- Author: Jan Rhoades
It's that time of year again, when seed catalogs show up in the mailbox and the evening activity becomes sitting by the fire dreaming and planning next year's garden. It is the next best thing to actually working in the garden. Anyway, there are always a multitude of pages devoted to tomatoes. So many to try, so little time. Such an amazing array of sizes, colors, growth habits and juicy flavor notes just make my mouth water. I always have to try a few new varieties along with the old standbys (not to mention the orphans I adopt). Needless to say, my garden will often sport a dozen tomato plants, so I become the neighborhood supplier. Sheesh!
This last season, I decided I had to plant the tomato named 'Mortgage Lifter.' Somehow the moniker and lore of that plant had turned into a kind of garden earworm—not to be confused with tomato worm. I am a little skeptical about large tomatoes, and I certainly don't buy into the hype that surrounds some of them. But, this one, I was willing to give a shot. After all, this is a Tomato With History.
Right off the bat, I will tell you that at this point in my gardening career, I buy tomato plants from a reputable seed company. I am too old to mess around with starting plants indoors. I order for a late May delivery and plant them deep in fertile soil. I usually put cutworm collars around the seedlings and use homemade tomato cages. So, last spring, along with a few others, my Mortgage Lifter was planted and I was wowed right away. It grew strong and sturdy and big! It was my first producer – even before my early bearing varieties, and the tomatoes were, indeed, sizeable! Most were about the size of softball and, I have to say, they gave meaty slices that, to me, tasted just the way I imagine a tomato should taste, especially in the depths of winter. They are certainly not in the same league as Cherokee Purples (sigh) – but they are definitely right up there. Finally, they pumped out pounds of yummy tomatoes all season, right up to the first frost. I was most certainly impressed – the hype is true!
So, on to the history. 'Mortgage Lifter' is one of the most famous heirloom tomatoes around. A few different stories exist relating how they were developed and who they were developed by. One source claims that the cultivar was developed by William Esther of Barboursville, West Virginia in 1922 and that Esther registered the name in 1932. However, the best-known and best-loved story involves M.C. Byles of Logan, West Virginia, who developed this tomato in the 1930's. He was known to all as "Radiator Charlie" because he ran a radiator repair business at his home, which was situated at the bottom of a steep hill. When logging or mining trucks laden with goods labored up the hill, their radiators often boiled over and they rolled back down to Charlie's house for repairs.
Mr. Byles had no formal education, having worked in the cotton fields since he was 4 years old; however, he loved to garden and grow vegetables, especially tomatoes. As it was the Depression, he worried about the mortgage on his house. He decided to develop a tomato that he could sell. He wanted a large, beefsteak type tomato, so he decided to crossbreed four of the largest-fruited tomatoes he could find. He chose a 'German Johnson' to plant, and in a circle around it, he planted 3 other varieties: another beefsteak, an Italian variety, and an English variety. He hand pollinated the 'German Johnson' with a baby's ear syringe, and after 6 years of trials, he had what he felt was a stable plant that produced large, tasty tomatoes. In a Living Earth interview with M.C. recorded in 1985, he says that he sold plants for $1.00 apiece (pretty pricey for Depression time) and that people came from as far away as 200 miles to buy the plants. In six years, he made enough money to pay off his $6,000 mortgage, so he called the tomato 'Mortgage Lifter,' but tomato-loving folks called it Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter.
Now if that story doesn't inspire you to give it a try, here are the particulars. 'Mortgage Lifter' is a fairly disease-resistant (VFN) Beefsteak type tomato. It is indeterminate and bears one to two pound fruit (Burpee says up to 4 pounds!). It is a very productive tomato, often described as pink or red, and is very meaty with few seeds and great tomato flavor. It is not unheard of for the plant to reach 9 feet! There is even one company called Beakman's that sells Mortgage Lifter Heirloom Tomato Pasta Sauce. And, just to maintain the spirit of this legendary plant, they have an annual small farmer's competition in which payment of the farm mortgage is the grand prize. Seeds and plants for this variety can be found at just about every gardening source.
Just remember, though his mortgage was paid off, there's just two things that money can't buy: true love and homegrown tomatoes.
