Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Saturday Morning Visit to WalMart

A Saturday Morning Visit to WalMart

We just got back from our weekly Saturday morning WalMart visitation. After quickly gathering our goods, we chose the shorter of the two long checkout lines. The lady in front of us was a friendly line-talker. Tall, grey-streaked hair (“earned every one of them”),dressed in faded denim overalls and hiking boots, she asked me for help with a universal battery charger for her cell phone. As is usual in technological matters of late, I was of no help. Meanwhile she kept up interesting conversation with my wife and me as we waited for the non-English-speaking middle-aged couple to finish their check-out.

The couple was finally done being ringed up and their basket was full of food when the husband slid his card to pay. The line had grown very long with many frowning people channeling their disgust in laser-dart stares. The cashier frowned and motioned for him to slide the card again. She frowned again and gestured to the man that the card didn't work. A hand-signed conversation began with no good end in sight. The couple looked perplexed and scared. It was obvious that this was a huge setback for them. They had no currency and their card didn't work. They began to park their cart and were about to leave when the friendly lady with whom we had been conversing, stepped up to the card scanner and ran her debit card through, paying for their groceries. The cashier turned to her and said, "Are you sure you want to do this?" She affirmed. I didn't see the final total, but the basket was full -easily a $150 cart.

The man and woman looked shocked and didn't know what to say. After a moment they gathered themselves and thanked her in some language I didn't recognize. The man came over to her, took her hand, held it firmly, and looked directly at her with tears in his eyes.

As the couple walked away with their basket of food, both my wife and I told the angel what a beautiful gesture that was. She responded, "I really hate to see people embarrassed that way."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Save Our Schools and The State of Education Today

What follows is a response to a message board post by Valencia Hokie that I wrote today. I hope you can figure out what the original poster questioned. I share this to prove to my readers that I actually am alive and still can write sometimes.

Valencia, I’m glad you brought up Matt Damon and the Save Our Schools March. The march and rally took place this past Saturday on The Ellipse in front of the White House. About 5,000 education supporters (and a few non-supporters) attended including my wife and me. We stood out in the baking sun for hours listening to speeches from nationally renowned education experts and partisans. Linda Darling-Hammond (once Obama’s top education adviser), Jonathan Kozol, author of “Savage Inequalities” among many other books, Diane Ravitch, HW Bush’s Deputy Education Secretary, and Matt Damon, son of a teacher all spoke at the rally among many others. Coverage of the rally was drowned out by the debt crisis, but it was loud none-the-less. I’m so very glad I went.

Here's a look at a video collection I made from the rally.

In Virginia, SOL’s really aren’t the problem. SOL accountability measures are. First a little history…

Basically, the SOL’s in Virginia (other states have different accountability systems) are quite an improvement over what was in place back in the early 1980’s. Back then, there were no state standards. Hence, if a fourth grade teacher decided that she would like to teach about plants, then she’d do that, even if the first, second, and third grade teachers had already covered the topic. In that age before electronic communication, there was little contact between classrooms. The teacher ruled her four walls. Additionally, if a child transferred from one state school district to another, they’d most likely encounter huge gaps in their educations, since there was no core standard curriculum. The SOL’s in Virginia, first developed in 1988, were a serious attempt to standardize the core curriculum across the entire state, which was wildly successful.

In 1994, George Allen was elected Governor. One of his first moves as Governor was to implement a test accountability system to become effective in 1997. Secrecy shrouded these tests. No one knew what exactly would be tested, only that they would cover the SOL’s. When the results came out, it was determined that only 45-50% of the students passed fourth grade Reading. Similar scores were charted for Math, Science, and Social Studies. After a few years of testing, the state decided to introduce blueprints and frameworks, so that teachers had some kind of guide for instruction. Up until this time, all teaching material was developed by individual teachers. Textbooks simply didn’t exist that met Virginia’s standards. Teachers referred to this strange era as “The backwards time”- when the accountability came first and the diagnosis came second.

