going to need to be careful about watering.  Drying out is deadly to tender little seedlings, but it’s also easy to overwater them and kill seedlings with kindness.  A deluge of water can dislodge tiny root systems before they’re strong enough to hold emerging plants in place.  Sitting water can cause dampening off and other forms of mold that are fatal to any plants, but especially to little baby ones.
  3. Humidity is also helpful to seedlings as they’re sprouting, so keeping a plant tray filled with water should be helpful.


Seeds and potting soil (by Cyndy Crist)
Seeds and potting soil (by Cyndy Crist)

I know what my little green babies will need, but I’ve learned the hard way that knowledge and good intentions don’t always carry the day.  If I manage to maintain enough focus to guide them along into stages of maturity that will enable me to harvest and enjoy them, I’ll be a happy gardener.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Italian Pasta Recipe Highlighting Smoked Tomatoes: Puttanesca

Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese
Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese

Every time I open the freezer door I see the beautiful heirloom tomatoes that I smoked and then froze last year, just waiting for the perfect dish.  Smoked tomatoes have an intense aroma and flavor, and I wanted to use these in a dish that would be bold enough to hold up to their unique flavor.

For all things Italian my first inclination is to go to Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s recipes, so I went back to one of her earlier cookbooks that focused on Italy’s Farmhouse Kitchens, The Italian Country Table.  A recipe for a vibrant, spicy “streetwalkers pasta” sounded like a good starting place for something bold, except I did want a cooked dish for dinner rather than raw.  No problem.  Using Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s “Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese” as a starting point, it was easy to adapt it to my dinner needs.

Turned out wonderful!  The intense smokiness of the tomatoes, the salty umami from anchovy fillets, black olives, and Romano cheese,  and the bitter crunch of endive.  Hard to go wrong with those ingredients.  It did my smoked heirloom tomatoes proud.

Now, this summer the key is to use my new smoker of last year and smoke more!  More smoked tomatoes, more smoked chipotle, and more smoked salt!  Summer is around the corner…can you feel it?

Pasta Puttanesca with Smoked Tomatoes

(adapted from Lynne Rosotto Kasper’s, The Italian Country Table)

Smoked heirloom tomatoes from the freezer
Smoked heirloom tomatoes from the freezer


  • 2 Tbsp oil, grapeseed or olive oil preferred
  • 1 tightly packed Tbsp fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tightly packed tsp each fresh marjoram and Italian parsley leaves
  • 3-5 cloves garlic
  • generous pinch of hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 medium onion (about 1 cup)
  • about 3 lbs smoked tomatoes, thawed if frozen
  • 2 oil-packed anchovy fillets, rinsed & quartered
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted & coarsely chopped
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lb. pasta, I used penne, she suggested orecchiette pasta
  • 1/2 cup Romano,  Parmigiano Reggiano, or Pecorino cheese, grated
  • 1/2 tightly packed cup curly endive leaves, coarsely chopped


  1. With a sharp knife, mince together the herbs, garlic, and hot pepper with the coarse salt and set aside.
  2. In a medium to large pot heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onion and saute until soft and lightly caramelized, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic-herb mix and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the remaining 5 ingredients through the pepper and simmer until the sauce is thickened and slightly reduced (about 15 minutes).  This can simmer while the pasta is cooking.
  3. Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling water, stirring often, until there is no raw flour taste (about 7-10 minutes for penne).   Drain into a colander
  4. Put the pasta pot back over medium heat.  Spoon most of the sauce into the pot (you do not need to use all of the sauce, just cover the pasta with as much sauce as you like and stir).  Cook a few minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed.
  5. Taste for seasoning, toss with a little chopped endive and grated cheese and serve.  Place small bowls of extra sauce, extra endive, and extra cheese to pass around for individual tastes.

This was the first time I had heard of Puttanesca.  Do you have a version that is similar?  I see Mark Bittman includes a version in his How to Cook Everything book, but it does not include anchovies or bitter greens.  I’d love to hear from you!