A bit of an aside. If you love vegetable history and lore, I came across this book, Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time, which won the Garden Writers' Association Gold Award in 2016. It includes information about selecting and growing heirloom tomatoes as well as some of his favorite heirloom tomato stories. The central message of the author, Craig LeHoullier, is “Heirlooms are living things, and, unless they are grown and saved and shared and relished, they'll go extinct.” LeHoullier co-leads a tomato-breeding project that has succeeded in putting 70 new compact growing varieties in various seed catalogs. This will be the topic of his next book, which he plans to self-publish in the fall. Each of the following companies carry seeds of all these varieties and some seeds of LeHoullier's full-size heirloom tomatoes.
- Victory Seeds
- The Tomato Growers Supply Company
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
- Sample Seed
- Johnny's Selected Seeds
- Seed Savers Exchange
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Catalog
Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest Catalog
- Author: Alison Collin
On those wintry days when it is not tempting to work outside, and when one has already studied the contents of gardening catalogs, it is necessary to find other methods of sating the natural gardening urge. This is when I turn to bedside books, and videos depicting gardens around the world. While the content of many of these were not produced with “Science based education” in mind, I feel that they more than make up for this with design ideas and the sheer enjoyment of seeing accomplishments of fellow gardeners from other countries and areas. When reading or watching these I feel as though I belong to a rather select club as I can identify with the trials and frustrations of fellow gardeners and when they succeed, I can revel in their successes all from the comfort of my living-room.
There are a plethora of gardening books to choose from, but rather than choosing yet another “How To” book on the art of growing, I choose those with a more philosophical bent – those where the author mulls over a concept or thought that has occurred. Here are some of my favorites:
“The Bedside Book of the Garden” by Dr. D.G. Hessayon. This is definitely a “pick up and put down” book, packed with history, folklore, myths on all sorts of topics – famous plantsmen, carpet bedding, bats, how to skeletonize leaves, how to grow your own loofah – to name but a few. This book is my great escape, and once I have opened it I am lost to the world. It is delightfully illustrated throughout.
The Gardener's Bed-Book by Richardson Wright (1887- 1961) is another such book, written by the one-time editor in Chief of House and Garden. It does not have quite as much about gardens and plants at the above book, perhaps more of the philosophy surrounding those who garden, but it is quite amusing in places.
In the Eye of the Garden by Mirabel Osler. Although based in Britain, Ms Osler's writings are universal and this little book is described as “a book of the delight of sharing a true gardener's eye” with its elegant prose and black-and-white illustrations.
The Country Woman's Year by Rosemary Verey. This is a month-by-month chronicle of anecdotal observations on gardening and county living by one of the all-time classic garden writers. Rosemary Verey's garden in the UK is frequently open to the public and is very popular with those visiting from the US. This book is described as “offering an oasis of taste and tranquility”.
Gardener's Latin, a Lexicon by Bill Neal. It is surprising how many Latin terms you can pick up by browsing through this little book. It includes not only the meanings of various Latin names, but also their origins, and the lore surrounding them.
I have watched many DVD's on gardening, but again, rather than concentrating on the “How to Grow” type my main recreational watching is just for the pure enjoyment of seeing beautiful gardens and flowers. The following are some of my favorites. The titles are self- explanatory but a word of warning: Make sure that the DVD being offered is formatted for region 1 (north America and Canada), many are produced for Region 3 and won't play in the USA unless you have some very fancy equipment. This is especially important if purchasing used copies. If you are antiquated enough to still own a VHS player, tapes of these productions can often be purchased for little more than the cost of shipping. These are all honest to goodness gardening documentaries, with nothing of the “reality show” about them.
Gardens of the World with Audrey Hepburn. 8 episodes on 3 discs showing some of the most beautiful gardens from all over the globe.
The Great Gardens of England 6 discs featuring 58 different gardens from throughout all different regions of England featuring numerous different styles and designs. This is a really beautifully produced set likely to make those of us who try gardening in the desert green with envy (even if we cannot get our gardens to look green).
Australia's Rose Gardens Can be watched on Amazon Prime if you subscribe to that, but is not formatted to play on home devices in the US.
The Secret Gardens of England. 1 disc featuring 16 different gardens
Wisely Through the Seasons. Wisley is the Royal Horticultural Research Facility in England, where horticultural apprentices learn their craft, and where many plants are submitted for trials by hybridizers. It is an older DVD and shows many of the techniques, some quite fascinating, that they used in all aspects of horticulture as well as the beautiful gardens, the National Apple Collection containing hundreds of cultivars, greenhouses, how they assess new plants, the herbarium, and pathology department. I cannot find anything comparable that has been produced in this country, but those gardeners that I have loaned it to in this country have all enjoyed it.