Great Places for Tomato Lovers to Discover New Tomato Varieties

Reader Contribution by Fred Hempel
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The Discriminating Preservationists: Seed Saver’s Exchange

If you are just beginning to explore the tomato world, an exceptional place to look for new tomato varieties is Seed Savers Exchange. This non-profit has an online catalog populated with a carefully selected group of top-performing tomatoes. By extension, it is also a great place to look when you want to order a few excellent varieties for any crop.

Seed Savers Exchange also has a Yearbook for members, and in this yearbook you will find thousands of varieties of seeds offered by a diversity of members throughout the country. You can find many varieties that are not available elsewhere, and you can also find seed for varieties that were grown in a location near yours.

The fact that there are so many varieties listed by members in the Yearbook makes it that much more amazing that the varieties listed at the online store are so streamlined, with such across-the-board excellence. I would guess this is due to the fact that Seed Savers Exchange trials many varieties at their site in Decorah, Iowa, and to the fact that the folks running Seed Savers Exchange know a whole lot about tomatoes!

The Eclectic Tomato Addicts: Tomatoville

Once you get hooked by the diverse types of heirloom and other “Open-Pollinated” varieties of tomatoes, like those found at Seed Savers Exchange, it is very easy to get sucked into the rabbit-hole that is Tomatoville.

Tomatoville is an online community where one can talk about tomatoes all day and all night, 365 days a year. Perhaps more importantly, it is a place where people share and trade seeds for thousands of well-known and obscure tomatoes from around the globe. It is also a place to find countless opinions about tomatoes and tomato growing. There are many threads that compare and contrast all types of tomatoes. I have developed many friendships at Tomatoville, and it is one of the very first places I visit online, after sitting down with my coffee in the morning.

Multitudes of seeds swaps occur at Tomatoville; and while some are organized, others occur spur-of-the-moment when a member posts about needing a variety they can’t find anywhere else, or a variety everyone is talking about.

Many owners of small “mom-and-pop” seed companies are also members at Tomatoville, and these small independent businesses offer treasure troves of tomato varieties, many of them relatively unknown. A good number of the owners of these small seed businesses are not in it primarily for financial gain, which is all the more reason to support them. Many years ago, my first big order of tomato seed was sent to one of these small enterprises. In fact, it was a little company that did not have a stellar record when it came to sending out seed in a timely manner, or sending out uniform seed. However, the imperfect seed order I got from them, many years ago, was full of a number of varietal gems I never would have discovered had I not wandered off the beaten path of professional catalogs to order from that unique, small business.

The Archiver: Tatiana’s Tomato Base

One beloved Tomatoville resident of particular note is Tatiana Kouchnareva, who is the founder and owner of Tatiana’s TOMATObase.  Her TOMATObase is a fascinating online encyclopedia of tomato varieties, and Tatiana is very resourceful and thorough in her efforts to track down and catalog information about tomatoes. For example, if you go to her page for the Iraqi variety Al-Kuffa, you can find out basic information about this uncommon variety, as well as information about where to find seeds, photos of the variety and also the history of the variety in North America. Seed for many of the varieties described in Tatiana’s TOMATObase are available at the site, and purchases directly support her excellent work.

The small farmer’s seed company: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

While hobbyists and gardeners may have the luxury of choosing tomato varieties based on flavor, looks, or even history — farmers need to also concern themselves with traits like production and disease resistance. As a small farmer, the seed company I have learned to trust for their farmer-friendly selections is Johnny’s Selected Seeds. To me, they have always seemed to be nimble enough to find and offer excellent new varieties, while not losing sight of the need to stick to varieties that will perform well. The last thing a small farm needs is a fabulous tasting tomato that produces only a small number of tomatoes, or only produces for a very short time late in the season. My experience has been that Johnny’s Selected Seeds varieties perform well under specific conditions. For example, they have an excellent lineup of greenhouse tomatoes with resistance to the diseases common to the greenhouse.

Disclaimer: I am a tomato breeder, and I have a long-term contract to cooperatively breed new tomato varieties with Johnny’s Selected Seeds. This relationship certainly makes me biased when recommending seed companies. However, it is worth pointing out that I am working with Johnny’s Selected Seeds, in no small part, because I was a very happy customer who originally approached them, with requests that they trial varieties that I had bred (theArtisan Cherry Tomatoes).

Our Tomatoes: Artisan Seeds

I breed tomatoes on our small farm in Sunol, California. Some of the tomatoes I have bred are shown in the photo above. Although most of the varieties we have released are sold by well established seed companies, like Johnny’s Selected Seeds, we do sell some of our unique varieties directly, particularly when they are not sold elsewhere. One current example is the tomato Spike. We released this tomato locally, primarily via plant sales, a number of years ago. It is a tomato that is not particularly well-suited to farming, since the fruits ripen (and soften) so quickly that it can be hard to harvest, transport and sell fruits without losing a lot to bruising. However, Spike has fantastic flavor, and it’s modest plant size, and good productivity, make it a great home-garden variety.

We currently also have a very exciting program where we release our new varieties to collaborating members 1 year in advance of general release. This program is of particular interest to true tomato addicts, and to small farmers that use unique produce to attract, and excite, customers. We view this program as a type of win-win barnraiser program for both us, and our collaborators.

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