Pictured here: Heirloom tomatoes, including brandywine, green zebra and cherokee purple, and others. Photo by Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Heading to the farmers market this week? Here's a look at what's fresh at the farmers market:
At the market this week: Heirloom tomato starts from Morgan Creek Farm, Saturday at the Gig Harbor Farmers Market, open 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, 6808 Kimball Drive (Kimball Drive Park and Ride); 253-851-7397; www.gigharborfarmersmarket.com. Morgan Creek Farm also will sell at the Tacoma Broadway Farmers Market when it opens May 21 and the Key Peninsula Farmers Market when it opens May 31.
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Who are the farmers? Steve and Donna White own Morgan Creek Farm, but they weren't always farmers. The pair were flight attendants for American Airlines for 20 years. Then came a reassignment to Chicago in 2002. They missed each other, they missed their horses and their farm in Vaughn. They traded in grumpy passengers for growing flowers – dahlias, lilies and a few other varieties. Then they found they had a niche with heirloom tomato starts. This year, they planted nearly 10,000 tomato starts.
What?! Isn't it too early for tomatoes? Of course, it's way too early to plant fragile tomato starts, but now is a good time to buy. And here's why.
If you're a fan of hard-to-find heirloom varieties, then you know they are snapped up quickly in the early farmers market season. Buy now, because you won't find them in a few weeks. You'll just need to baby the starts indoors with light and water for a few weeks until the weather warms enough to plant – typically late May.
Wah! I want to plant now! You could plant tomato starts outside now, but you'll have to baby-sit. Said White, "You still should cover them at night. Throw a dry cleaning bag or a plastic bag over them for the night, just in case we get a cold frost. During the day, they're fine, but at night, it's so cold. If you don't want to protect them, then wait until the end of May to plant."
What's the big deal with heirloom starts? Heirloom tomatoes are popular with home cooks and gardeners alike because of their unusual flavors, textures and vivid colors, which can range from deep purple to striped green to yellow.
Name some favorites, please: White said she grew about 35 varieties this year, mostly heirlooms. Here's a look at some of her favorites:
Early producers: Bloody Butcher (red fruit, ripens about July), Stupice (red heirloom comparable to Early Girls).
Cherry varieties: Sungold (small orange cherry tomatoes that pack a sweet punch); Sweet 100 (red cherry tomatoes, easy to grow); Black Prince (dark purple tomato that is a cherry or grape-style tomato); yellow pear (almost as sweet as Sungolds, they're pear-shaped, not a round cherry tomato), Gold Nugget (a yellow cherry tomato good for compact garden spaces); Gardener's Delight (very sweet cherry tomato).
Cherokee purple: "A burgundy purple on its shoulders and reddish on the bottom, this is a meaty tomato. It's really sweet, but it's so beautiful when you slice into it, it's really pretty."
Delicious: "It's like a beefsteak – a big, meaty, healthy tomato. Great for sandwiches and burgers, a slicing tomato."
Legend: "This is a blight-resistant variety. It's a medium-large red slicer. It will perform in a pot because it's determinate. It stays a little more compact. It's good for small-space gardening." Determinate means the plant grows in a clump, to a predetermined size, instead of sending out lengthy vines that continue to grow and produce fruit through a growing season. Determinate tomato plants produce and ripen fruit all at once instead of continually producing fruit for an extended period like indeterminate tomatoes.
Patio: "Another determinate, it's not a cherry, but it's not as big as an Early Girl. You put it in the pot and it's really compact the way it grows; it's like a mounding plant."
Garden peach: "It's a peach color, and it's fuzzy. I only grew a few flats of these. They're really sweet. They're not big, not as big as a roma."
What's for newbies? Get an Early Girl or a Sweet 100. For heirlooms, go with Sungold for a cherry tomato. In fact, any cherry tomato is good for a new gardener.
What else are you selling at the market? "Winter squash; yellow squash; patty pan squashes; yellow crookneck; four different kinds of zucchinis; six or eight kinds of winter squashes; jack be little pumpkins, cucumbers; three kinds of eggplants; five or six kinds of peppers, melons and I've got quite a bit of lettuce."
Basil frenzy: White is basil crazy this year. She planted more than 10 varieties, including lemon, cinnamon, lime, two kinds of purple, Thai, sweet Italian large leaf, genovese and pistou.
Contact the farmer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Gig Harbor market will have lettuce, kale, onion, leeks, salad greens, beets, green garlic, radishes and chard for produce. Also look for fresh oysters and clams, and goat milk and cheese from Willapa Hill Farms.
Events at the Gig Harbor market this week: Live music, pony rides, free balloon art for kids and guitar lessons for all, 9:30-11:30.
In this space each week, we feature farmers and food producers who sell at South Sound farmers markets. For a list of South Sound farmers markets, visit www.thenewstribune.com/soundlife/food and click on farmers markets.