Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In Praise of Juliet

The Juliet is my favorite tomato cultivar. I know heirloom tomatoes are all the rage these days. They are beautiful and succulent, delicious sliced and sprinkled with just a little salt. I do grow a few large slicing tomatoes, as well as tomatoes for pizza sauce, such as Viva Italia (last year) and Amish Paste (this year). But the little Juliet is dependable, tasty, and prolific; in sum, a sure bet.

These elongated cherry-style tomatoes have performed for me in good soil and bad; in poor weather and great weather. I planted some the summer after we moved into this house, before I’d had a chance to start improving the soil, and was rewarded with dozens of tasty fruits. This summer has been unseasonably cool, and the Juliets are the only cultivars (so far) on which fruit has ripened (partly, or maybe mostly, because they are smaller tomatoes.)

Tomatoes need nighttime temperatures of above 60 degrees F for fruit set, and we have had many nights this summer when the low hovered at or just below that temperature. I consider myself lucky to have as many fruits on all my tomato cultivars as I do. But the Juliets are really loaded with tomatoes, most of them full-size and ready to ripen.

Juliets are less sweet than grape tomatoes, and have a better flavor than the traditional cherry tomato. They will complement a salsa or stand up to a pasta sauce. They’re also ideal for drying, with thick walls and little pulp. Apparently, you just slice them in half, push out the pulp, turn inside out, and place in the dryer, skin side down.

The University of Wisconsin extension advises against solar food drying because the weather here is humid. However, Minnesota homesteaders Larisa Walk and her husband Bob Dahse have designed a solar food dryer that works in our climate. Instructions for building one are in Walk’s booklet A Pantry Full of Sunshine, which you can purchase through
their website.

Sue Robishaw, another upper Midwestern homesteader,
has built the dryer and reports that:

[It] works by convection, drawing air in at the bottom which flows across the trays of food and exits out the top taking moisture with it. And it works in the humid Midwest because there isn’t much space in the dryer for that moist air to hang around in – it quickly moves out.
I plan to build the dryer this winter and try it out next year. If you’ve ever canned tomatoes, you know what a job it is – blanching, peeling, packing hot jars – made more miserable because you’re usually slaving over a hot stove during the hottest time of year. If the tomato drying works out, I may never can another tomato, except as pizza or pasta sauce. The thought of escaping a sweltering kitchen for the chaise lounge in the shade with a good book while the sun dries my tomatoes is very appealing. And I’m told sun-dried tomato-based pasta sauces in winter are delicious.

The only complication with Juliets is that they are hybrids, meaning that saved seeds will not breed true. A major reason heirloom vegetables are so popular now is because the seeds can be saved. So, how will I minimize purchased inputs and do an end run around corporate seed producers? By taking cuttings from this year’s plants.

I’ve done this successfully with annuals like geraniums and coleus. Tomatoes are perennials in warm climates and easily grow adventitious roots along any section of stem that is beneath the soil line. They’ll probably get a bit spindly over the winter, and certainly won’t produce fruit, but in early spring I’ll take cuttings from new growth on these little seedlings and put them under grow lights with other seeds I’m starting. By the time it’s warm enough to plant them out, they should be sturdy plants.

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