Give thanks together for the year's bounty and draw close to the fire as winter's first flakes fall from the sky.
How many types of tomatoes do you grow? One? Two? If you're adventurous, perhaps you raise as many as five or ten. Well, prepare to stand in awe of Lance Ladd, the owner of an eastern Connecticut nursery. This year, Ladd grew not 25 . . . not 50 . . . not even 100 . . . but 145 different tomato cultivars!
You see, Lance's business sponsors an annual weeklong tomato festival in Windham, Connecticut. The event, held in late August, brings together 'mater lovers from all over New England. Originally conceived of as a means of publicizing the family nursery (Ladd, 26, returned the horticultural enterprise to family ownership some 20 years after his grandfather had sold it), the festival has taken on a life of its own. It includes, in addition to a tour of the gardens, a taste testing of all the varieties and a vote to establish which is the most delicious tomato. Also, prizes are awarded for the biggest and smallest fruits, for the most strangely shaped ones, and for the most uniform cluster from a single plant.
But the stars of the show are still the 145 test plantings. Ladd started three years ago with fewer than 50 varieties. This year he's almost tripled that first planting, and for 1984, well, 200 would be a nice, round number. . . .
The test garden occupies about an acre, and is divided into sections containing early, mid season, and late cultivars, both determinate and indeterminate . . . cherry and other small varieties . . . and plum and paste tomatoes. At least six plants of every cultivar are set out, and some of each are mulched with hay. Once the seedlings are in place, Ladd practices modified benign neglect: He provides no water or irrigation, and he uses no fungicides or pesticides. Some 5-10-10 fertilizer is incorporated into the soil when the field is prepared, but no additional fertilizer is applied. In fact, about the only attention the test planting receives is an occasional hoeing and — time permitting — handpicking of insects.
This year's tomato test was instructive in a number of ways. Connecticut, along with much of the rest of the nation, suffered from a succession of hot, dry days all summer long. Under these scorching near-drought conditions, the value of mulching showed very clearly: Mulched and unmulched plantings located side by side dramatized how well the hay helped hold moisture in the soil. The differences among the varieties Ladd grew were clear, too. Plants with poor heat or disease resistance curled up and died, while resistant varieties braved the heat and set quantities of fruit.
Among the best producers in Ladd's 1983 Tomato Sweepstakes were Park's Whopper . . . Monte Carlo, an indeterminate mid season you could put your money on . . . Sweet-N-Early, a very early and quite productive cherry tomato . . . Glamour, an early indeterminate cultivar . . . Small Fry, another cherry tomato . . . Napoli, a high yielding plum tomato . . . and Burpee's Jubilee, the best of the yellow-fruited kind. And, at the end of a week's tasting, Sweet-N-Early was chosen the most flavorful, with Park's Whopper a close second.
Lance Ladd has already started planning next year's festival . .. while his mother, Norma, who shares the family love of numbers (she raises 40 kinds of peppers), is busy cooking up a lion's share of this year's crop. Given the quantities she has to deal with, it's understandable that the Ladds have accumulated a considerable number of recipes, and Norma has put together a festival cookbook called Tomatoes With Love.
According to a report in the September American Horticulturist, there well may be a health hazard involved in handling sphagnum moss. A potentially serious disease called sporotrichosis, spread by the fungus Sporotrichum schenckii, can cause grave damage to the lymphatic system . . . and is sometimes fatal. The fungus lives in soil and has been found in sphagnum moss used to pack tree seedlings. It enters the body through cuts or scratches in the skin, and causes an inflamed blister that slowly enlarges. If not caught and treated early, the infection can ultimately involve the entire lymphatic system. Darroll D. Skilling, principal plant pathologist at the North Carolina Forest Experiment Station, recommends that gardeners avoid handling trees that have been packed in sphagnum moss. If you do have to work with the material, he suggests that you wash your hands frequently and treat cuts and scrapes promptly. (It seems to me that wearing gloves would be a good prophylactic measure, too.)
With the winter holidays rapidly approaching, a visit to the Gardener's Bookshelf seems very much in order. Ortho, the producer of fine garden books as well as of agricultural chemicals of questionable necessity (especially for the home garden), has just issued the massive Ortho's Complete Guide to Successful Gardening. The 504-page tome, which is available at most bookstores and garden centers, and is profusely illustrated with color photos. While the volume covers all aspects of home gardening, the most extensive section is devoted to shrubs and hedges.
From Sterling Publishing comes a trio of superb garden books originally published in England by Blandford. My favorite is Plant Propagation for the Home Gardener by John I. Wright, an exhaustive treatment of the subject. After chapters on cuttings, seeds, division, layering, grafting, budding, greenhouses, frames, and propagators, the last 150 pages are devoted to details on reproducing what appear to be well over a thousand different cultivars. For each, Wright gives the plant's scientific and popular names. the method of propagation, the treatment required, the appropriate time of year for planting, and specific notes on culture. I wouldn't be without it.
For lovers of indoor plants, Brian and Wilma Rittershausen's Orchids as Indoor Plants is a most useful volume. The paperback is illustrated in color and black and white, and covers both choosing orchids for the home and caring for the plants. And yet another delectable holiday gift would be Gunter Andersohn's Cacti and Succulents. Completely illustrated in color, this book describes, and gives information on culture for, nearly every cactus under the sun (which is, after all, just where they prefer to be). I can't think of a better present for folks interested in the desert plants.
You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.