Dinner plate of Puttanesca with smoked tomatoes
Dinner plate of Puttanesca with smoked tomatoes

Gifts for the Gardener, Part Two: Tools and Other Goodies

By Cyndy Crist

Garden stakes (Cyndy Crist)
Garden stakes (Cyndy Crist)

Because I’m a gardener who loves tools and gadgets and all kinds of garden-themed items, I never have trouble selecting gifts for the gardener.  But I can imagine that someone who primarily enjoys looking at the results of another gardeners work, rather than engaging directly in it himself or herself, might be at a bit of a loss when it comes time to select a present.  To provide a little assistance in completing that task, here are some of my suggestions for gifts that I think will be used and enjoyed by a friend or family member who likes to dig in the dirt.

Watering Cans

Variety of Watering Cans (Cyndy Crist)
Variety of Watering Cans (Cyndy Crist)

Anyone who gardens, inside or out, needs to provide plants, at least occasionally, with the water that Mother Nature can’t or won’t give them.  That makes watering cans something that every gardener can use. Happily, they come in a wide array of sizes, shapes, colors, styles, and materials, which means that they can be found at just about any price that fits the giver’s budget. For example, one of my favorites is an inexpensive green plastic vessel that I found at Target for less than $10, while another is a pricier copper container shaped like a beehive (sadly, this one is in need of repair, having sprung a small leak in the base, so it’s currently serving a decorative purpose only).

Before making a selection, in addition to the aesthetics of color, shape, and design, you’ll want to think about at least two practical things:
How much water the can holds. For example, very large ones, when filled, can be quite heavy to carry, which may make them difficult to use for houseplants set on shelves or tables, but excellent for large outdoor beds.
How the water will flow from the can. Some watering cans come with a detachable or permanent “rose” that distributes water over a wide expanse, while others have a single spout. I find watering cans with roses difficult to use with potted plants but great for watering newly seeded garden beds or small seedlings that need a gentle watering.
In short – consider both form and function when choosing a watering can.

Plant Markers

Garden stakes (Cyndy Crist)
Garden stakes (Cyndy Crist)

For gardeners who want to be sure they remember the names of plants, keep track of which seeds were planted in which bed, or inform garden visitors about what is growing in the garden, plant markers can be very useful.  These, too, can be simple or ornamental.  One of my favorites, and an easy and inexpensive DIY project, is rocks on which plant names are written with permanent markers.  These fit naturally into a garden design and can be easily repositioned as plants grow or are replaced.  Other options include copper, plastic, slate or ceramic markers in an array of styles.  I’ve also seen some fun “upcycled” markers made from vintage pieces of flatware (with the proper tools, these, too, could be a homemade option). I like to combine several small items into a single gift, so suggest you combine something like a book about botanical plant names with a set of markers.

Garden Tools

Gardening Gloves & Pruners (Cyndy Crist)
Gardening Gloves & Pruners (Cyndy Crist)

Even a gardener with an array of tools on hand will likely appreciate the gift of a new one.  This might be a tool to replace one that has become bent or rusty; a tool that will add a new size or design to the tool basket (e.g., a trowel with an angled, ergonomically appropriate handle); or a beautifully hand-made tool just a bit beyond the price range that generally guides the gardener’s own purchases.  An example of the latter might be a beautifully handcrafted English gardening trowel with a wooden handle, a fine Felco pruner, or a well shaped Japanese weeding tool.  Here, too, it can be fun to combine a tool with another garden-related item, like a weeding basket, a garden tool belt in which to carry the new implement, or a colorful pair of gloves.

Gardening Apparel

It seems just about every hobby has its own options for specialized clothing. For gardeners, this includes footwear, gloves, and hats.  My favorite footwear for the garden is Crocs, including the traditional clog style and sandals (I have one pair of each and like them equally well).  They’re comfortable, inexpensive, nearly indestructible, come in a wide array of fun colors, and can simply be hosed off when they get dirty.  Then there are the iconic “Wellies” and various knock-offs, some covered in lively floral prints, for those who muck about in more mud and mess than I do.  The key is footwear that keeps feet dry and protected from whatever might be underfoot in a garden and can be easily cleaned after a muddy day in the garden.