NCLB came along in 2001. NCLB is actually a federal bill called “The Education and Secondary Education Act.” It’s up for reauthorization by Congress this year. George II and Teddy K liked to refer to it as “No Child Left Behind.” NCLB, for the first time, instituted sticks to beat teachers and school divisions with if they failed to meet designated standards. These standards were graduated so that by 2013 100% of ALL children in public schools would meet or surpass predetermined pass scores. ALL children means just that. No excuses. Blind…pass the test. Retarded…pass the test. Learning Disabled…pass the test. Poor…pass the test. Black…pass the test. NCLB also instituted a sub-group game, sort of like a side bet at a football game with unusual and quirky rules. If your school has 50 or more special education students and less than ____% fail the state tests, then the whole school is deemed a failure. If your school has 50 or more economically disadvantaged students and more than ___% fail the tests, your school fails, etc. Fail once, you’re shunned. Fail twice, you’re on double secret probation, fail a third time, you’re shut down-teachers transferred and poor, unsuspecting teachers are sent in to replace you and your colleagues. (side note: I remember when my wife taught at an inner city school. There was no way in hell they would pass the tests or meet the standard cut scores. No way. The teachers were vilified in the press and in front of their peers and accused of being horrible teachers despite the fact that they were working harder for their children than any other faculty in the district…Across town, there was a school where all of the economically advantaged children went to school. They passed the tests, although their faculty really didn’t have to work hard to make that happen. They were praised in the media and in front of their peers. My wife and her friends looked forward to the day when they were transferred out and sent to other schools and were replaced by the golden teachers:) Once implemented, these ratcheting standards have forced teachers to “Teach to the Test” in order to meet expectations. You are even hearing of cases where teachers cheat the tests (Atlanta) to meet expectations.

Your question had to do with should Virginians keep the SOL’s or ditch them. It’s rather complicated, but I think that we may need to ditch them in the end. One other poster here alluded to the necessity for a common set of standards across the USA. I suspect that’s where we are heading. Virginia is one of six states that have yet to buy in to the “Common Core” curriculum standards. Part of the reason why is that Virginia was way out ahead of the “reform” movement when we developed the SOL’s in 1988. Now, however, most states have joined hands in the common core race and Virginia is slowly getting left behind. Why can’t Virginia go it alone? We can, but teachers need resources, especially resources that tie to the curriculum. We’ve just spent the past 23 years developing our own resources, but most teachers across the country utilized packaged materials from textbook and resource companies. Make no mistake, there’s big money (billions) to be made in this field. Texas, New York, and California drive the textbook and resource market. That’s the way it’s always been. New York and California are both on board with The Common Core. Texas and Virginia haven’t signed on yet.

Ask any public school teacher today…they will all tell you that the job has become impossible and shitty. Few are entering the profession. Since rigid evaluation standards have been implemented across the country without commensurate increases in salary, interest in teaching as a career has declined. In California over the past seven years, 45% fewer people are working toward a teaching credential. Yale has dropped their undergrad teaching prep program. In New York City, the poster child of reform, 50% of teachers leave by the end of five years in the classroom.

Why such disillusionment? Teachers have become the enemy of America. One reason for that is that most teachers are unionized (not in Virginia). Not just an ordinary union…but the largest union in the country. NEA has 3.2 million members. AFT has another 1.5 million. That means that teachers have the #1 and # 3 largest unions in the country. That makes them a very large target to people who want to politically devalue that base. One particular party views union voters with antipathy. If they can devalue the powerful teacher unions, they will have a clearer road to control of government. Another reason for the disillusionment is that teachers have become testers. The art of teaching, that which brought joy and want to the profession, has been replaced by sterile numbers and a business model for education, one where we don’t teach students; instead, we administer to clients. Teaching has become joyless, stress-filled, and empty for so very many. Again, that’s one reason why so many are leaving and so few qualified people are replacing them.

Teachers are now coming under the control of VAM’s (Value Added Models of evaluation) VAM’s sound like a great way to evaluate teachers and weed out the bad apples. Compare student achievement on standardized tests at the end of one year with the test score at the end of the next year. Simple. You can even tie teacher pay to test results. That’s where the Governor of Virginia wants to head before he becomes Vice President. The problem is that schools aren’t that tidy. Break points are arbitrary and subjective. The VAM’s really can’t determine which teacher is effective or ineffective, good or bad. Only which ones have their students answer questions on the standardized tests correctly. Plus, how do you compare growth using a Geometry score compared to an Algebra score? How do you factor in team teaching? How do you account for the effects of outside tutoring that only some students receive? How do you facor in kids who don’t come to school or suffer traumatic events? How do you factor in the wide variance of gains or losses students experience over a summer? How do you factor in transfers from out of the district, school? How do you evaluate Music, Art, PE, Kindergarten, First grade teachers? How do you disincentive teachers who teach to the test? VAM’s make no sense when you really get down to it. Yet, they are popular. Why? $$$$ There is gold in those hills. Testing companies stand to make millions/billions developing the tests that will determine a teacher’s future in the career.

