Victor Schrager’s portraits for “The Heirloom Tomato” inspire me to try photographing my own tomatoes. From left to right: Azoychka, Jeune Flamme, and Black Cherry.

May 10th, 2009
The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table

I check out garden books from the library every week. It’s rare that I open a book and just know I have to own it. Such was the case with Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit. I’ve been browsing it for less than a day and I’ve already ordered it from Amazon.

I wish I had read it a couple of months ago when I was In Search of the Perfect Tomato. At the time I was frustrated by my inability to find concrete information on various tomatoes. After awhile the catalog descriptions become mind-numbing in their sameness. How many ways are there to describe a tomato anyway? Besides catalog descriptions are written to sell a product. I wanted direction and objectivity from the garden blogosphere. Hanna @ This Garden is Illegal writes wonderfully detailed review of her tomato tastings but she is in the minority. My frustration is at an end. Now I have Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato.

In this book, Ms. Goldman evaluates tomatoes the way a wine reviewer writes about wine. She considers size and weight, shape, color, soluble solids (to get an objective measurement of sweetness), flavor, and texture. In looking at the plants themselves, she describes plant habit, leaf type, yield, and date to maturity. She explains her criteria in more detail before launching into the tomato descriptions.

Before I could settle into the text I was distracted by Victor Schrager’s tomato “portraits”. After feasting with my eyes on his photographs, I could understand why one might not stoop to calling them mere photographs. The Heirloom Tomato has page after glossy page of tomatoes arranged by size, shape, or color on milk glassware in the modern equivalent of a Renaissance still life painting. There are single tomato portraits, too, but I really appreciate contrasting the qualities of the many heirlooms featured. A tomato can be so much more than a smooth, round, red globe.

AJM actually picked this book up at the library, honing in on the final chapter “Recipes”. With our mere seven plants, I doubt that we’ll ever have the excess harvest required to think about eating tomatoes any other way than fresh off the vine. So I skipped back a section to the tomato descriptions. Whenever I read any reviews, (travel, wine, movie, books) I always look at things I’m familiar with first in order to calibrate the reviewer’s tastes and biases against my own.

So it was with great pleasure to turn to the very first tomato description and discover that it is of a cherry tomato I picked last week ‘Black Cherry’. Ms. Goldman approves of my choice: “This tomato tastes like plumstone fruit without the stone.; it bests any bigger black plum or beefsteak.” As if to demonstrate these descriptions are not just catalog marketing, on the same page she says of ‘Yellow Pygmy’, “…looks cute, but no one has ever accused it of being palatable.” That’s what I like! A touch of bitter to temper the sweet.

I have a couple of quibbles about the book design. The tomato descriptions begin with the data for each tomato followed by Ms. Goldman’s more subjective evaluation or some historical tidbits. The data section has headings in small caps but the data itself is in italics…of a very small size. Her description is in a standard font face. Those italics are very difficult to read. In some instances, the italicized part of the tomato entry is more lengthy than Ms. Goldman’s notes on it. All those italics make painful reading–they obscure the fascinating information. One thing I gleaned, though. Heirloom does not seem to be restricted to old varieties, just open-pollinated (that is, not hybrid) varieties.

Two other book design quibbles. In the section table of contents, the most important information is black small caps and italics against a dull green background. And it’s centered-space. This must look nice as design but it is unusable as a table of contents. The main text of the book could use a lot more subheading. Even I, who am very text-oriented, found the unbroken text a bit much. Ms. Goldman’s writing is well-organized into paragraphs and sections, but the book layout doesn’t reinforce this.

I continued reading “The Heirloom Tomato” backwards. In the early chapters Ms. Goldman explains how she grew 1000 tomato plant (two of each variety) for two years in order to write this book. The chapter on how to grow tomatoes, from seed, to seedling, to hardening off, to care and feeding, pruning and picking, and finally gathering seed for next year is a wonderful resource for new and longtime tomato growers alike.

Bottom line: Highly Recommended
This is a book that I not only just bought for myself but that I see myself buying as a gift for others in the years ahead. Now to check out Ms. Goldman’s books on melons and squashes.