Gloves come in a number of materials and designs, from very simple to more “fashion forward.”  I generally prefer to garden with my bare hands so that I can really feel what I’m doing, so I’m not the best guide here, but I know a number of gardeners who swear by the gloves made by Woman’s Work.  Gardeners who specialize in roses will appreciate gloves made especially to resist prickly thorns; rose gloves also often are made to extend further up the arm.  There are also rubberized gloves to keep a gardener’s hands dry and gloves made of breathable materials to keep hands cool. Since the fit, feel, and use of gloves is highly variable, I recommend including a gift receipt with a gift of gloves for easy exchanges if needed.

As for hats, choices should be guided by the style of the gardener receiving the gift, but keep in mind that keeping the sun off a busy gardener’s face is generally the most important purpose for a garden hat.  Netting to protect the gardener’s face and neck from insects can be useful, especially in areas with heavy mosquito infestations or at times when black flies are especially pesky, or for those who are allergic to insect stings or bites. Finally, a breathable material that helps keep the head cool will undoubtedly be appreciated for use under full mid-day sun.

Don’t Forget Gift Cards

I used to think that giving cash or gift cards was a cop-out for a giver lacking the imagination or commitment to select a good gift, but I gave up that notion some time ago.  Frankly, I suspect we’ve all gotten enough gifts that have sat unused for years to help us recognize the value of letting the recipient select something that he or she really likes, needs, or wants.  Besides, they can be lots of fun for the recipient.  I remember a year when I received several gifts cards and spent a very enjoyable day after the holidays shopping at no cost to myself, a fact that was greatly appreciated since the bills for my own gift purchases had begun arriving.

For a gardener, a gift card or gift certificate from a nearby nursery will never go unused.   Many gift shops and bookstores also have merchandise to offer the inquisitive and curious gardener. The gift of a purchase from a seed company or other mail order or on-line source of seeds, plants, and gardening paraphernalia can open up options for choices by the recipient. Finally, the gift of a membership to a local arboretum or conservatory will offer the potential for many hours of learning, inspiration, and vicarious pleasure.

Gift giving can be something of an art, but with a little thought to the recipient’s tastes and interests, it needn’t be difficult, especially for gardeners who seem always to be looking for something new to try.  So don’t be afraid – get shopping!

Herb Rocks (Cyndy Crist)
Herb Rocks (Cyndy Crist)

Heirloom Tomato Varieties: Roundup & Summary

"Black" heirloom tomato varities - 2012
“Black” heirloom tomato varieties – 2012

The seed catalogs are arriving in the mail now and seeing those luscious cover photos always spur that special kind of hope for the new year’s growing season.  Hope that “this” year will be the year that all of my heirloom tomato varieties and the farm in general will be perfect.  I will stay on top of the weeds.  I will make sure trellising is done on time.  I will learn from the past year’s mistakes and grow perfect tomatoes this year!

Before opening those enticing seed catalogs with the beautiful photos, it is a good (actually great) idea to take stock of which heirloom tomato varieties performed well for you last year.  Memories always seem to lean toward the extremes (it was a horrible variety that didn’t produce anything worth eating, or it was the best tasting, most prolific variety I’ve ever grown).  In an attempt to reach the holy grail in 2013 for each class of heirloom tomatoes, I have tried to document the varieties I grew in 2012, rather than rely on my memory and my usual sketchy notes.  Here is a summary of how they fared for me in Forest Lake, Minnesota, in hopes that it may help you as you dream-read those seed catalogs in January.

I’ve arranged the summary according to color profiles, as I have found the flavor to be more similar within a particular color of heirloom tomato than across different colors (this is a generalization only).  My focus is on flavor, but I do try to address yield, earliness, disease resistance, etc. to the extent that I can in a blog post.  For a more complete summary of growing attributes,  see Heirloom Tomato Summary Charts.  For my favorite catalogs for ordering heirloom tomato seeds, see Top 5 Seed Catalogs for Heirloom Tomatoes post.

Orange Heirloom Tomato Varieties:

Orange Heirloom Tomato Varities - 2012
Orange Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

In general, the orange heirloom tomatoes tend to be sweet (much sweeter than yellow low-acid tomatoes).  They often have a slight tropical, spicy flavor.  This sweet, fruity flavor is why Sun Gold cherry tomatoes are so popular.  From largest to smallest of the orange heirlooms:

Persimmon Orange – I have always grown Persimmon, primarily because I have a taste memory of a Persimmon grown in 1999 as the best tomato I had ever tasted.  It has never lived up to that intense flavor in subsequent years, but it is always reliably good.  Attributes include:  large, relatively late season, meaty, sweet to very sweet, disease resistant, good yields for a large tomato.  Always a staple orange tomato for me.