What would be a better way to evaluate teachers? I think that the best way would be to develop PAR’s (Peer Assistance and Review) committees. Some of these programs have been used successfully to evaluate teachers since the early 80’s. (Toledo, Cincinnati, Rochester, etc) PAR panels observe and evaluate all teachers, and take the evaluation burden away from the school principal and building administrators, freeing them up to assist in content and instructional delivery methods within the school. The panels are made up of 6-12 people, half teachers and half administrators. These panelists take over the responsibility of observing and mentoring teachers throughout the year. At year’s end, they recommend to the panel whether a teacher should be retained, dismissed, or receive more assistance. The panel then reviews these reports and records, interviews the teachers, and makes a decision. No test arbitrary scores. No “gotcha” media. No $$$$ Bill Gates/Harcourt Brace money grab. Real, powerful professional standards enforcement by the professionals themselves.

You asked two other questions. How would you appropriate money and how would you keep teachers from cheating?

Regarding funding, the state of Virginia has been shirking its constitutional obligation to fully fund public school education for about the past five years. The state has an independent assessment of what investment it would take to fully fund education. This assessment is brought before the General Assembly each budget cycle and the GA then determines what its share will be. When I first started in the profession 30 years ago, the state was kicking in about 55% of the cost with the localities picking up around 40%. The feds usually carried the last 6%. These days, however, state support has shrunk to around 33% with the localities picking up around 51% and the feds kicking in around 6%. In addition, the state has redefined what it considers fully funding its share. For example, the battle every year is whether or not elementary school guidance counselors, art teachers, and music teachers will be included in the formula. These decisions really impact how the locality handles school funding, their instructional program, and local tax structures. Ultimately in Virginia, the General Assembly is constitutionally obligated to FULLY fund its share of educational costs in the commonwealth. This has NOT been happening.

As for keeping those nasty teachers from cheating. I’d fire them if they are caught. That’s a violation of the basic teaching contract in the state and punishable by immediate termination. Contrary to popular lore, no public school teacher in America has tenure. Tenure is a lifetime appointment that’s generally used at institutions of higher learning. Most teachers in union states have the specific right to hear and refute evidence if they are dismissed, binding arbitration through due process. In Virgina, a right to work state, teachers still have the right to know why they are being dismissed if they have attained continuing contract status, due process. Such status generally comes after a three year probationary period. Such a hearing is NOT binding, however. In other words, teachers can be dismissed even if the panel rules in the teacher’s favor. Non-continuing contract teachers can be dismissed at any time without cause.

Moreover, teachers will be less likely to cheat on tests if the tests are used for their original purpose, as a diagnostic tool to help guide instruction. When tests are used as hammers to determine career status or merit pay, there’s a ripe incentive to cheat.

I recently came across some interesting information regarding America’s schools. You know that we’ve all been conditioned by the media to believe that our schools are failing. I suppose they are in one way, but not another. According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests 15 year-old students in 60 developed countries, the USA generally scores about 14th in reading scores. That’s not good. However, if you mine down a bit, and compare countries with low poverty to US schools with low poverty and suddenly we come out on top WAY on top. This holds true when you compare our kids at schools with 10% or less of poverty and schools with 20% or less poverty. Finland, for example has a poverty rate of 3.4%. If we compare that country to our schools with less than 10% poverty, we blow them away. Only when you compare our schools with their 20.7% poverty rate against those other schools with their low single digit poverty rates do we fall to 14th.

Another piece of research I recently came across was “The Coleman Report” from 1966. That was the first research based study that identified “one-third in-school factors, two-thirds family characteristics” ratio to explain variations in student achievement. Results from that initial study have been validated, most recently in 2004 (Class and Schools). So student achievement isn’t just a school issue, it’s a larger societal issue. As a career teacher, those conclusions make sense to me and ring true.

What does this all mean? To me, it means that we have a poverty problem. Until we figure out as a society how to deal with that, we won’t see improvement.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tomato and Pepper Plants 2011

This is the time of year when I set my tomatoes and pepper seedlings outside to get acclimated to the real world. Once again, I've created a "catalog". This year, I decided to fictionalize most of the historical descriptions. I certainly had a fun time creating some different stories.

Tomato and Pepper

Plants 2011

I have a limited stock of the following varieties of Tomatoes and Peppers. The suggested donation is $1.50 each (4/$5.00). Plants were tendered from seed and suckled on water in an organic mix. No additives other than treated county water, rainwater, dust particles, seaweed, and Roanoke’s own natural air pollution have ever been added to these plants or their immediate environment.

