Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tomato Willamette - A New Favorite

August, for me, was the beginning of three months of intensive harvesting and food processing. Kettles of salsa, tomato sauce, and corn dominated the kitchen in endless relays through the fall. Three large freezer chests were packed with cider, berries, and meat.
At the time, I believe this was referred to as returning to the simple life. Good for a laugh.
~ Ani Gurnee

I’ve talked to people here in the Pacific Northwest that have given up trying to grow tomatoes in their gardens, saying we just don’t have the hot weather for it.  Or do we?  We actually have a long growing season but is considered cool till August.  Forget Beefsteak or Brandywine here unless you have a greenhouse.  They need a long, hot growing season to reach their size, you’d be lucky to get one to ripen before frost.  So cool and iffy is our growing season for tomatoes, many gardeners stick with the cherry tomatoes. Such a small tomato doesn’t need a long, hot summer to give ample produce.  But read on and I hope to convince you to try growing larger varieties that prefer our cooler summers.

I’ve also talked with shoppers in the grocery store.  One man saw me choosing organic tomatoes and he complained that “tomatoes here (in the Northwest) have no flavor”.  He was from the east coast.  I told him he might try growing his own, so they would be fully ripened on the plant yielding more nutrition and flavor when he picked them.  The tomatoes in the grocery stores have been picked for transport so they are green, firmer so as not to bruise or crack and will ripen during transit or in the store.  Because they are picked green they never fully develop the nutrients and flavor of an on-the-plant ripened tomato.  Also the growers who supply grocery stores use those varieties that have been developed for more disease resistance and to have a sturdier fortitude for shipment.  The commercial world calls these “shipping tomatoes”. Flavor wasn’t necessarily the goal for hybridizers.

I have mentioned a few times on this blog that after trying several tomato varieties that Stupice, a roma type, became my favorite for its early production in my climate, meaty not too seedy, prolific harvest and reliability.  It’s the perfect tomato for growing in our cool, cloudy, unpredictable spring weather.  A Czechoslovakian heirloom, cold doesn’t set it back like most hot weather tomatoes.  Stupice has a 65 day maturity rate and is an indeterminate type, meaning it is more sprawling with vines that will need support and will produce longer into the season giving you a lengthy harvest. 

My new favorite is Willamette.  It is a determinate type, with a 70 day maturation after transplanting your seedling into your garden.  Determinate tomato varieties tend to be more compact, shorter and bush like that may not need staking and will give you more fruits all at once…great for canning, when you want to do batches.  However my experience with Willamette is that I wanted a trellis to support the vines, the tomato is so heavy it pulled them down.  The tomatoes are GEORGEOUS!  And double the size of Stupice with a beautiful multi-lobe shape like the beautiful heirlooms.  Willamette was developed at Oregon State University for our short growing season.  I will mention that while their maturity rates are registered at only 5 days difference, I think Stupice gave me ripe tomatoes much sooner than a 5 day difference.  Both last summer (Stupice) and this summer (Willamette) were cool, and wet well into July.  I had tomatoes way earlier last summer (Stupice) than this summer.

Like Stupice, Willamette is more meaty than seedy.  I don’t like tomatoes that ooze out half their weight in goopy seed stuffs before you actually get it onto your plate.

Both Stupice and Willamette fit well into the small garden but in my experience Stupice is a bigger plant which may need some pruning to keep it in its allotted space.

To have the best tomato variety to meet your specific needs and for your location I suggest you forgo the plant starts at the nursery or garden center and study seed catalogs for your region.  Then choose one or two varieties that have the characteristics you want, buy the seed and start your own.  That said most reputable nurseries do carry the most popular varieties that will grow in your region but you are limited to what they choose to sell.  I rarely find Stupice and haven’t seen Willamette for sale as plant starts.

I start my tomato seeds pretty early by most standards.  I start them indoors in February mostly because I’m antsy to get going in the garden again but it’s still way too cold.  As they grow I pot them up so they don’t get root bound so by the time mid May rolls around I’ve got a gallon size plant to transplant.  Now is when you start your countdown.  If the seed packet says 70 days to maturity, begin counting when you’ve transplanted your plant into the garden. Not when you sowed the seed.  So 70 days from my May planting date will be sometime in August for harvest.  Poor weather shouldn’t be a factor since I’ve chosen varieties that perform well in my climate, which can be cool and wet well into June.  Frost however is another issue.  My last frost date is April 15 so again it shouldn’t be a factor but be prepared to cover your plants if a late frost is predicted.

I don’t do canning, and I only cook for 2 so I don’t need a super prolific plant.  Even though one is a determinate and the other an indeterminate, both these varieties yield an easy amount, spaced out just right so I can share a few with neighbors and enjoy them on our plates without feeling overwhelmed by tomatoes!

Stupice is an heirloom, meaning its been grown for many years and the seed has been saved because of certain qualities of the plant/fruit and has been passed down through the generations.  Seed Savers is a company committed to preserving that tradition.  Willamette is a hybrid tomato, meaning a tomato that was recently (40 years ago) cross bred with other tomatoes for certain desired tomato qualities.  Make no mistake…hybrid is not GMO.  Genetic modification (GMO) is the controversial science and practice of taking genes from one species and inserting them into another, ie: animal genes inserted into plant genes. I do not use GMO seed or purchase GMO foods at market.  Never.

So, to recap. 

Stupice: indeterminate, a bigger plant (may want to prune it to keep it in check for a small garden), medium size roma type tomatoes, needs staking, harvest over a long extended period, cool weather friendly.

 Willamette: determinate, a compact plant, large meaty tomatoes, minimal staking but still recommended, harvest over a more concentrated timeframe, cool weather friendly.

In Bloom In My Garden Today: Alyssum, Begonia ‘bonfire’, Borage, Caryopteris ‘longwood blue’ (bluebeard), Cimicifuga simplex ‘brunette’, Colchicum, Coreopsis ‘moonbeam’, Cyclamen coum, Daphne aucasica, Echinacea, Fuchsia magellanica ‘hawkhead’, Gaillardia (blanket flower), Hardy Geranium, Heather(Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), Hosta, Kirengeshoma palmata, Kniphofia ‘echo mango’Lobelia, Nepeta ‘six hills giant’ (catmint), Oregano vulgare compactum ‘humile’ (compact oregano), Perovskia ‘little spire’, Phygelius ‘new sensation’ (cape fushia), Rose, Salvia, Schizostylus, Star Jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides), Tomato, Veronica ‘royal candles’,

Author’s photos