Kellogs – I alternate between Kellogs and Nebraska Wedding and cannot tell the difference between them in most years.  Attributes:  reliable, blemish free, main-season, sweet – but less intensely fruity than Persimmon,  medium size, long season yields.

Juane Flammee – this one is beautiful (orange with a red interior).  The flavor has ranged from excellent & intense to good & sweet.  I have bought this seed from different companies and sometimes that can make the difference in flavor, and sometimes it is a function of growing season nuances.  It is small, but prolific, and always delivers on taste.  It is prone to blossom end rot if grown in pots or given inconsistent watering.

Gold Medal – I have been trialing many of the large, bi-colored tomatoes, including Pineapple, Big Rainbow, Hillbilly, and Old German.  Gold Medal is similar to these other bi-colors in that it is a) beautiful, b) very sweet & flavorable, c) large and relatively late season.  It stood out from the other bi-colors in that it seemed less prone to cracking, and a higher yield.  I need to give it a few more years for a consistent comparison.  I will also try Hillbilly, Pineapple and Big Rainbow again in 2013 (no photos available), and will add Annas Noire (Black Pineapple) and Virginia Railroad.  Virginia Railroad is a rare seed given to me by a friend who got them years ago from an Iowa Seed Savers member.  I tasted them in 2012 and they were truly wonderful.  They are said to set fruit early and get very large, some as big as two pounds, but also producing many regular looking fruits.

Yellow Heirloom Varieties:

Yellow Heirloom Tomato Varieties
Yellow Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

People generally think of yellow tomatoes as low-acid and mild, which many of them are.  Some, however are quite tangy with a slight citrus flavor and are in no way mild.  Hughs, Manyel and Great White lean toward the mild sweet side, with Limmony tending to be tangy with higher acid.

Hughs – I have grown this heirloom for several years now, due to the literature recommending it for its superior flavor.  I will probably not grow this variety again, as I have found the plants to be fragile and susceptible to more disease, the flavor to be inconsistent, and the yield to be poor.  I am sure some people love this tomato, but it has not fared well in the microclimate of our farm in Minnesota.

Limmony – This yellow heirloom always surprises people who are used to yellow tomatoes being low acid and mild.  It is quite tangy with a zesty citrus flavor (hence the name),  blemish-free, meaty, with high yields.  It is a main-season tomato that will be a staple on our farm.

Manyel – I grew this one because it is a Native American heirloom (manyel means “many moons”), and because it is a reliable, small to medium, pale yellow, mild & juicy tomato.  The yield is good and it is an early tomato.  A keeper.

White Queen – Even though this heirloom is listed as a “white” tomato, it is actually pale yellow (see photo).  This tomato manages to be mild without being bland.  It has a sweet/fruity flavor and is considered a “palate refresher”.  It is also early with relatively high yields.

Black Heirloom Varieties – med to large:

"Black" Heirloom Tomato Varieties
“Black” Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

“Black” tomatoes (many are actually purple) have become quite popular due to their rich, complex flavor.  Most of the black tomatoes originated in Russia and they can range from large 1-2 lb. beefsteaks to small cherry tomatoes.  They all share a very deep, somewhat sweet and wine-like flavor profile.

Paul Robeson -This is the second year I have grown Paul Robeson, and both years it has produced a medium sized, fairly early tomato with a superior flavor.  The flavor is rich and somewhat smoky.  Yields are good.

Carbon – I first tasted this heirloom from a Portland, Oregon farmers’ market and I was definitely wowed.  Though somewhat smaller than the other blacks, the flavor was intense and the best I had tasted from the blacks so far.  I had a little trouble locating seed and have not grown it long enough to vouch for its reliability, but it is definitely a keeper on taste alone.

Black from Tula (mislabeled in photo as Black Russian) -This is the largest of the blacks, and the flavor is always good, but I continue to be disappointed in the yield and the lateness.  This is probably the last year for this one.