Here are my babies with a brief description of each variety. Determinate means that the plant sets all of its fruit at once. Indeterminate means that the plant keeps producing fruit and it ripens on the vine as long as the plant is alive. The fruit comes in throughout the season. I’m partial to indeterminate types. (#) = how many of this plant I have in stock. Of course, I’ll be taking my own cut from the total number, so for some varieties, there won’t be nearly that many available.

Not necessarily a new variety…just a new one in my garden this year

"A world without tomatoes is like a string quartet without violins." - Laurie Colwin

Main Crop Tomato

You can put it on a sandwich with a bit of salt and mayo. I like to open the bread and lay a tomato slice on it then toss the whole package into the toaster oven. You can have a lot of classic food fun with slicing tomatoes.

It's difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.
~Lewis Grizzard

Abraham Lincoln This heirloom variety produces 9 ounce fruit that supposedly is quite prolific. Abraham Lincoln was a variety developed by the Buckbee Seed Company in 1923. Introduced with little fanfare, it gradually grew in popularity until it became more popular than lawn grass. Other seed companies rushed to get on the bandwagon. Soon, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt were wildly popular as well. The Alexander Hamilton fared horribly, however, and was dispatched to the seed graveyard.

Indeterminate (3)

Better Boy A 12 ounce tomato, Better Boy is the current standard for excellent, well-rounded tomatoes in the modern home garden.

Better Boy is the latest in a long lineage of Boy tomatoes. Coupled with the Girl family of tomatoes, a home gardener has all he needs to propagate success. Boy was the first of this great family. Soon after, Girl appeared-genetically spliced from organic Boy material. Boy and Girl ruled gardens for many years. Eventually, more Boys and Girls appeared. Big Boy, Early Girl, Early Wonder, Good Boy, Bad Boy, Best Boy, Husky Boy, Big Girl. These days, Better Boy is the best Boy.

Indeterminate (12)

BHN 444 Hybrid A modern hybrid, BHN 444 is notable for its disease resistance. This medium sized slicer with the outside shell texture of a bell pepper is resistant to many common plant diseases as well as many human diseases as well. BHN 444 is resistant to German Measles, psoriasis, shingles, and Justin Bieber.

Determinate (9)

Black Krim This rare heirloom variety originally from the Isle of Krim in the former Soviet Union is a mid-sized dark slicing tomato.

Krim used to be a cherry sized yellow tomato before the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster of 1986.

Indeterminate (12)

Brandywine Sudduth Strain Large pink fruit up to 2lb.Brandywine tomatoes are cult favorites among old-time gardeners. This “Pink Brandywine” strain, obtained by Ben Quisenberry from Dorris Sudduth Hill, whose family had “grown it for more than 80 years” is considered the absolute best by many of those old-timers. Ben’s acquisition of the Suddith Strain is shrouded in some mystery. Dorris Suddith Hill had taken some of the family’s heirloom seeds and trialed them in her garden with great success. Mr. Quisenberry, her next-door neighbor, had worked his family’s established garden for many years with little success. Some suggest that Quisenberry, jealous over his neighbor’s gardening success, disappeared Ms. Hill and absconded with her precious seeds.

Indeterminate (7)

Carbon Perhaps my dog’s favorite tomato last summer, Carbon produces a fair number of large, dark-coloured fruit.

My dog enjoys tomatoes, especially Carbon. Last year was my first summer with Carbon, and I really wanted to see if it would produce better and taste better than Cherokee Purple. So I planted one in a special location in my small garden and planted another in one of those new-fangled up-side-down-get-people-to-throw-away-their-hard-earned-money-on-frilly-nothingness tomato containers. I set the container up on my deck initially, and as the plant grew, it developed several excellent specimens, and I moved it out into the yard. As they gradually grew larger, they dipped closer to the ground. The very day I intended to pick them, I observed my 12 year-old arthritic black lab pooch get up on her hind legs and snatch each one individually from the vine. She had dripping black tomato juice bleeding from her sharp canine jaws and a wide grin on her face.

Indeterminate (16)

Cherokee Purple This heirloom variety produces 5 ½-inch fruit that some regard as quite tasty. According to many sources, the plants are not terribly prolific, and are susceptible to disease. Some, however, would disagree with that assessment.

Cherokee Purple’s history is steeped in the ancient Native American lore of the Cherokee Nation. It is told that these seeds, scattered across wide acreage, ward off predatory cats. Since its introduction, wild predatory cats have virtually disappeared from the east coast of the United States.

