New York Times: The Tomato Killer Meets Her Match



HOW early is too early when it comes to planting tomatoes?

The soil temperature is nowhere near 60 degrees yet. Conventional wisdom says to wait until late May. So why even try?

I've been burned before. There was the year I put seedlings out too early and they died. There was the year that deer ate them. And there was the year when I was so haunted by the memory of a delicious tomato sauce I had made the previous August that in April I planted them in pots on the balcony - and then forgot to bring them inside on a deadly cold night.

Some people say the problem is me. Yet I am descended from farmers. These days, my "fields" may not amount to more than 0.12 of an acre (counting the brick patio). But I still can't resist the atavistic pull to grow something - anything I can eat. And I think we can all agree that nothing you can grow tastes better than a tomato.

As garden centers pushed flats of pansies and primroses last week, I decided to take another chance on tomatoes. I knew I could find seedlings for sale online. The question was: could I find seedlings tough enough to survive in my care?

My criteria were strict. First was hardiness. I couldn't waste time on fragile, whiny plants that were going to turn brown at the first threat of frost.

Second was taste. I limited the search to organically grown heirloom varieties because the last thing I wanted was to nurse some ungrateful tomato - watering it, feeding it, pinching off its lower limbs, telling it how much I loved it - only to learn, months later, that it produced inferior flavors.

I had one lead. For the past few weeks, two little tomato seedlings have been sitting forlornly on the windowsill above the sink in my pantry, waiting for me to repot them. These tenacious tomato plants came from Ben Swett, the founder of the online store, who had mailed them to me to prove how hardy they were. Their tags identified them simply as Stupice.

Every few days I gave them a little water, but I never seemed to find the time to transplant them. Still, the hardy little plants refused to die. In fact, they mocked me by producing flower after flower despite the neglect. So last week, I phoned Mr. Swett and said, "You win."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I've been trying to kill your tomatoes but they won't die," I said.
"Oh yeah, I sent you the butchy ones, just to be safe," Mr. Swett said. He added that he did not think even I could kill Stupice, whose seeds come from the Czech Republic. "This is a tomato that thrived behind the Iron Curtain," he said.
"They're both fine," I said.
"Both? I sent you three," he said."I gave one to a friend of mine," I said. "He's a more conscientious gardener."
"Lucky plant," Mr. Swett said.

You could say has experience with protecting its plants from amateur gardeners like me. The online store, which specializes in tools and equipment for dabblers who whose gardening is confined to balconies and patios, sells more than 80 varieties of organically grown heirloom plants - including red tomatoes, green tomatoes, pink tomatoes, sauce tomatoes, high-yield plants and huge fruit producers - as well as tomato food and lightweight pots ($13.99) big enough to nurture a single plant.

"Isn't more than 80 different varieties a little, um, excessive?" I asked.
"We hooked up with a great organic farmer in Paso Robles, Calif., and we've really gone crazy," Mr. Swett conceded. "But we've tried to organize them into collections to make it simpler for people to pick, based on where they want to grow them or what they want to eat."

The Windowbox wonders category includes a number of different varieties - like Clear Pink, Prairie Fire and Principe Borghese - that will grow especially well in containers. The Pomodoro Italian collection includes paste tomatoes and sauce tomatoes. Flavor Kings are the best of the best tasting.

"What's your favorite?" I asked.
"I like Black Krim, because it's kind of salty," he said. "You can't be rational about your favorite tomato. You like it because you like it."

He also recommended Cherokee purple ("prolific and fun") and Snow White Cherry ("Come on, it's a white tomato") and the Stupice seedlings that were languishing on my windowsill.

I promised I would plant them this week, one in a sunny spot in the garden and one in a container on the balcony. "I want to compare how well they do," I warned him.
"They'll both be fine," he said. "They're very muscular plants."
"Any tips for planting?" I asked."Didn't you read the growing guide I sent?"
"Threw it away," I said."You're just like our typical customer," he said. Mr. Swett steered me toward the site's comprehensive tomato-growing guide, which said that if planting in cold soil, it was a good idea to plant the seedlings on their sides so the roots would be near the surface, where it's warmer.

Another way to protect individual seedlings is with tents, like the Wall O' Water tomato ones at, which provide extra heat when you fill the tubes with water. Or use a cold frame like those at

But after the days get warm, Mr. Swett said, "You kind of want to be mean to your tomato. Don't overwater or overfeed because like any species on the planet, the plant has a drive to reproduce. If it thinks it's going to run out of water, it will put all of its energy into its fruit because that's its chance to pass along its genes. Be firm and tough."

I said I didn't think I would have trouble following those instructions.

Mr. Swett said he would send me a few more varieties of tomato seedlings that I couldn't kill.

They arrived within two days. Because it was a busy week, I did not open the box for three days. With a sense of dread, I opened it today. The seedlings looked perfectly healthy. I gave in and planted them all in a sunny spot in the backyard.

I'm looking forward to tomato sauce.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company