As you buzz about happily planning your garden, give thought where your seeds and starts come from. If you are going to the effort of growing your own, grow the good stuff. No point in working that hard for the same tasteless cardboard tomatoes you can buy in the supermarket. When you buy seeds and starts, look for heirloom varieties. Heirloom seeds are open pollinated seeds that have been passed on for years, sometimes decades or centuries. Heirloom and open pollinated seeds can be saved and passed on by backyard plant breeders, and often have been. The heirloom varieties that are for sale taste much better than conventional ones. Seed saving is work, often quite a bit of work, and there is no point in saving seed from a variety unless it's good, really good. Besides, there are sorts of wild and wonderful vegetables out there: Purple Dragon carrots, Black Krim tomatoes, Romanescu broccoli with a fractal spiral head, a riot of many colored and shaped lettuces, favorite ethnic vegetables that you may be too cheap to buy even if you can find them.
Heirloom tomatoes are unsuited to industrial agriculture, because they don't travel or store well enough. Imagine biting into a sun-ripened tomato, tender skin busting with juice, real tomato flavor capturing your full attention. Contrast that with the cardboard tomato bred to withstand being machine picked as a uniformly sized green orb, tightly packed in boxes, shipped 1500 miles, gassed with ethylene gas for a reddish color and piled up on display for days.
A home garden version of the tasteless industrial tomato is Early Girl and other "Girls", widely sold varieties.
Open pollinated varieties are just that. The plant grows in the open and is pollinated by insects (tomatoes, beans, squash and other fruits) or wind (corn.) Left to its own devices, the seed will mature and ripen. For the summer fruits like zucchini, that is long past the time that you want to eat it. The seed can be saved and planted. In an open pollinated variety, next generation will come true from seed.
Hybrid seeds are created by tightly inbreeding two different lines, crossing them, and selling the resultant F1 generation. There are some big differences between heirloom and hybrid seeds, starting with taste and price. By and large, heirlooms taste better and cost less.
If saved and planted, hybrid seeds will naturally revert to a parent generation, which may not be something you want. The Sungold tomato is a case in point. Sungold is a favorite gold-orange hybrid cherry tomato. I keep hearing the same story from keen gardeners who tried to save seeds from Sungold. The next generation plant sets tasteless, sour, hard little pale yellow fruit. The Sungold lover will be buying seeds or plants forever.
Open pollinated vegetable varieties have more ability to adapt and respond to their climate and environment. Hybrids do very well if given optimal growing conditions and the professional attention of market growers, but may be less adaptable to backyard gardening. Last summer I did a grow out of Sungold, Gallina's Yellow Cherry and Czech Yellow Cherry. They were all delicious little golden bites. The two heirlooms, Gallina's and Czech, sailed through the summer of intermittent rain, sketchy weather and home gardening conditions. The Sungold cracked when it rained and drooped first when I wasn't Jane on the spot with the hose during dry spells.
Gallina's Yellow Cherry and Czech Yellow Cherry come out of the former Iron Curtain countries. Industrial agriculture collapsed well before the Soviet Union did, leaving home gardeners on their own for plant breeding. The gardeners did a wonderful job as custodians of their heritage. A few tomato varieties were smuggled to the west before the Berlin Wall collapsed, dozens more after the break up of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet economy imploded, home gardening was even more important. I like the "Post-Soviet" tomatoes because they are selected for great taste, do well in our climate and are exactly suited to backyard organic gardening. There is a wonderful riot of colors: Black Krim, Pirkstine Orange, Zarayanka Sunrise, Aurora (red).
Heirloom varieties come with stories: Moskovich, Brandywine, Cherokee, Extra Eros Zlataslava, Ispolin, Giant Syrian, Lakota, Red Fig. The stories are intertwined with culture, with food, with family histories, with sense of place and heritage. Nothing grown in a giant field in California and picked by machine can compare.
So how to get heirloom tomato starts? Check around, there are starts for sale everywhere. Some heirlooms are even marked, or labeled OP for open pollinated. Reputable companies will mark hybrids with an F1.
Watch out for newest scam, though. Monsanto, through its 30 odd fully owned companies (kept with different logos and publishing separate catalogues to make it look like they are still independent small companies) has been pushing a line of "heirloom hybrids". "Heirloom hybrids" is an oxymoron. The press release says that market growers wanted a more uniform, better storing, more easily transportable "heirloom" tomato, and Monsanto responded to their customers. Maybe. The university agricultural research stations have been really good about breeding stabilized open pollinated varieties, so I am skeptical that only hybrids met the needs of growers. More likely, Monsanto bought up the breeding stock of many small seed companies for less benign reasons.
Oh, and it's still a bit cold to put tomatoes out. They need to stay above 50 degrees. If you want to put your tomatoes out early, use a cold frame, row covers, hot caps or other protection.
Really cheap hot cap: cut the bottom off a gallon plastic milk jug. Remove the top. Cut a hole in the top of the handle, and stake down the jug through the handle, covering your tomato start. Be sure to take it off before the plant starts growing through the top.
Coming soon: How to save your own tomato seeds.