The Long Keeper Tomato
In The Garden: Tomatoes
By Kevin Geer, California
Let me start by recalling something my grandmother told me when I asked her about growing tomatoes. Grams told me, “Tomatoes are like young boys. They hate showers, are hungry all the time and grow like weeds.” To this day, I use her advice whenever I start tomato seeds.
Long Keeper History
If you do basic research about Long Keeper tomatoes, you will find there are hundreds of tomato varieties with this Long Keeper ability. They can be divided into two categories. Some are picked ripe on the vine and stay fresh on your kitchen counter for four to six weeks.
The majority of Long Keepers, however, are picked green, just prior to the first frost. Once picked, cleaned and sorted, the tomatoes are stored in your root cellar at 50 to 55 degrees, where they slowly ripen. Some six to eight weeks later you’re ready to start enjoying fresh tomatoes in January! Most are heirloom varieties and there are hybrids available too. Now that I have your attention, you need to know were you can find these Long Keeper varieties.
I found several companies online with reason-able prices for small, sample packets of seeds such as Sandhill Preservation, Mandy’s Greenhouse, Southern Exposure and Rare Seeds. You can also find a few varieties offered in your regular seed catalogs.
Every January, I look forward to receiving the new seed catalogs in the mail. I love going through them, finding new varieties, and planning the garden. A few years back I was going through the heirloom tomatoes section, trying to limit myself to 15 varieties so I don’t crowd out everything else.
My favorite seed catalogs offered two varieties of Long Keepers with the promise that they would ripen up in the root cellar in January and February. So I purchased a sample packet of each. One was a standard red skin tomato with red pulp. The other variety was a yellow skin/red pulp variety called “golden treasure.” When I received the seeds I separated the Long Keeper packets, as I would be planting them later in the season. Since the fruits are picked just prior to first-frost (late October) I would need to put the seedlings in the ground around the end of May.
Starting Tomato Seeds
I start all tomato seeds using medium-size peat pots set in masonry mixing tubs. The peat pots can be found in most all garden supply catalogs. You will notice there are many sizes and shapes offered. They are sold “loose” or in flats. I prefer the standard medium size, round, peat pot and I buy them in 72 count flats, which make them much easier to handle.
The masonry mixing tubs can be purchased at any do-it-yourself store and are essential for keeping the peat pots from drying out while the seeds are sprouting. You can water the seedlings from the bottom by pouring the water directly into the tub and letting the peat pots absorb the water from the bottom up. Remember what Grams told me: “Tomatoes hate showers.” She was saying that I shouldn’t get the leaves wet. So by using this method for sprouting you can keep the seedlings moist and keep the leaves dry. I start all tomato seeds about four to six weeks prior to planting them in the garden.
My Long Keepers are planted in the potato rows once the spuds are dug up and removed in late May. Starting seeds in April, they are still prone to late season, overnight frosts. So I place them in a passive solar greenhouse. Remember too, that Grams told me, “They are hungry all the time.” So from the first the first watering I use a weak mixture of one teaspoon of organic fish emulsion fertilizer for every gallon of water. Tomato seeds are small and offer very little nutrition for the young seedlings.
Watering this way will make nutrients immediately available as your seedlings sprout. Continue water-ing the seedlings with this mixture until you have the first set of true leaves (after the cotyledon leaves). Now you are ready to transplant.
A strong and vigorous root system is essential for a healthy and productive tomato plant. An interesting characteristic of all tomato varieties is their ability to produce hair-like growth on the stem. These are actually roots. Called “adventitious roots,” they are located all along the stem of the plant. Tomatoes seem to produce more of these adventitious roots than other vegetables, but you will find these same roots on other plants in the garden such as watermelon vines.
Transplant your tomato seedlings in their peat pots. Place the peat pot an inch or so below the soil line and fill in the soil above. This will allow any adventitious roots in contact with the soil to grow and aid in developing a strong and vigorous root system for your tomatoes.
Once your seedlings are in the ground they become vulnerable to predation from insects and predators. My biggest problem with seedling predation comes from small birds. They hop down the row and cut the seedlings off at ground level, often just leaving the cut seedlings on the ground.
I developed an inexpensive and easy way to protect the young seedling transplants until they are large enough to prevent predation, using transparent plastic cups and metal stays from the drip line. Large packages of transparent plastic drinking cups are available at your favorite discount retail store. Use a razor blade to cut the bottom off each cup and make a slit down the side of the cup.