Vorlon – Lynne Rosetto Kasper called out this heirloom as one her top varieties for flavor in 2010 (I try out all of our tomatoes with Lynne’s experienced Italian palate).  In addition to excellent flavor, this tomato is blemish free and a good producer for us.

Black Heirloom Varieties – small:

"Black" Heirloom Tomato Varieties - small
“Black” Heirloom Tomato Varieties – small – 2012

Black Mauri – A new one for us in 2012, and we were delighted with it.  Great taste, crunchy texture, prolific, blemish free…what more could you want?  It’s small.  Some consider it a grape tomato and some consider it a plum tomato.  All consider it great.

Black Cherry – Consistently popular as a deeper-flavored cherry tomato.  It is a bit larger than typical cherry tomatoes, and not as prolific, but the  flavor is much more complex than the candy sweetness of the sweet 100 types.

Black Krim – This is one of the earliest of the medium-sized black tomatoes for us.  It is typically about 8 oz. and has a somewhat salty flavor in addition to the rich flavor profile of the blacks.  Heavy producer.

Purple Russian – Another new heirloom for 2012 that we will definitely keep around.  It is larger and lighter in color than Black Mauri, but has the full-flavor of the blacks.  It’s great for salsas and salads, and has an egg shape.  Also relatively early.

Another black heirloom that we grow and like, but do not have a photo of,  is Japanese Black Trifele.

Striped Heirloom Varieties:

Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes
Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes

Striped, or bi-colored, heirloom tomatoes are fun and add special eye-appeal to a tomato salad or a tomato tasting party.  They range in flavor from mild & bland, to sweet & fruity, to high-acid and tangy.  I do not have photos of all of the striped tomatoes we have grown and loved, but some memorable ones include:  Mr. Stripey, Red Zebra, Dagma’s Perfection, Big Rainbow, Tigerella, and Marvel Stripe. Three of the most popular in 2012 were:

Striped Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012
Striped Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

Green Zebra -This is a staple for us, and once people get past the idea that it is “supposed” to be green, it often becomes their favorite.  It is quite tangy and zesty in flavor with a fairly high acid level.  You would think it would be fairly early due to its smaller size, but Green Zebra actually tends to be relatively late on our farm.  Once it gets going it is prolific, but we are eagerly awaiting that first flush.

Gold Medal -This heirloom was summarized above under the orange tomatoes.  It is actually a bi-color and beautiful.

Speckled Roman – This was a new heirloom variety for us in 2012.  The young plants looked quite spindly and I thought it might be a fragile plant, but once it got going it was strong and a good producer.  The taste is somewhat mild, but the color and shape are fun to have on tomato platters.


Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties:

Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012
Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

There are many, many great pink varieties of heirloom tomatoes, the most well-known of which is Brandywine.  Pink tomatoes tend to be sweeter and lower acid than the bright red heirlooms.  Many think of the pinks as the tomatoes with that “old-fashioned flavor”.  I tend to prefer the bolder flavor of the red heirlooms, but the pinks can be very full-flavored at the right time of the year.  Popular pinks which we have grown include:  Caspian Pink, Cherokee Purple, Pruden’s Purple, Soldacki, German Pink, Wins All, Purple Calabash, and Rose De Berne.  I’m trying to winnow down the number of varieties I grow, so I usually only grow 5 or 6 varieties of pinks each year.  Here are a few standards and a few new ones:

Mortgage Lifter -This is a reliable producer with a consistently sweet, full-flavored taste.  Plus it has the great story of paying off “Radiator Charlie’s” mortgage by selling them for $1.00 a plant during the depression.  It is earlier than Brandywine and I always grow it.

Brandywine -The first name that comes to the mind of people just starting in heirlooms is the Brandywine.  It was one of the first varieties to regain status in popular culture for its “old-fashioned taste”.  Since heirlooms have become popular, Brandywine has held onto its status, but for me it doesn’t taste much different from many of the other large pink heirlooms, and it has the disadvantage of being quite late and not very prolific.  In Minnesota, it makes more sense to grow some of the other large pinks like Caspian Pink and Prudens Purple which are earlier, but people at the farmers’ market still want to buy the Brandywine, so I grow it.