Indeterminate (12)

Delicious Perhaps you knew this. Delicious has the record for largest tomato ever measured. In 1974, Jonathan Wilbur from Arab, Alabama grew a lone Delicious vine along the back side of his three bedroom ranch house. Wilbur trained the plant along a central stalk and carefully tended one tomato. All other fruit was removed and the plant was actively suckered. He fed his plant weekly initially with a concoction of seaweed and fish emulsion. As his prize tomato accelerated its growth, Wilbur increased the feeding and developed reinforcing structures that attached to the side of his house. Finally, fearing that the tomato would damage the side of his home, he called the local horticultural extension agent and explained that he needed his massive Delicious tomato, affectionately named “Bubba”, weighed and measured. The agent arrived on the scene promptly with an industrial scale. Carefully raising the scale to the tomato and gradually allowing the scale to accept its full weight, this record breaker went down in the books: 114 lbs. 7oz.-that’s not a misprint. Bubba’s circumference was an eye-popping 73 inches.

Sadly, hours after the measurement, Wilbur returned home from a celebratory dinner to find Bubba’s remains lying on the ground below the vine and his cute blue tick hound, Sadie, lounging beside it grinning from ear to ear.

Indeterminate (7)

Djena Lee’s Golden Girl Djena (ZShena) Lee, famous tomato developer of the 1920’s, developed this golden gem. After her passing, the tomato seeds were taken by her minister. For years he hoarded them before finally entering the fruit in a Chicago tomato taste-testing fair. One judge reportedly exclaimed, "When eating the center of the tomato it continues to explode in my mouth." Impossible story, I know. But it’s the truth. How can a person talk after a tomato explodes in their mouth? Djena Lee’s Golden Girl went on exploding its way to blue ribbons at that Fair for the next ten years.

Indeterminate (8)

Druzba Perhaps the friendliest tomato you’ll ever grow. Druzhba in Bulgarian means “Friendship.” This large tomato is supposed to provide excellent yields with good disease resistance. I can’t say that my experience bears this out. In fact, I didn’t find the tomato to be very friendly at all. Every time I’d go to talk with it, the plant would just curl up its leaves.

Indeterminate (3)

Early Girl For many years now, Burpee’s Early Girl was been a staple member of America’s gardens. It’s an early season tomato with decent slicing size.

Early Girl became the golden seed in Burpee’s 1960’s catalogs. Seed beta testers reported that this variety germinates in ground covered by up to two feet of snow. First fruit can be picked in deep snows as well; however, it is susceptible to snow drifts.

Indeterminate (7)

Early Wonder What a cool early tomato. Early Wonder develops wonderful little clusters of fruit. A pale shade of red, these clusters pale in the sunlight and fool you into thinking that they aren’t ripening. But they are! How cool is that?

Indeterminate (11)

Giant Belgium 1½ to five pound fruit. That’s representing. Giant Belgium is a beefsteak tomato, but has a more regular shape and less wasted tomato according to reports.

Giant Belgium was named by Bertrand Verhaegen, famous Belgian aerialist. He was noted for riding his unicycle seventy-five feet above the hard earth while munching on this giant tomato that he obtained from his Aunt Elise’s garden. Sadly, Verhaegen died tragically one late summer day in 1923 when his unicycle hit a kink in the wire just as he was about to chomp into a Giant Belgium. Bertrand plunged to his death, forever sealing his place in Belgian lore.

Indeterminate (7)

Goliath A giant tomato in the 1-2lb range with some getting as large as 3lb on a huge plant as one catalog says or growing 10 -15 oz fruit on a bushy plant that are good for containers. Goliath, for such a large plant, is masked in invisibility. You will never actually notice that you are growing this plant until just before the fruit is ready for picking.

Indeterminate (5)

Jet Star 7 to 8 oz red fruit. Low acid. Compact plant.
“ ‘Uncle’" Dick raised hogs, greens, and Jet Star tomatoes. Sold them at the public Market. We weeded and later picked these tomatoes; they were and still are the one tomato I can count on come harvest time. I can them and we eat them off the vine. I try several varieties every year for fun, but depend on Jet Star for canning. I put in 100 plants and feed give away a lot of tomatoes.” ~Marc from Monroe County, NY

Marc is strange.

Indeterminate (7)

Momotarō: 6 to 7 oz perfectly round pink fruit. This import from Japan is regarded as the most popular tomato there. It’s supposed to be sweet and tasty.