Place a cup, upside-down, over each seedling. Secure the cups with a metal stay from the drip-line system. This will protect your seedlings until they can grow big enough (to the top of the cup) to where the birds won’t cut them down. This also guards against many insects too, such as ants that eat seedlings. I leave the cups on until the plants start to grow out of the top. They also have the additional benefit of acting as small greenhouses, increasing humidity and temperature levels around the seedlings, promoting growth.
With a little care, you can store and use the plastic cups for more than one season.
Remember that we have been watering the seedlings with a weak mixture of fish emulsion fertilizer and water. As Grams said, “Tomatoes are always hungry.”
So once the seedlings are in the ground, I continue watering using this same mixture in the drip-line. Once the plants are large enough to start producing flowers, I stop using the nitrogen-rich fish emulsion and switch over to a balanced 3-3-3 organic liquid fertilizer. I find this fertilizer at my local Farm Supply Store. Remember that nitrogen promotes leaf growth so once the plant has achieved a mature size, it is important to move to a balanced fertilizer to promote flower and fruit production. By using liquid fertilizers, I can feed the plants through the drip-line, which helps to keep the leaves dry and free of mold. Mold is a common problem with tomatoes. Using a drip-line and row covers will help minimize mold on your tomato plants.
All tomato varieties have flowers with both stamens and ovaries. This allows for fertilization to take place, using wind as a pollinator. Long Keepers will be flowering and “setting” fruit later in the season than other tomato varieties. So, no need to worry if you find little or no bee activity in the garden while Long Keepers are flowering. Wind will be the major source for pollination. If you have little to no wind activity in the garden during flowering, a shake of the tomato plant can yield the same result as wind. The best time to do this is midday on a warm day with low humidity.
Additionally, most all tomatoes have a “parthenocarpic” ability to produce fruit. The Latin word literally means “virgin fruit,” and refers to the flower’s ability to produce a fruit without fertilization.
Green tomato hornworms can be spotted and picked from plants early in the morning. Once picked, tomatoes start to ripen in the cellar.
Mold And Worms
A couple of problems I have on any given year with my tomato plants are green tomato hornworms and mold. The worms are fairly easy to control by walking the rows each morning and plucking them from the tops of the plants by hand. Morning is the best time of day to do this as the worms are generally located at the tops of the plants, close to the tips of the stems, and are easier to spot. As the sun rises, the worms retreat to lower parts of the plant where they can shield themselves from the heat. Once I have the worms collected, I feed them to the chickens who love their morning treat. The tomato hornworms show color variation due to the color of the tomato variety they eat.
Mold can be controlled by using a drip-line water system and row covers. Remember, “They hate showers.” Keeping the plants as dry as possible will limit the chance of mold taking hold.
All varieties of Long Keepers I have grown are the type that are picked green prior to the first frost and ripened in the root cellar. Each variety has performed well, setting large amounts of good-sized fruit. When the fruit reaches a mature size it stays green and hard, never really coloring up more than a slight yellowing to the deep green color. The frost is what tells me it’s time to pick, not the color or softness of the fruit.
So, a few days before the first frost I pick all Long Keeper fruit. I clean and sort the fruit, discarding any bruised or damaged ones. I also discard any dirty fruit that can’t be cleaned by a simple wipe with a cloth or dusting. It is not recommended to clean the fruit with water. Once the fruit is sorted, they are ready to be placed in a shallow cardboard box. Leave enough space to ensure that the fruits are not touching. This will allow the air to easily pass through the stored fruit. The fruit is now ready for the root cellar.
There is another technique for storing Long Keepers in the root cellar. Rather than picking the fruit, just pull the plant out entirely, remove all dirt from the roots, remove any damaged fruit from the plant, and hang the plant upside-down in the root cellar. The plant will wither and dry out, but the fruit will ripen slowly, just like the picked fruit in shallow cardboard boxes. Regardless of the manner you use to store and ripen the fruit, check it each week. Remove any fruit showing damage or bruising to ensure it doesn’t spoil the viable tomatoes. After about four weeks you will notice the color beginning to change.
When the fruit looks and feels ripe to the touch, you have fresh tomatoes. For me they are ready sometime in mid-January and stay good into March! I find the longer they are in the root cellar, the less acidic the taste. Now, I won’t tell you the taste is every bit as good as what you take from the garden in mid-summer season, but what you do have is something much better than anything you find in the supermarket in January.
Kevin Geer runs a small ranch in Northern Baja, California located just south and east of San Diego, California, where he grows fruits and vegetables organically for Rancho la Puerta, a local spa and health resort.