Raspberry Lyanna – This was a new one in 2012, and I was disappointed in its flavor.  It was early and a great producer all season long, but the flavor was pretty bland, and I probably won’t include it next year.

Bali – Unlike Raspberry Lyanna, this small, productive tomato was a powerhouse of flavor.  I was quite surprised with the sweet, full flavor of Bali.  It is pretty (ribbed), pink, sweet, and prolific.  A keeper.

 Red Heirloom Tomato Varieties:

Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012
Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

People are often unaware that heirloom tomatoes can be red and smooth, looking very similar to hybrid tomatoes.  The difference is in taste.  The skin of red heirloom tomatoes will typically be thinner, as they have not been bred to travel long distances and maintain long shelf lives.  Flavor profiles of the red heirlooms vary, but most often they will have a bolder, higher acid flavor profile than the pink, black or orange heirlooms.  Some of my favorite reds include:

Aussie – While not as full-flavored as some of the other reds, this one has a lot going for it.  It is meaty, with few seeds, and one slice of this beefsteak will fill a BLT just fine.

Carmello & Dona – While some debate whether these two French varieties have been around long enough to be called heirlooms, no one debates the full balanced flavor of them.  Carmello and Dona are the classic tomato you will find at French open-air markets and they are considered to have the perfect acid-sugar balance.  Dona is the smaller version of Carmello.  Seed is sometimes difficult to find.

Thessoloniki – A Greek heirloom with what is said to be an “earthy” taste.  It is a favorite at the farmers’ market, both for its full tomato flavor and its highly productive nature.  People count the number of tomatoes they get from these bushes and come back to tell me about it in amazement.  It is also blemish free, which is nice.

Paste Heirloom Tomato Varieties:

Paste Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012
Paste Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

Many people go to the San Marzano for their choice of heirloom paste tomato.  The problem is there seem to be many different “strains” within the seed companies of this variety, and you can never be sure what you are getting.  In 2012, I grew the “Redorta” strain, and it was good, but most seed companies do not tell you what strain they are producing.  Taste can vary widely and the typical Roma doesn’t have much taste to begin with.  The following three are the paste tomatoes I have ended up with after many trials, with Opalka being the flavor winner for me.

Amish Paste – This heirloom is full-flavored, but it is not really a “paste” tomato.  It is much juicier than a typical paste, and can be used as a slicer in most cases.  The size and yield is also quite variable, ranging from medium size to quite large, and medium yield to very low yield.

San Marzano – As noted above, this heirloom is inconsistent in flavor, depending on which strain you get.  Yields are typically good, but the tomato meat can be quite dry at times.

Opalka – My favorite of the paste tomatoes.  It has everything you’d want in a paste: full flavor, meaty texture, high yields, large size.  It tends to look a bit clumsy and can be oddly shaped.  If that matters to you.

Cherry Tomato Varieties (Heirloom and Hybrid)

Cherry Tomato Varieties (Heirloom & Hybrid)
Cherry Tomato Varieties (Heirloom & Hybrid)

Typically the cherry tomatoes share these attributes: a) they are sweet, b) they are prolific yielders, c) they grow well in pots even though they are indeterminate, and d) they tend to crack, e) they are usually hybrids although there are some heirlooms.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Matts Wild Cherry – An heirloom, tons of tiny sweet cherry tomatoes will fill your plant all season.  I only grow a few of these, as I don’t like to pick that many small tomatoes for market

Principe Borghese – An Italian heirloom that I have always grown and always will.  It has a full, meaty tomato flavor rather than the sweeter cherry tomato flavor, and it is the absolute best for drying.  Just cut them in half and dry.  I grow a lot of these and sell the dried tomatoes at market in the winter.  They are also nice for salads.

Tomatoberry – Jury is still out on this one.  The seed was expensive and there is a high demand for this hybrid cherry, most likely because it is crack free and easy to grow.  The taste was different however, with a lot of varying opinions.  I’ll have to try this again, but I wasn’t impressed with the flavor this year.

Black Cherry – The same rich flavor profile of the larger blacks in a cherry.  Not as prolific as most cherries and a little larger.

