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Tomato Tsars

Can't survive January without salsa fresca? No worries. These hardy Russians come with a frosty provenance.

January 15, 2006|Susan Heeger

Even in cool midwinter, summer lurks inside Siberian tomatoes. Some forward-thinking Angelenos are still harvesting these little beauties with such fetching names as 'Galina,' 'Grushovka,' 'Mother Russia' and, naturally, 'Siberia.' Though not as sugar-sweet as the August fruit that basked in the summer sun, these leave their store-bought competition in the dust. Imagine dashing out in a raincoat to pick a few.

But why bother? Gardeners like their winter break--brief as it is here--from watering, mulching and feeding plants. What's wrong with a bit of lounging and reading garden books? Yet the true tomato zealot knows that even four months is too long to forgo the thrill of a crop.

"Siberians bridge that gap between late summer and early spring," says Steve Goto, a Murrieta grower who began raising winter tomatoes eight years ago and selling seedlings to Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar and Green Thumb International in Ventura.

According to Goto, summer tomatoes fall flat when the mercury drops below 45 degrees. But mature Siberians survive dips to 38 degrees and can fruit quickly. 'Siberia' ripens in 45 days instead of the 95 of heirloom favorite 'Yellow Brandywine.' Tuck 'Siberia' in by late October, and you'll be picking in December. With 'Yellow Brandywine,' you'll plant in April and wait all summer.

Like many heirlooms, Siberians have a storied past. Tending them, you follow in the footsteps of other gardeners--in this case, urban Russians who for generations summered in country bungalows called dachas. There, in overstuffed plots, they competed with friends and neighbors to raise the best and quickest-growing edibles. The names of their tomatoes reflect the spirit of the enterprise: 'Sasha's Altai,' 'Grandpa's Cock's Plume' and 'Olga's Round Yellow Chicken.' Lucky for us, Grandpa, Olga and the rest conscientiously saved seeds and passed them down through their gardening families.

In 1989, shortly before the Soviet Union dissolved, Bill McDorman, an Idaho seed company owner, traveled there with a U.S. horticultural expedition. In an under-the-table exchange, he swapped heirloom vegetable seeds for those of 60 different tomatoes. In his online catalog, Seeds Trust, now based in Cornville, Ariz., he lists about 20 varieties, including one called, appropriately, 'Perestroika.'

In recent years, seedling sellers such as Goto have gotten into the act, perceiving Siberians' usefulness for year-round growing in mild regions such as ours. Los Angeles landscape designer Scott Daigre, an organizer of the annual Southland tomato seedling sale, Tomatomania, sings the praises of Siberians for summer gardens, in particular. "If you plant some at the beginning of March, April, June and then July, you'll have four successive crops," he says. "Or plant them in the spring, along with mid- and late-season varieties, and harvest great tomatoes all summer."

He adds that Siberians grown in summer have all the sun-warmed sweetness that you might miss in December. "They're a different animal in July." Goto says they're also excellent in gardens near the coast, where long-season tomatoes may not get the heat and sun they need to ripen.

Siberian seedlings appear in nurseries about mid-February, or you can order seeds online and start them indoors. There are many to choose from: 'Galina' is a yellow cherry, 'Grushovka' a pinkish plum and 'Glasnost' a small red salad type. Potting them in at least a 5-gallon container gives those with just a patio a chance to squeeze in tomato crops.

In the garden, says Daigre, tomato beds should be "as deeply dug as you have patience for," and the soil amended with top-quality organic compost in a 1-1 ratio. For pots, Goto uses organic potting soil with a peat-moss base. Add a stout stake so the plant can climb as it grows, and fertilize with a balanced organic food. Feed again when the flowers appear. Don't overdo the watering. Too much water can produce luxurious and leafy plants with watery fruit. Your best guide, Goto counsels, is the plant. "If it looks droopy in the morning, water." In winter, of course, nature often waters for you. In spring, he says, water deeply once a week, increasing to twice a week after four weeks as the weather warms. Before you know it, you'll be reaping your reward: a round, ripe gift from Mother Russia.

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Resource guide

Siberian tomatoes are available at several Southern California nurseries, including Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar, (949) 640-5800; Green Thumb International, Ventura, (805) 642-8517; Green Arrow Nursery, North Hills, (818) 894-8306. Seeds can be purchased through Seeds Trust, www.seedstrust.com.

For more information, visit grower Steve Goto's website, www.gotonursery.com. "Tomatomania! How to Grow Tomatoes Successfully in Southern California," by Scott Daigre, can be ordered at (323) 363-0844. For information on the Tomatomania seedling sale, visit www.tomatomania.com.

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POTATO, TOMATO AND BASIL SOUP

Makes 6 cups

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