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Tomato growing starts with picking seeds

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Seduction season is upon us, as seed catalogues roll off the presses and tomatoes — the gardener’s obsession — bounce off the pages and into our dreams.

“Step right up, folks,” Burpee’s cover seems to say, luring you into the sideshow of the biggest and the best. On that cover, the “world’s largest sauce tomato,” called SuperSauce, is coming at you like a fast pitch. Just one fruit, we’re told, shown actual size and weighing two pounds, will fill a sauce jar. Saucemakers will swoon.

Meanwhile, in a different and rapidly growing sector of the market, other tomato fans are shopping mainly for taste. Tomatoes are the new wine. Connoisseurship has brought us tomato tastings and talk of tomato terroir — the hard-to-define quality bestowed on the harvest by a particular soil.

Although it is time to peruse the new season’s offerings and to buy tomato seeds, January is not the month to sow them: Start them indoors in early March for setting out in May, when things have warmed up.

Gardeners in search of fine tomato flavor should look to the vining, indeterminate types, explains Andrew Mefferd in this month’s issue of the trade publication Growing for Market. It’s the greater ratio of leaf to fruit that concentrates sugars. “Think of foliage as solar panels for the sugar factory,” he writes. And it’s true that tomatoes from an old, rambling, large-leaved heirloom — all leaf and little fruit — will pack 10 times the taste of those from a petite patio tomato plant in a tiny pot. Even the businesslike Johnny’s Selected Seeds seems to have more heirlooms than usual this year, including the gorgeous, delectable Striped German, with its sunset of yellow and red flesh, or the tiny Matt’s Wild Cherry, a throwback to some pre-industrial Eden of un-messed-with food.

Just as with wine lovers, tomato lovers disagree about flavor. Witness this customer request to Fedco Seeds: “Please have a Fedco person who likes acid tomatoes indicate which tomatoes are best. Current reviewer has a sweet tooth and likes tomatoes that taste like candy.” In general, I’d point a sugar lover toward tomatoes in the yellow-orange range, and an acid lover toward the smoky black-hued ones like Black Krim and Paul Robeson. I’m curious to try one offered by Territorial Seeds called Indigo Rose. All tomatoes are, to some degree, rich in phytonutrients such as lycopene and carotene, but Indigo Rose is chock-full of anthocyanins as well. As a result, its skin turns a deep blue-black, like that of a plum, wherever it is touched by the sun. I’m sold.

Of course, how you grow your tomatoes influences flavor, too. Having a wide range of trace elements in your garden’s soil (by tilling in greensand, for example) tends to improve flavor. Even dry weather can influence taste, because the juices become less watered down and more concentrated.

Then again, maybe taste, for you, isn’t the holy grail. Perhaps you’re after a whole shelf of home-grown, home-canned tomatoes to top a winter’s worth of spaghetti. Step right up. SuperSauce might be just the tomato for you.

Damrosch's new book, "The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook," will be published in March.

Tip of the week Grapevines on arbors should be cut back before the sap rises in late winter. Overgrown grapes can be cut back hard, but keep several lateral branches and head them back to leave two to four buds, which will grow this season to bear fruit. — Adrian Higgins

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