Saturday, 4 February 2012

Book Review: The Heirloom Tomato

The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table
Amy Goldman, 2008

I’ve been on a bit of a heirloom tomato kick the last couple years. If you pick up The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table and take a look at how beautiful they are, you might understand how I became smitten. There are dozens of tomatoes pictured, all plumply ripe, and visibly delicious (if that’s possible. I think it is. Pass the salt shaker and fresh basil please!) 

I stumbled on this book by accident. Even though this was an amazingly mild winter, the lack of growing things started to get to me, as usual, in January. To take the edge off I stopped at the garden center one day on my way home from work, to peruse their selection of seeds. They had an excellent selection of many flowers and vegetables, but there weren’t any “interesting” tomatoes (i.e. heirloom varieties that I wanted to grow). I thought about waiting until Canada Blooms, as there are always several seed vendors there, including those selling unusual heirloom vegetables. But what if they weren’t coming this year? After dinner I went on the internet to have a look at this year’s Canada Blooms vendors.

One thing led to another, and before I knew it I had stumbled on the mother of all heirloom tomato seed websites, Tatianas Tomatobase. 593 varieties of heirloom tomato seeds were available!  And yes, I went through the website and looked at every last one. Amazingly, the site has photos (at various stages of growth and development) for each variety, along with details on the plant’s history, growth habit, etc. This is the work of a genius or a well organized tomato addict, possibly both. Even better, the grower is in Canada, the seeds were $2.50 a package, and the shipping costs were extremely low. I was quite proud of myself for only ordering 5 packets (which arrived in less than a week!)

While I was poking around on Tatianas Tomatobase I followed some links and discovered which bills itself as “the world's largest online community of tomato growers.”  There are countless forums and articles on, of course, tomatoes. If you have a tomato-growing question, this is the website for you.

Anyhow, somewhere on Tatiana’s website she listed The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table as a good resource, so I picked it up at the Toronto Public Library. As mentioned, there are many beautiful photos of tomatoes, and lots of detailed information on quite a few varieties. But not nearly as many varieties as you’ll find on the tomato website. However, if you like to browse through a lovely book instead of clicking a mouse, this is a good way to get your information. The back quarter of the book is devoted to recipes, the front eight to growing and seed saving.

As I’m not one to read the complete details of every plant described (but instead leaf through, look at the pretty pictures, and delve into the full details only of varieties that looked especially interesting) I found it a pretty quick read.

If you’re interested in a book that’s more of a tomato story than a reference, I highly recommend Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark, 2008.  If you’ve ever grown a tomato, you’ll enjoy this book.

Book Review: The Surprising Life of Constance Spry

The Surprising Life of Constance Spry: From social reformer to society florist.
(Sue Shephard, Macmillan, 2010)

I picked up this book for two reasons; I have the David Austin rose “Constance Spry” so I wanted to know about its namesake, and I enjoyed a previous book by this author, Seeds of Fortune: A Great Gardening Dynasty. I’m delighted to report that this book is a much faster read than Shephards’ previous book, and in fact was a real page-turner. Spry’s life really was surprising!

Shephard brought to life the interesting tale of a forlorn child with a rather miserable beginning who, through many odd twists and turns, ended up the florist of choice for the UK’s elite, even doing the flowers for a royal wedding! The book had to be a biography; as a work of fiction it would never be believable.

I won’t give away all the interesting parts but will instead dwell on what the book revealed as the cutting edge of floral design in the 30’s and 40’s—the use of kale leaves and other edibles in arrangements. Indeed, a floral design in a shop window featuring these elements was such a head turner that the police had to be called to clear a sidewalk! Startling for the time, I’m sure. But what struck me is that these are the very elements we see touted now, both in cut flower design and in planted containers, that are thought to be so “on the edge.” How did the floral design and gardening world lose these elements between the middle of the last century and now?

Also interesting is that Spry, who was really behind the birth of formal floral arranging competitions (oops, I gave away more of the story!) completely disapproved of the idea of competition in floral design. She thought it should be a venue for self-expression, and a way for everyone of any economic means, to have beauty in their life. Furthermore, she abhorred the idea that there were set “rules” for design (you know the ones we all contort ourselves to for floral shows—flowers must not touch the table, the proportions must be thus and so, etc.) 

For gardeners and those who like to arrange flowers (and yes, even grow Rosa “Constance Spry”) this book is worth a read.