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Heirloom Tomato Sale: The Madness Goes On

April 10, 2002|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You can't keep a good event down. Organizers of "Tomatomania," an annual sale of heirloom tomato plants, feared the event was lost once Hortus, the Pasadena nursery that originally hosted it, closed last summer.

But Hortus founder Gary Jones and managers Scott Daigre and Kate Karam got together with chef Evan Kleiman of Angeli Caffe and SlowfoodLA, roped in a small army of volunteer salespeople and will use the Tapia Bros. Farm shop in Encino to stage the sale.

Now, it's not only alive, it's kicking, says Daigre, a landscape designer and former Hortus employee. The first sale 10 years ago involved maybe 50 different types of tomatoes, he guesses. This year, there will be more than 200.

Daigre credits the success to Jones. "For the first sale, Gary went out on a limb and had specialty tomatoes grown for him," he says. "Los Angeles had never seen that before. It had never been done. Then the public jumped on it with a fervor that he couldn't believe."

This year there will be 4-inch seedlings suitable for every garden, courtyard or apartment balcony sold in quart pots for about $3 a plant, Daigre says. "You can get an old French Jaune Flamme," he says. "It's a melon-orange color, has a vining habit and roughly golf-ball sized tomatoes that are beautiful in salads. They're kind of tangy--a really bright taste."

For lovers of a big red, he suggests trying the soft, steaky and purple specimens called Russian Blacks that were collected by members of the Iowa charity Seed Savers after the breakup of the former Soviet Union. "Blacks have a real robust, full flavor that we're not really used to. Some call it smoky," he says.

Not every tomato is a relic from the past. There are relatively modern hybrids celebrated for their taste and suitability for containers so apartment dwellers can grow them. "Early Girl works dynamite in containers," Daigre says. "Then there's Tommy Toe, Taxi."

Ask a question and you had better be prepared to hear the answer; Daigre, Jones and Haram don't call themselves "Tomatomaniacs" for nothing. They can scarcely check their excitement about tomatoes: "We said, Hortus is gone but we can't let this go. It's just a blast."

Tomatomania, Tapia Bros. Farm, 5251 Hayvenhurst Blvd., Encino, near the intersection of Hayvenhurst and Burbank boulevards, just off Highway 101. Friday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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