A bit over a week ago, the East Coast and the Midwest were seized in a polar vortex. It was colder in Wisconsin than it was in Antarctica.
And in California?
The peaches were blooming:
So were the roses, despite our winter pruning:
And the violets:
The violets deserve special mention. I love violets because I grew up on the East Coast. They are not native here, and in Sunnyvale, it is too warm, too sunny, and too dry for them. We have had to resort to extreme measures to keep them alive: a shady spot and daily spraying with misters to keep things moist enough for them to survive. Friends who visit from the East Coast take one look and say, “Why are you growing weeds??” Well, I happen to love these weeds. They were part of my childhood, and they are by the front door because they make me happy every time I see them. 🙂
At any rate, in California, the beginning of February can mean only one thing: Time to plant tomatoes! And so it began.
This year, because I was planting saved seed, and because I was planting seed from other seed savers, I decided to try something new: a hot-water treatment to kill fungi and other pathogens. To do this with tomatoes, you put the seeds in a hot-water bath at 122F for 25 minutes. This is hot enough to kill the pathogens, but not hot enough to kill the seeds.
So I got a sous vide cooker (because doesn’t everyone cook their tomato seeds sous vide?), got a bunch of paper tea bags, and set to work with my twenty or so packets of tomato seeds. (Lest anyone think I’m only growing twenty tomato plants – quelle horreur! – I’m actually growing 32 Fruity Mix plants this year, from 4 different seed collections, plus 10-12 other varieties, both for breeding and for breeding to my Fuzzy Mix plants, which will be sown about a month later. I plan to grow 60-70 plants total, though I will likely pull out all but the best ones later in the season.)
Here’s what my setup looked like shortly before plunging into the sous vide. The teabags with seeds are clamped together at the top to keep them shut, so the seeds don’t escape in the water bath.
And here they are in the sous vide bath (just as it was cooling):
I planted them in soil blocks, which are preferable to pots because the roots naturally air-prune, rather than reaching the sides of the pots and then circling around and around. The labels are printed on the nearly-indestructible labels I used for my dye samples, and will last through an entire season of sun, water, and slugs. (I tried paper labels once. Slugs ate them.)
I worried that the hot water bath might kill some of the seeds. Quite the opposite. Tomato seeds normally take 7-10 days to germinate. I came back four days later to find the first ones popping out of the soil!
A day later, most of them had germinated. Wow! I’m definitely doing that again next year.
My nefarious breeding plans for this year are primarily to stabilize Fruity Mix. This year’s batch had only three out of twenty plants with the intense, fruity flavor I remembered. I saved seed from those three plants and am growing 32 plants from that seed. I will save seed from the best of those plants, grow another 30-odd plants next year, and continue until I have enough stability in the line to feel good about sending it to others.
Fuzzy Mix, on the other hand, is stable enough to use for breeding work as-is. The flavor is terrible, though, so I want to breed it to a better-tasting tomato. My goal is a dwarf tomato maybe 18″ or shorter, with fuzzy leaves and beautiful fruit, that would make an attractive container plant – suitable for people who want a beautiful plant that also bears beautiful, tasty tomatoes. So this year I’m growing an assortment of tomatoes with small, yellow-and-red striped, tasty fruit. My intent is to breed them to Fuzzy Mix and see what happens.
I’ve also just gotten seeds for some fuzzy leaf, multiflora, red and yellow striped microdwarfs from another tomato breeder. Microdwarfs are very small tomatoes, that grow maybe 10-12″ tall, and multiflora tomatoes grow large bunches of tomatoes. These seem like great candidates for breeding to Fuzzy Mix, too – Fuzzy Mix could add drought resistance and additional fuzziness to the other characteristics, both of which would be good for a houseplant or patio plant. Also, smaller plants are better for me since I have limited space.
All the possibilities!
Finally, lest you think that I am the only mad-scientist breeder out there, I found these at the farmer’s market last week:
“I don’t know what they are,” said the vendor, “but I found them growing behind one of the labs. Want some? No one’s died yet…”
No, seriously. They’re pometrons. A cross between a pomelo and a citron. Apparently they’re mostly skin, like a citron, but the interior flesh is edible, like a pomelo. I’m going to try candying the peel. I’ve been so busy teaching my online course, though, that I haven’t had time to cut it up until today, so I have no idea what the peel tastes like. Looking forward to finding out!
Finally, I’m pleased to say that, after years of waiting, I finally have my first bergamot!
Bergamots are an ancient citrus, and the source of the special flavor of Earl Grey tea. Candied bergamot peel dipped in chocolate has been one of the signature flavors in my chocolate boxes for many years, and I made the candied bergamot peel myself. But sourcing fresh bergamots has been a huge challenge. After the third source dried up, precipitating yet another a frantic search for a new one, I lost my temper and got Mike to plant a bergamot tree. And so, three years later, I finally got my very first bergamot!
“But wait,” you say. “Didn’t you retire as a chocolatier last year?”
Well, yes. But my friend Chris is carrying on the tradition. And candied bergamot peel makes great fruitcake. I’ll find something to do with it, dammit – the stuff is delicious. And now I have my very own source!