In America, this tomato is sometimes called “Tough Guy,” but in Japan, Momotarō is a popular hero in folklore. According to Wikipedia, in the oldest known version of the legend, an “old, childless woman discover[s] the giant, floating peach and take[s] it home with her, as she finds it to be of good color and tasty-looking. After eating a piece of the peach, the old woman is suddenly rejuvenated and regains the beauty of her youth. When her old husband comes home from the hills, he is astounded to find a dazzling young lady in his house. At first he does not even recognize his own wife in her rejuvenated form, but she explains to him how she has picked up an unusual peach floating in the river and brought it home to eat it and was magically transformed. She then gives her husband a piece of the peach to eat, and he also regains his youthful vigor. That night, the newly invigorated couple make love, and the woman becomes pregnant as a result. She eventually gives birth to their first child, a son, whom they name Tarō, as that is a common Japanese name for a first son.

Years later, Momotarō left his parents for an island called Onigashima to destroy the marauding oni (demons or ogres) that dwelt there. En route, Momotarō met and befriended a talking dog, monkey, and pheasant, who agreed to help him in his quest. At the island, Momotarō and his animal friends penetrated the demons' fort and beat the demons' leader, Ura, as well as his army, into surrendering. Momotarō returned home with his new friends, and his family lived comfortably from then on.”

By eating this perfectly round tomato, may you be rejuvenated. Too bad I only have ten plants; the other fifty didn’t germinate.

Indeterminate (10)

Park’s Whopper This is the mega monster. It’s the big kahuna. The Whopper is the greatest tomato ever engineered in The Park Seed Company’s 141-year history. Resistant to everything except size, yield, and taste, this variety will engulf your garden and swallow the neighborhood. It’s that big.

The Park Seed Company was struggling to make ends meet during the Panic of ’98 (1898) when their research team developed this winner. While Park had an established seed business in Pennsylvania, they were fortunate to strike up a deal with Sear’s to market this new seed in their Winter catalog. It became the best selling seed in the catalog thanks to a clever ad-copy and art.

Indeterminate (7)

Peron Peron is a medium-sized early season slicer. This is an heirloom variety that seems to have few disease problems. This variety is also known as “Peron Sprayless” because supposedly it is so disease resistant that it never needs insecticidal interventions.

Last year, I created an emulsion from the leaves, fruit and stems of the plant and smeared it all over my deck, outdoor chairs, and body. I noticed a measurable drop in insect annoyances.

Indeterminate (6)

Polish If you are looking for a large red brick (or pink) coloured tomato, then Polish may just well be the one. It bears large 1 to 1 ½-pound fruit that is great for canning or slicing. Some reports I’ve read claim massive yields from this heirloom. Keep in mind that it’s a traditional beefsteak which means that the fruit will be irregularly shaped, ribbed, and lack production. Word has it that this variety was smuggled out of Poland on the back of a postage stamp.

My father’s family hails from Poland, so it’s sort of cool that I found this variety in my hunt for interesting new tomatoes a few years ago. I remember my grandmother muttering in Polish about the deer that ravaged her garden every year. She ran a chicken farm near Sag Harbor, New York. I have many fond memories of traipsing through the fields and woods to get to the Great Peconic Bay beach so I could collect shells, clams, and driftwood. Polish churns up a lot of memories.

Indeterminate (5)

Soldacki Another Polish tomato that was brought to Ohio around 1900. Soldacki (I wish I had spelled it correctly on the cups) is a tomato loaded with potential. I’ll be honest. If you grow this tomato, be prepared to baby it. It has a thin skin that is susceptible to rotting if left too long on the vine. It’s also prone to cracking which allows the annoying little black ants to invade and devour the fruit.

Indeterminate (5)

Supersonic Supersonic was one of the varieties that my father used to grow. It was developed in the 1960’s by the Harris Seed Company. The fruit is between 5 and 8 ounces, but it grows in clusters. My Pop used to pick these gems and my Mom would put up quart after quart of delicious tomatoes.

Indeterminate (21)

Thessaloniki Greek by birth, this ancient baseball-sized heirloom is prolific enough to waste the excess pelting actors in Greek dramas.

The earliest record of this ancient variety was on an ancient parchment scribed to warn wise Thessalonians of a troubling agricultural problem. According to the best translations available, it seems that the surrounding area was suffering the ravaging effects of roving bands of tomato hunting dogs. These canines wandered from farm to farm attacking tomato plants loaded with ripe fruit. One description of an attack suggested that the satisfied dogs would lounge beside their kills “…with sweet juice dribbling from their smiling jaws.”

