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The Kitchen Gardener
Past season's successes can guide next year's selections

Saturday, November 15, 2003

By Douglass Oster, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As the season dwindled, Indian summer gave gardeners new life, and the time to complete the chores that should have been done before the "hunter's moon" in early October.

Beds were turned over, garlic was planted and massive withering tomato vines were wrestled into the compost bin.

As fall gives way to the bleak prospect of winter, it's time to reflect on a wonderfully wet summer. Yes, late blight was a problem this year for tomatoes. To avoid it next year, leave lots of space between plants, spray regularly with fungicide and pile on the mulch.

Another tactic is to grow disease-resistant plants. A new tomato from Thompson and Morgan called 'Legend' F1 hybrid is a determinate (bushy) plant that is bred to resist blight. Of course, growing this variety next season will guarantee a dry summer.

In my garden, many tomatoes succumbed to blight at the end of the season. But some produced until frost. One of the best this year was the newly introduced 'Brandy Boy,' a hybrid cross of heirloom superstar 'Brandywine' and an unnamed tomato.

The idea was to keep the taste of the old variety but add the productivity of a hybrid. Burpee got this one right. The plants put on medium-sized pink fruit that was meaty, tasty and a little ugly, as any respectable heirloom should be. It was far more prolific than many of the open pollinated tomatoes I love to grow. I'll grow it for sure next season.

'Supersonic' -- championed by my garden friend Burt Bloom (or Smooth as he's known on the PG's Garden Forum) -- also will go on the list of must-grows next year. It yields tennis ball-sized red fruit early and often and produces until the end of the season.

Bloom also gave me a 'Super Italian Paste' that I loved. Like most paste tomatoes, it produced bushels. The difference is the fruit is about three times the size of a normal 'Roma.' It's easier processing less tomatoes for sauce and they are quite tasty.

Every year I grow more 'Sungold' tomatoes. These little orange cherry tomatoes are the sweetest I've tasted. Three plants rebounded after being crushed by a black cherry tree in June.

Just in case they didn't recover, I planted four more that had been sitting in 6-inch pots since May. Those plants finished strong at the end of the season, providing lots of fruit with no sign of blight. It's one of the weird ironies of gardening, disaster creates discovery. Next year, I'll start a few 'Sungolds' a little later to continue the harvest until frost.

Two other tomatoes that I started under lights with 'Sungold' on March 22 were 'Pixie II hybrid' and 'Fourth of July.' Both were ready for picking at the end of June. They continued producing until the cold weather moved in.

It's almost impossible to find seed now for 'Pixie II' but 'Fourth of July' is readily available. Both produce tomatoes a little bigger than a golf ball and have good flavor. I'm on the trail of open-pollinated 'Pixie' seed and will let you know if I secure some.

Although the heirloom tomato 'Hillbilly' was late in turning, its taste was spectacular. The baseball-sized orange fruit is streaked with a deep red. The fruit held its taste even when picked green and ripened inside. It's a great late tomato.

One disappointment was 'Health Kick.' It's a good thing that it provides twice as much lycopene as most tomatoes because you'll want to eat half as many. Its small size, thick skin and slow growth knocked this one off next year's planting list. Give me one big 'Potato Top' any day of the week.

Speaking of Pittsburgh's most famous heirloom, seeds have been coming in since July from our area, the country and the world. People have been posting information about 'Potato Top' on the Web and I receive letters year-round requesting seeds.

Roger F. Deverill of Sheffield, England, received some seeds from his sister in McKees Rocks and writes, "The flavour is the best you will ever taste."

Last year, the women of the Penn Hebron Garden Club volunteered to help me stuff envelopes. In 45 minutes they filled more than 5,000 letters, accomplishing what usually takes me four weekends. I'd also like to thank every member of my family, all my friends and any poor intern I lured over to my house in February with the promise of a free meal and a cold beer. Watch the column this winter for news on when I'll be sending this year's batch of seeds.

The summer of 2003 will be remembered for lots of wet weekends, bountiful harvests and the wonderful luxury of not having to water all those containers.

Sources for tomato seeds

Totally Tomatoes offers 'Hillbilly,' 'Supersonic,' 'Sungold' and 'Health Kick.' www.totallytomato.com or 1-803-663-0016.

Burpee caries 'Brandy Boy' exclusively and 'Health Kick,' 'Super Italian Paste,' 'Sungold' and 'Fourth of July. www.burpee.com or 1-800-333-5808.

'Legend' is available exclusively from Thompson & Morgan, www.thompson-morgan.com or 800-274-7333.

There is a multitude of Web sites related to gardening, but the American Garden Museum is one of the most promising.

David Rinaldo, president of the first virtual museum about gardening, wants visitors to see the diversity of gardens across the country and "to understand where people fit in as far as garden history goes." The site is sprinkled with stories and photos from gardeners along with exhibitions and tales of gardeners from long ago. The stories encompass anything from childhood memories to current gardening loves.

Many of the gardens listed are public sites but private gardens also can be included. There are no gardens listed from Pennsylvania, and that's a shame. To submit your story and photos, log onto www.americangardenmuseum.com.


The Backyard Gardener appears periodically. To read earlier columns and other garden features, visit PG Online Gardening at www.post-gazette.com/garden. Oster can be reached by e-mail at doster@post-gazette.com or by phone at 412-263-1484.

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