The new year brings with it excitement for gardeners putting together their strategy for the spring. Everyone has their tried and true favorites, but there’s a certain thrill to discovering something new and untested. Hunkered down with a stack of seed catalogs, the annual ritual of picking out seeds brings with it hope for another great season.
Phil Seneca is founder of Good Mind Seeds, a company in Wexford, which offers an eclectic variety of interesting seeds, many of which he’s bred himself.
Although his seed catalog offers peppers, greens, herbs and lots of other things, there’s one thing that Seneca has dedicated himself to more than anything else he breeds.
â€œI have real passion behind my tomatoes,â€� he says. â€œIt’s my true love.
The 28-year-old has been fascinated with plant breeding since childhood.
â€œWhen I was a little kid, I was raised in a fourth generation farmhouse, where my mother grew much of the fruit and vegetables from the kitchen garden,â€� he says.
She literally taught him about the birds and bees by explaining how plants reproduced and that plant breeders could create different types by crossing varieties.
â€œSince I was 5 years old, it’s been one of my main interests,â€� he says
â€˜Turtle Purple’ was one of the first tomatoes he bred around 2010. It’s a potato leafed variety which he selected for its rich flavor. The variety actually beat out â€˜Cherokee Purple,’ â€˜Brandywine’ and others in an unscientific taste test. It’s an early producing reddish beefsteak, with purple shoulders. â€˜Turtle Purple’ is not his hardiest or most drought-resistant tomato, but it is both flavorful and beautiful.
â€˜Grungy in the Sky Bicolor’ was the first-place winner of the 2014 Buffalo Niagara tomato-tasting competition. As the name indicates, it’s a bicolor, saladette-sized tomato with red flesh under the skin and a core of pure yellow.
â€œIt won best flavor, but the thing that’s even more interesting is it has really strong late-blight resistance,â€� Seneca says. â€œEven when other plants are dying around it, with lesions, it will be nearly unaffected.â€� The tomato is also vigorous and pretty. â€œIt’s hard to beat, really. You could use a tomato this size for virtually anything,â€� he says.
Seneca is crossing different wild tomatoes with heirlooms, which often yields a combination that’s a winner. One objective is for gardeners to grow these varieties with ease in a wide variety of conditions.
Seneca’s goals are simple:
â€¢ To develop tomatoes into a more adaptable and diverse array of plants, fruits and flavors
â€¢ To make tomatoes something people can grow in Saskatchewan or on their patio
One example of an easy-to-grow, tasty tomato is â€˜Lost Marbles.’ It’s a mix between two wild tomatoes and domestic varieties. The tomato is one of his most disease-resistant varieties. â€œUsually, the only thing that kills it is frost,â€� he says. It’s a purple cherry tomato that’s very sweet, sprawling and productive. â€˜Amazing Grapes’ is green when it’s ripe and is a cousin of â€˜Lost Marbles.’
Seneca’s ancestry is one of the things that drives him. He prefers to be called an indigenous American, an Onodowaga Haudenosaunee. â€˜Queen Aliquippa’ is a tomato named for the last matriarch of his people to live within the hills of his birthplace, near what is now McKeesport. It’s a green when ripe, pear shaped tomato.
â€œIt’s incredibly productive, specifically adapted to the three-rivers area and our clay soils,â€� he says.
The flavor is phenomenal and the texture is smooth and buttery. There are very few things that can be improved about â€˜Queen Aliquippa.â€� It’s a variety he uses for breeding stock, using its traits to cross with other varieties.
One of the most popular new color for tomatoes is blue. They are high in anthocyanins, an antioxidant which is said to be good for us. One of his most successful is â€˜Gargamel.’
â€œI figured since he never caught a Smurf, I might as well give him a blue tomato,â€� he says with a chuckle.
It has blue and yellow stripes on red flesh. The flavor is average, he says, but it’s got a great shelf life without being hard, keeping well over a month. Its appeal is in the color, disease resistance and high productivity.
â€œIt really gets people excited to see something new â€” the kinds of tomatoes that their grandparents never had.â€�
Another reason he’s breeding is to get tomatoes to produce in the heat and without much water. Seneca is crossing varieties from the Southwest, used to arid conditions, with other tomatoes to deal with hot summers. He trials them without irrigation when possible.
â€˜Notchli’ and â€˜Cuautli Salubong’ are bred to produce when other varieties give up.
â€œThey produce fruit through heat over 100 degrees, when other tomatoes cease their fruit production.â€� Both tomatoes yield nonstop and are great for making sauce, he adds.
There’s a rainbow of colors in the catalog, and there are lots of reasons for that. Each shade provides different nutrients, another palette for gardeners to play with, but Seneca believes there might be something even more important.
â€œI think it’s harder and harder to get children away from the dazzling colors of the TV screen, so maybe adding some more dazzling colors in the garden will help out in distracting them from the electronics.â€�
He’s trying to breed plants that are beautiful, easy to grow and nutritious and hopes gardeners embrace his varieties.
â€œIt’s real fulfillment knowing that there’s hope my work will outlive me,â€� he says, â€œthat I’ll be bettering the experience of gardeners beyond my lifespan.â€�
Doug’s favorite catalogs
There are lots of other great places to find fun things to grow this year. Here’s a short list of some of my favorites. Many will be familiar, but others are off the beaten path, and that’s the way I like it. This list just scratches the surface; every catalog offers something unique.
Heirloom Seeds is a local company offering a wide variety of quality heritage seeds. I’ve been ordering from them for nearly 20 years. Check out â€˜Djena Lee’s Golden Girl’ tomato. The family heirloom dates to 1929 when Djena Lee won first prize at the Chicago Fair for a decade straight. Details: heirloomseeds.com
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds was founded by Jere Gettle when he put a catalog together as a teen in his bedroom. Since then, the company has grown into one of the most popular seed houses in the country. He travels the world with his young family in search of fascinating seeds and plants. â€˜Pusa Asita Black Carrot’ is dark purple, filled with anthocyanins, and is said to be richer in flavor than an orange carrot. Details: 417-924-8917 or rareseeds.com
J.L. Hudson, Seedsman catalog might not have any photos, but it’s filled with amazing seeds, many of which can’t be found anywhere else. If you’re in the market for something different, take a look at this catalog. I love methodically searching through the entries with highlighter in hand. The â€˜House’ tomato is interesting and it’s easy to grow. Small, red cherry tomatoes are produced on very compact plants. The seeds date to 1893, from Tbilisi, Russia, via an old sailing ship. This tomato can be taken inside during the winter and set back out in the garden in the summer. Get a hard copy of the catalog; the website uses early 1990s technology and can be painful to navigate. Details: jlhudsonseeds.net
W. Atlee Burpee Co. is probably the most popular seed catalog in the world and often the first for many gardeners. The company continues to introduce wonderful varieties, and I consider its tomato-breeding program to be one of the most innovative. Chairman and Chief Executive George Ball thinks eggplant is the new kale and has introduced a variety called â€˜Meatball.’ It was specially bred for texture, flavor and to be used as a meat substitute. Details: 800-888-1447 or burpee.com
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review Home and Garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or email@example.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at triblive.com/lifestyles/dougoster.