Indeterminate (22)

Virginia Sweets A giant tomato in the 1-2lb range. What sets this tomato apart is it’s strange coloration-orange and red. The variety was first grown in Virginia in the 1860’s after the Civil War. Local lore has it that the first plants were found growing in the Wilderness Battlefield ruins near Locust Grove, Virginia. Some say that the vibrant orange and red were seared into the first plants by the destructive intensity of the battle. Some say that growing Virginia Sweets is akin to growing peace.

Indeterminate (5)

Zapotec Perhaps the weirdest tomato in the collection, Zapotec hails from Mexico. It’s red. However, that’s where the comparison to natural looking tomatoes ends. Zapotec is violently ribbed and oddly pear-shaped. It is hollow inside and contains few if any seeds. It’s a mystery to me where the seeds come from to cultivate this strange thing. Beware that it’s hard to judge when this thing is ripe. It doesn’t last too long on the vine before rot sets into the mountainous ribs.

Indeterminate (7)

Cherry Tomato

Good things come in little packages. These little buggers seem to multiply and are the most indestructible of all tomatoes. I like to cruise the garden and pop ‘em in as I go.

Large Red Cherry Very similar to Sweet Million, my perennial favorite cherry tomato. L.R.C. has tons of tomatoes and produces late into the season, although the fruit is larger than Sweet Million.

Earl McCord from up in Rupert, West Virginia is said to have discovered and named Large Red Cherry. Ordinarily, Earl spent his spring days in the unnamed fields cutting creasy greens and in secret mossy woods searching for illusive merckels.

That spring of 1952, McCord was laid up with a bad case of the gout. Nursed back to health by religiously drinking the family ramp tonic, Earl was finally feeling enough up to par to go out on one of his hunts in late July. Not knowing if he would find a mess of creasy greens or any stray miracles, he wasn’t surprised that there was nothing to be had. On his way back to his trailer, something growing out of a cow pie caught his eye in the creasy greens field-a lone tomato. Balanced and growing tall in the still July air, the plant stood proudly as Earl bent down and marveled at the large, red cherry-sized fruit. Carefully, he uprooted the plant and transplanted it back home at his trailer. After nursing it along for a few days, the plant began to share an abundant harvest of the little big tomatoes.

Earl entered a strawberry basket of these tomatoes in the Fayette County Fair that year and won first prize for the tomato he had named, “Large Red Cherry.”

Indeterminate (4)

Riesentraube This heirloom variety produces hoards of large grape-sized tomatoes in massive clusters. The variety has been grown in America since 1856 when a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer first introduced it from Germany. Cleverly, the Germans had named the plant, Riesentrauble or “Giant Grape.”

These tomatoes would have remained shielded from the modern tomato connoisseur if not for a strange accident. In August of 1936 near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a traveling encyclopedia salesman was speeding down a narrow country lane when his car came upon an Amish farmer taking his vegetables to the local market. The sudden appearance of the car spooked the horse that was pulling the farmer’s cart, thus causing spillage of all the fruit and vegetables. The salesman, a kindly gentleman who felt very sorry for what he had done, immediately stopped and helped the farmer pick up all the messed about food. As they parted ways with kindly tips of the hats and no hard feelings, the farmer reached out and gave the salesman a bunch of Riesentraubes.

Later, the salesman decided to try his hand at starting a seed company. Today the Atlee Burpee company is a leader in vegetable and fruit gardening in the world and Atlee’s first great vegetable hit was Riesentraube.

Indeterminate (4)

Snow White What’s beautiful, white, little, and round? Snow White. It’s fascinating, the science of tomato variety development. Take Snow White , for instance. Tomato breeders were experimenting with all sort of genetic alterations a few years back and stumbled upon an interesting idea one day after picking asparagus. One researcher observed that if you dig underground before an asparagus spear breaks the surface of the ground, it will be almost pure white. His breeding group decided to apply that principle to developing a new tomato variety. They took a common Sweet 100 cherry tomato plant and placed a small black plastic baggie over each developing tomato. They did this repeatedly over generations of growth, hand-pollinating the plants. What they noticed was that in each successive generation, the tomatoes became lighter and lighter in pigmentation until , finally in the 113th generation, all discernable pigmentation was erased. These tomato developers succeeded in creating the first truly white cherry tomato.

Indeterminate (6)

Sun Gold I missed growing this variety last year. These little devils are a sweet yellow color and almost melt in your mouth. You can spend hours just snacking on them in the garden. Go ahead and do it; no one will ever know.

