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The Quite Contrary Gardener

Don't You Have Any Red Ones?

Mary DollinsI first began heirloom gardening in the summer of 2015. Prior to then, I had grown a few succulents and flowers here and there, and helped my green-thumbed mother with her vegetable garden, but I had never planted my own garden start-to-finish, seed to vegetable. In February, while searching for organic, non-GMO seeds, I ordered myself a seed catalog from Baker Creek Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri, just a few hours south of my home in Kansas City. It was in those pages that I discovered the joy of (planning) an heirloom garden. There were dozens of varieties of every fruit, vegetable, and flower—some cultivated for hundreds of years. I spent weeks narrowing down my selections with angst, wavering between seeds of veggies that looked familiar—red tomatoes and green peppers—and those that were purple, orange, striped and spotted.

Finally I placed my order of way too many seed packets for a beginning gardener, including four types of tomatoes: ‘Black Plum,’ ‘Tappy’s Heritage,’ ‘Cherokee Purple,’ and ‘Missouri Pink Love Apple.’ Baker Creek’s description for ‘Missouri Pink Love Apple’ was what sold me on the tomato from my home state: “Big, pink fruit are very rich-tasting, certainly a favorite pink tomato. This potato-leaved variety has a long history in the “Show Me” state. It was grown since the Civil War by the Barnes family, who grew it as an ornamental, believing (as many people did at the time) that tomatoes or ‘love apples’ were poisonous. We are grateful the Barnes family kept this variety going so we can enjoy the wonderful fruit today.”

Being a newbie gardener, I had a lot to learn about growing heirloom vegetables from seed. I never thought I had inherited my mom’s green thumb, so to prevent the inevitable germination failure, seedling death, or crop loss, I planted every single tomato seed I had in flats by my bedroom window. Much to my surprise, all the seeds grew and I had sixty baby tomato plants in my room. I kept twenty and sold the rest of the plants for a dollar a piece. My vegetable garden had already turned a profit before any plants were in the ground. 

tomato spread

The spring of 2015 was excessively rainy in my area and many others; it rained every day in May. My tomato patch survived the rain and began to thrive while many others’ gardens and farms were washed away. I considered myself very lucky, but I also thought maybe my plants’ survival had something to do with the fact that the seeds had come from plants that had been grown in Missouri for generations. Those seeds, like everyone from around here, knew that Missouri weather was unpredictable and extreme: freezing winters, hot and humid summers, too much rain and then not enough. And the seeds dealt with it like true Missourians.

After it stopped raining and turned to summer, my tomatoes soaked up the sun and the heat. My twenty plants supplied enough tomatoes for me, my entire family, all my friends, and I still had several hundred too many. I set up a sign in the yard advertising homegrown, heirloom tomatoes, and the neighbors came running. Every day I put up the sign, I sold out of my extra tomatoes. Several people told me they drove by my house repeatedly watching for my tomato sign. One woman told me that my tomatoes were the best she had ever eaten. I felt like I was doing my neighbors a favor by growing food for them, and they were doing me a favor by paying for the tomatoes I couldn’t eat. I felt a real sense of community with the people who ate what I grew.

In addition to learning how to be a gardener, I found myself becoming an educator. The number one question I received from people who approached my little farm stand was, “Don’t you have any red ones?” They would see the maroon of the ‘Black Plums,’ the green fading into violet of the ‘Cherokee Purples,’ and the rose color of the ‘Missouri Pink Love Apples’ and think something was wrong with my tomatoes. My neighbors, though they loved the taste of a homegrown tomato, were used to a world where tomatoes were big, red, and came from the supermarket. I spent many late summer afternoons explaining that my tomatoes are meant to be rainbow colored, and that red isn’t always best. My tomatoes are all different shapes and sizes because that’s how things grow when they aren’t bred to be packaged in crates and shipped from thousands of miles away to grocery stores in Missouri. Many times I gave away bags of tomatoes, knowing that if someone just tried one they would come back for more.

I think about the Barnes family, who grew the ‘Missouri Pink Love Apple’ tomato for generations, refusing to eat it because tomatoes were assumed poisonous. I wonder who was the brave Barnes to pick the bright pink fruit off the vine and take a bite out of the side, risking death. And that member of the Barnes family changed everything. Suddenly the whole family could enjoy eating the tomatoes they had grown so long for aesthetic purposes. I believe the present moment is akin to the first time someone ate a ‘Missouri Pink Love Apple’ and didn’t die. For your whole life, you may have been raised to think that a tomato will kill you, or that tomatoes should be red and perfectly round, but then you took a bite of a pink tomato, and it was wonderful. It’s not often easy to change a person’s opinion, especially about something so precious as food, but I have found it to be worth the effort.

tomatoes on table

Photo by Mary Dollins