An Aside
In the description of ‘Black Cherry’ Ms. Goldman indirectly references a quote thus, “If one of the greatest services a man can render his country is to add a useful plant to its agriculture…” Do you know who said that? I do. But only because I had read it somewhere else just last week. Is this such a common quote in garden writing that it requires no further explanation…that all of you just naturally know the reference? Or would you just assume that it was a phrase of the author?

Paul's Stone Sculptures

July 4th, 2008
Yard Art and Handmade Places: Extraordinary Expressions of Home

Update: 2008-07-04

Jill Nokes’s wonderful Yard Art and Handmade Places has proven so popular that a second printing is out reports Carolyn Lindell in the Austin American-Statesman. I missed the June 14th article but about the same time Jill emailed me to say that she had updated her website to tell what became of the some of the gardens featured in her book and it’s taken me this long to pass the message along. The most depressing story, for me, because it’s happened just around the corner, is Paul Schleising’s garden. Yes, this is what’s becoming of my beloved neighborhood.

Jill’s book makes good Independence Day reading. Every person featured displays a unique vision.

Dateline: 2007-12-09

For years the highlight of a stroll through my south Austin neighborhood was a visit to the stone sculpture garden on South 3rd Street. Paul Schleising stacked rocks, not into simple cairns but into evocative sculptures. They were not glued or held together with a rod. The rocks were perfectly balanced and frequently tumbled at the touch of a curious stranger, wily squirrels, or a strong wind. Thus the garden was always evolving as old pieces fell and new found objects were worked into the design.

Paul's Stone Sculptures
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“…have you become a farmer? is it not pleasanter than to be shut up within 4 walls and delving eternally with the pen? I am become the most ardent farmer in the states…I rarely look into a book, and more rarely take up pen. I have proscribed newspapers, not taking a single one nor scarcely ever looking into one. my next reformation will be to allow neither pen, ink, nor paper to be kept on the farm. when I have accomplished this I shall be in a fair way of indemnifying myself for the drudgery in which I have passed my life. if you are half as much delighted with the farm as I am, you bless your stars at your riddance from public cares.” — Thomas Jefferson to General Henry Knox, June 1, 1795

April 29th, 2008
Thomas Jefferson: The Garden and Farm Books

Robin Chotzinoff flattered me in her story on garden blogging, comparing my compulsion for note-taking and record-keeping to Thomas Jefferson’s. I mentioned he was one of my garden heroes and inspirations. I wish I were even half as thorough in my records as he.

Thomas Jefferson Garden and Farm Books

Luckily for us, he did not ever fulfill his resolution to entirely abolish pen and paper from his farm. Quite the contrary. He wrote in his garden and farm books whenever he was at home. I’m betting that if Thomas Jefferson were alive today he would be a garden blogger. He was curious about everything, passionate about gardening, and loved sharing what he knew and learning from others.

New varieties of plants thrilled him; his garden motto seems to be “Discovery”. The Americas were, after all, a whole new world of plants. Before sending Meriwether Lewis on the famous expedition he sent him to Philadelphia for nine months to study botany. In contrast to our century, where we keep lists of plants that have gone extinct under our stewardship, Jefferson was adding plants through discovery or hybridization. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” writes our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence.

Using the technology of his time, he wrote a copious number letters swapping knowledge and always begging seeds, bulbs and plants to try. “Your favor of the 7th came duly to hand and the plant you are so good as to propose to send me will be thankfully recd. The little Mimosa Julibrisin you were so kind to send me last year is flourishing.” he writes William Hamilton from Washington in 1806. In this same letter he lays out his plans for farm improvements when his term as president is over. “…my views and attentions are all turned homewards.” he prefaces several long paragraphs on his plans for farms when he gets home, concluding with, “…the subject runs away with me whenever I get on it.”

He is aware of the social obligation of his written connections. Correspondence, like blogging, establishes a relationship, one that must be kept up by both writer and reader. “In matters of correspondence as well as money, you must never be in debt.”

Doesn’t it humanize these great historical figures to know that in 1796 Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington saying, “I put away this disgusting dish of old fragments & talk to you of my peas & clover.” He then goes on in great detail talking about how many tons per acre of wheat he has grown, how tall the stalks are, how his older fields are exhausted, his plans for crop rotation, and how he’s built a Scotch threshing machine from a model someone sent him. He modified the plan to more easily move it from field to field.