Black Mauri – Considered a grape tomato, and was a new variety for us this year.  I loved the full, sweet flavor and it was a blemish-free, high-yielder.  A keeper.

Cherry Roma – A hybrid grape tomato new to us this year.  Easy to grow, blemish free, prolific, good-but-not-great flavor.  Nice for salads.

Gifts for the Gardener: Gardening Books to Inform and Delight

By Cyndy Crist
Books about gardens and gardening make wonderful gifts for the holidays (or, frankly, any time of the year), in part because garden-related activities in the winter are primarily vicaious for many gardeners.  During this planting hiatus, gardening books offer opportunities to learn and plan, to dream and be inspired, and to travel around the world without leaving a comfy armchair or while curled up in bed.
Here are some of my favorites, any of which I can recommend without reservation as gifts for friends or family – or for yourself (since I have no doubt you deserve it).

Gardening Books For the Specialist

Amy Goldman books
Amy Goldman books (by Cyndy Crist)
Gardeners who have passions for specific plants, herbs, fruits, or vegetables have many wonderful choices of books to deepen their knowledge.  My gardening library contains books focused solely on lilacs, roses, peonies, auriculas, and other favorites.
To my mind, one of the best authors of books focused on a single type of fruit or vegetable is Amy Goldman.  Her tomes are filled with some of the most beautiful photography I’ve ever seen, along with useful and reliable information for growing and preparing the fruit or vegetable in focus, along with some fascinating background and historical insights. The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit is a comprehensive treatise on the vast array of varieties within this member of the nightshade family. I purchased Melons for the Passionate Grower even though my small, urban garden lacks the space for these ramblers; what I’ve learned has helped me make good choices at local markets. describes The Compleat Squash as “part gardening book, part ‘encounters with remarkable vegetables,’” and I hope to add it to my collection in the new year.
Another wonderful author who has focused books on a single species or genera of plants is Anna Pavord.  Her book Bulb is full of eye candy for the gardener who loves tulips, narcissus, galanthus (snowdrops), fritillaria, or any of the dozens of other bulbs that are the focus of this gorgeous and informative book.  I first became aware of her with the publication of The Tulip, which offers a fascinating history of the bulb that sparked a true mania that reached its peak in 17th century Europe and thus something of a cautionary tale. A few years back, I learned that Pavord is as entertaining as a speaker as she is as a writer when I heard her talk about and read from her 2005 book, The Naming of Names, a comprehensive and engaging botanical history that spans the globe. I have also put to use in my little potager much of what I’ve learned from The New Kitchen Garden. Pavord has a rare ability to present deeply researched information in a thoroughly engaging way.
Beverley Nichols books
Beverley Nichols books (by Cyndy Crist)

Gardening Books For the Anglophile

 Some of my favorite gardening authors are British and apparently I’m not alone, as I’ve recently noticed that a number of older books that had been out-of-print are now available in newly released editions.  One of the most entertaining authors I’ve found is Beverley Nichols. Mr. Nichols gardened for many years at his home, Merry Hall, which is described on one dust cover as a “wonderful Georgian house in Meadowstream,” located in Surrey.  Nichols was an extremely prolific author, with more than 30 books to his name.  Not all focus on gardening; those that do include Merry Hall and its sequels, Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn, as well as the earlier Down the Garden Path and Green Grows the City and the later Garden Open Today. Their observations about garden design, garden ornamentation, and the foibles and pleasures of plants in the garden (as well as of the people who tend and visit them) are alternately informative and witty, useful and entertaining.  Many of the garden-focused volumes are beautifully illustrated by William McLaren, which adds to their pleasure.   These are books worth seeking out for those who enjoy making armchair visits to the stately homes and lush gardens of England.
Vita Sackville-West books
Vita Sackville-West books (by Cyndy Crist)


I also collect gardening books by the incomparable Vita Sackville-West, to my mind one of the most interesting members of the Bloomsbury Group, which also included Virginia Wolf, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, and others.  Some of her books focus on her famous garden at Sissinghurst, while others are compilations of gardening columns written for The Observer. Some volumes are back in print in new editions while others can only be found used.  An example of the former is In Your Garden which is (or was) also available on that fading audio format, the cassette tape, read by none other than Janet McTeer. Although, like Nichols, Sackville-West’s published works also include poetry (such as the superb The Garden) and fiction, I am particularly fond of the gardening books, which remind me that while fashions may come and go, good advice about gardening and garden design is timeless.

