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Paul’s Garden Journal 4

It’s winter and the garden is still clothed in white and black. Black of course was once reserved for mourning until 1926. That was the year that Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel came out with a simple straight, calf-length black dress. The Little Black Dress was born and women never looked back.
    
The little black dress went with everything and was everywhere. In her first cartoons, Betty Boop was originally drawn in a Little Black Dress. Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, famously said, “When a little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place.” The ‘LBD”, as it became known, was fit not only for a duchess but fit for having breakfast, as Audrey Hepburn showed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, complete with a string of pearls.
     
Black as a fashion statement even seeps into the garden. The latest rage in gardening is black tomatoes. These “black" tomatoes are often various dark colors of deep purple, dusky brown, and mahogany. Most black tomatoes come to us from the Southern Ukraine. In the early 19th century soldiers returning from the Crimean War brought black tomato seeds to Russia. Today there are more than fifty varieties of black tomato. 

And like the Little Black Dress, black tomatoes are winning people over. Black tomatoes have a deep, almost earthy taste. More than one blind taste test has gone to such stars as the Paul Robeson black heirloom tomato. Named after the noted opera star and civil rights hero, the Paul Robeson tomato is a medium size beefsteak with a hint of smokiness. Because the Paul Robeson tomato comes from Siberia it sets fruits at lower temperatures than many other tomatoes.

The Black Krim tomato is a slightly larger 10 to 12 ounce beefsteak tomato with extremely dark color and green shoulders. Black Krims have a naturally salty taste so need very little salting. This is one of the most productive tomatoes you can grow, and even does well in containers. Many gardeners sing the praises of Pink Brandywine until they taste the Black Brandywine tomato. This maroon red tomato can weigh up to 2 pounds with a deeper richer flavor than the original Brandywine. It was bred from a cross of Brandywine and either Black Prince or Cherokee Purple.
     
The Black Pear tomato is a 4 to 6 ounce pear shaped tomato that is very high yielding.  There are even tiny black cherry tomatoes. The generically named Black Cherry Tomato grows in huge clusters like grapes. These basic black tomatoes are big on flavor. They have rich, smoky flavors that make ordinary cherry tomatoes seem bland by comparison.

Black tomatoes seeds are available from such mail order companies as Tomato Growers Supply (www. tomatogrowers.com), Seed Savers Exchange (www. seedsavers.org or by mail at Seed Savers Exchange, 3094 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101) and Baker Creek Seeds (phone (417) 924-8917, or by mail at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, 2278 Baker Creek Road, Mansfield, MO 65704.)
       
Start tomatoes indoors 6 to 8 weeks before you want to transplant them into the garden. Sow seeds about 1/4 inch deep in flats or pots. Keep them well watered but not soggy.  You can cover the flats or pots with a plastic bag to keep the soil moist.  Tomato seeds germinate best in warm soil. Transplant into a sunny spot in the garden that has lots of organic material worked in.  Avoid over watering or over fertilizing. Too much water can ruin the flavor and result in splitting or cracking of the fruits. Too much fertilizer can result in lots of leaves and few tomatoes.

Tomato flowers contain both male and female parts in the same flower, so are self pollinating without need of bees or other insects. Even so, if you want to save your own seed it’s best to separate varieties by at least 6 feet to insure purity.  For best seeds, let your tomatoes fully ripen. Squeeze out the pulp that contains the seeds into a cup or jar. Add a few tablespoons of water and let the seeds and pulp ferment in a warm place for for 3-4 days. The fermentation process kills many seed borne diseases and aids germination.   After the 3 or 4 days the seeds will sink to the bottom and can be carefully strained out and allowed to air dry for about 2 weeks. Once dry you can store your black tomato seeds in air-tight jars or plastic bags and store them in a cool dry place. Timeless as black is, your seeds can live for up to 10 years.
        
Start your black tomato plants now and by mid summer you’ll be eating the finest tomatoes on earth. Like the Little Black Dress, these rich and smoky black gems go well with every meal. Even breakfast, whether at Tiffany’s or not.

Copyright (c) 2008 Paul Barbano
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