In his travels to Europe, Jefferson is fascinated by farm methods and plant choices. He stops to ask a man why he is gathering ferns in the forest. When he hears the reply (he uses dry ferns to pack apples for market, as they don’t give off a scent as hay does), Jefferson can hardly wait to get home to try it himself. Americans have just recently gotten on the olive oil bandwagon, but Jefferson was promoting the olive in 1787.

“The Olive tree is the least known in America, and yet the most worthy of being known. Of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious, if it be not the most precious. Perhaps it may claim a preference even to bread; because there is such an infinitude of vegetables which it renders a proper and comfortable nourishment. In passing the Alps at the Col de Tende, where they are mere masses of rock, wherever there happens to be a little soil, there are a number of olive trees and a village supported by them. Take away these trees and the same ground in corn would not support a single family.”

Thomas Jefferson kept a garden book, primarily a calendar, from 1766 to 1824. Over the years his garden book became more detailed and exacting: records on the weather, on what he planted, on when he harvested, drawings laying out the garden beds. He noted the migration of birds and the dates of first flowers. Some of his notes read like tweets.

1811 Mar 16. planted 5. Tuckahoe grey cherries in the rows e-1-2-+1.4.5 from Enniscorthy
1811 Mar 18. planted Asparagus seed in beds 5.6.7. & replanted 3.4
1811 Apr 13. Quarantine corn from Thouin in the old Nursery.
1811 May 16. strawberries come to table.
1821 May 28. artichokes come to table. The last dish is July 28.

Jefferson had one of those minds that is never satisfied, a mind that is never still but constantly reaching for a more efficient way to do things. His farm books are filled with ideas and advice that he’s collected over the years and organized by topic as well as detailed farm management records. He records the progress on grading roads, writing down the number of people working and how much road they make each day and figuring the yards per day per hand progress. (Much slower going in the woods and uphill.)

And he is not content to read about an idea. He experiments, observes and records. Is it more efficient to use candles or oil lamps, he wonders and sets an experiment burning both a lamp and candles for 16 1/2 hours to see how much fuel is used.

…it appears that 1. gallon of oil will burn 402. hours, and that it requires 10 3/5 lb of candle to burn the same time so supposing oil to be .75 per gallon, it will be equal to mould candles at 7. cents per lb which shews the advantage of oil.

In 1793, when Eli Whitney writes to Jefferson about his little invention, the cotton gin, Jefferson immediately wants to know how he can employ it on his farm.

“…I feel considerable interest in the success of your invention for family use. Permit me therefore to ask information from you on these points. Has the machine been thoroughly tried in the ginning of cotton or is it as yet but a machine of theory? What quantity of cotton has it cleaned on an average of several days, & worked by hand, & by how many hands? What will be the cost of one of them made to be worked by hand?”

I love that phrase, “as yet but a machine of theory.” Apparently they had problems with vaporware even in Jefferson’s day.

One of my favorite letters is to Jacob Bigelow in 1818. Here Jefferson summarizes seven years of his observations that characterize the climate of Virginia. He includes average temperature and rainfall for each month, date of first frost (Oct 7-26), when the peach trees blossom (Mar 9-Apr 4), when the house martins appear, and the ticks! (both mid-Mar), when the lilacs bloom (Apr 1-28) and the fireflies appear (May 8). He also records that it is necessary to have fires at all times for four months in winter, and in the mornings and evening for another month before and after.

Do I know how many days of the year I run my heater, all day long versus only at night? How about the AC? How many nights did we have a hard freeze this last winter? Was that typical or less than average? Have I tried different fertilizers on my tomatoes to compare them and see which is the most efficient? How about different methods for tying and staking tomatoes? Is there a good reason that Austinites shouldn’t set out tomatoes before March 15th? What if they are in protected site? What if we use row covers?

How much advice do we take on faith without testing it ourselves? And how rigorous are our tests? Do we just follow advice without also growing a control to use as a comparison? Do we write down our observations and then compare our notes over several years and with others? How much practical and useful information are we collecting and sharing? How much of what we’ve learned through experience will be lost if we don’t pool our knowledge? Jefferson is an inspiration for seeking continual/continuous improvement.

Time to update my In Bloom Calendar for April.