Gardening Books For the Practical Gardener

While I don’t want to suggest an absence of practical information in the volumes previously described, some gardening books have a clearer focus on how to select, plant, tend, and combine plants.  In this category, I have a favorite author and a favorite series to recommend, though there are many others whose books I own and frequently consult.  But these two, for a number of reasons, are stand-outs in my library.
Larry Hodgson books
Larry Hodgson books (by Cyndy Crist)

The author is Larry Hodgson, a Canadian gardener whose books Making the Most of Shade: How to Plan, Plant, and Grow a Fabulous Garden that Lightens up the Shadows and Perennials for Every Purpose are pulled from my shelves many times during each growing season.  Published by Rodale Press, both are organized by plant with sections for each that offer growing tips, information about problems and solutions, and suggestions for “top performers” and other recommended varieties for each plant featured. Hodgson also provides a “plant profile” in list format for each plant, along with either “garden notes” or “smart substitutes.”   This combination of information has proven very useful in selecting plants for garden designs as well as their subsequent care.  Perennials for Every Purpose was also my mother’s favorite gardening book at a time when she tended more than a few plants on her balcony, offering some proof of its utility for multiple growing zones, garden styles, and generations of gardeners.

Brooklyn Botanical Garden books
Brooklyn Botanical Garden books (by Cyndy Crist)

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has published a wonderful series of excellent books on a wide array of topics.  I have nearly a dozen of these small, inexpensive, and extremely useful volumes on topics that range from Natural Insect Control: The Ecological Gardener’s Guide to Foiling Pests (21st Century Gardening Series) and Designing Borders for Sun and Shade to Easy-Care Roses and Salad Gardens. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has been described as the publisher of America’s first gardening handbooks half a century ago, and fortunately they have continued this important mission into the current century.  Their books are well illustrated and full of concise, practical information. Whenever I see a new (or new to me) volume, I add it to my collection because I have found them all to be excellent resources for the home gardener in any zone.

A Great Source of Gardening Books

Although many of the books I’ve referenced here are available from the omnipresent Amazon and other booksellers, I first found several of them at Terrace Horticultural Books, a gem of a store here in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Kent Peterson, the owner, has amassed an unbelievable collection of horticultural books, mostly used, that fill the rooms of the first floor of a charming brick home.  I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I walked in and saw the front room filled with library-style bookcases full to overflowing; the second, a cozy room graced with inviting armchairs and floor-to-ceiling shelves that include, among other things, one full section of English gardening books; and beyond that, a kitchen bulging with – what else – books about vegetables, fruits, and herbs. And that’s only part of the collection!
For those of you who reside far away from Saint Paul, don’t despair – Kent sells his books on line as well.  Although his direct site doesn’t appear to be in operation at this time, you can find his collection on-line through AbeBooks, or you can contact him at 503 Saint Clair Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55102 or by calling 651.222.5536.  Or better yet, make a trip to our beautiful city and visit in person, as Martha Stewart did when she was in the Twin Cities a few years ago.  I’ll bet you’ll be as impressed as she was.

Closing Notes

Although I’ve always enjoyed opening a spanking new volume with a crisp, clean cover, used books have a magic all their own.  Not only do they allow the reader to enjoy books now out of print and to experience them in their original design with a style particular to their time of publication, but one never knows what might be found between their pages.  In my copy of Vita Sackville-West’s A Joy of Gardening, I found an article about her and her Sissinghurst garden that had been published in the July 1977 issue of Horticulture magazine.  My copy of Let’s Make a Flower Garden by Hanna Rion, originally published in 1912, contains as a bookmark a tag from Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, a gorgeous place on Cape Cod.  I’ve also found pressed flowers or ferns in some books and, in others, inscriptions dated from years before my birth and written in the kind of beautiful “hand” now long lost.  These treasures offer proof of the timelessness of books, a little peek into someone else’s existence, and a sense of shared passion.  To me, that’s its own kind of gift.