Indeterminate (11)

Sun Sugar More gold, more sweet flavor. Perhaps the best of the best of all the best cherry tomatoes. Sun Sugar is a direct 50/50 blend of sun and sugar. Half the tomato is made from sun. The other half is refined from sugar creating a sunny, sugary treat. You could bottle sunshine and drink it down and you could chase that with a sugar elixir, but you still wouldn’t come close to approximating the sugary, sunny flavor of Sun Sugar tomatoes.

Indeterminate (22)

Sweet Chelsea A few years back, a school chum bought the seed for this variety for me to propagate. She had wanted to try container gardening at her new home, and this was the seed that came in the package she bought. I had never heard of this variety, but I planted it and nurtured the seeds. When it was ready for transplanting, I gave her the plants but kept a couple for myself. By the end of the season, I was in awe. This variety out-produced everything in my garden.

Indeterminate (11)

Sweet Million I’ve grown Sweet Million for many years and it has always been my most prolific cherry tomato. Millions of marble sized tomatoes come from each plant. They keep coming and coming all season. Their taste is delightful. The only problem I’ve ever experienced is a tendency for the fruit to crack, especially if they are exposed to rain just prior to final ripening. When they crack, the soft interior of the plants becomes exposed and it attracts hoards of fruit flies and very small black ants.

Wildly Indeterminate (14)

Tumbling Tom You’ll be swimming in tomatoes from this beautiful, edible ornamental. Perfect for balcony containers in a sunny location, this cute little feller is just perfect for the on-the-go patio gardener. Okay, I know. That sounded like some spiel from a brainless catalog, but it wasn’t. That was just me honing skills I will need after I retire from teaching when I go into the catalog copy business.

Indeterminate (14)

We have to convince the little housewife out there that the tomato that ate the family pet is not dangerous!

~Swan from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Salad Tomato

A smaller version of a slicing tomato. Not everyone recognizes this category. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who uses the term “Salad Tomato.” All I knows is dis. Them buggers are just the right size for plopping into a salad whole. Sometimes just for fun I try to slice salad tomatoes. It’s fun and challenging, too. Be sure you have a sharp knife!

Bella Rosa Y’all looking for a tomato that embraces the southern climate. Bella Rosa is the choice. Wildly popular in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama this determinate produces solid clusters of nice, tasty tomatoes. Bella Rosa handles the usual tomato diseases and few human ones as well.

Determinate (6)

Japanese Black Trifele This Bartlett pear-shaped black tomato hails from the Central Russia. I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t it odd that tomatoes can be pear-shaped and black? The name, what about the name? “Trifele” is an unusual name for a tomato. Some claim that “trifele” is Russian for truffle which makes some sense considering the tomato is Russian in origin. However, others say that “trifele” is actually the Latvian word for “truffle.”

The Japanese connection to this unusual plant comes from a dark period in relations between Japan and Russia. Eizaburo Nomura was a famous Japanese explorer of Central Asia who traveled under the guise of secretary to Count Ōtani Kōzui as they visited ancient Buddhist sites of interest. He made two exhaustive trips there between 1902 and 1910. On his last journey, Russian intelligence became suspicious of their actual status and detained them both after an elaborate tea was set up between them and a local businessman. After tea and truffles, the men were scooped up by intelligence officers and made to confess to being members of the Imperial Japanese Army after hours of having black juice from an oddly pear-shaped tomato drizzled continually down their throats.

Indeterminate (15)

Pink Ping Pong Huge plant that produces pink ping-pong ball sized fruit all season and then some. You’ll most likely have to stake or find some way to contain the plant. Ordinarily, they are very prolific. The tomatoes keep extremely well and can be picked and left to ripen on a counter.

Indeterminate (13)

Stupice Looks like your ordinary garden-variety 1-2 oz salad tomato, yet it’s something more. When I asked The Catawba Gardener, my organic gardening friend, what tomato he swears by, he said, “@^&%#@ right, it’s &%@#!%$* Stupice! A native of Czechoslovakia, Stupice is a cool-weather, early season tomato. The fruit does produce all season, but gets smaller as the summer heat turns on.

Indeterminate (8)

Tigrella Tigrella is a smallish early or late season tomato that has a unique orange and red-striped skin. Sometimes called “Mr. Stripey,” but it should not be confused with the beefsteak also called “Mr. Stripey.” In my garden, my best recent tomato success has come from this class of smaller tomatoes. My friend, The Catawba Gardener, swears by this variety as long as you use real, natural soil as a propagation medium.

Indeterminate (13)

Paste Tomato

When I was growing up, they still had paste in school. Elmer’s glue was around, but economy paste reigned supreme. Old lady Johnson, my first grade teacher looked like paste. She wore an ankle dress with her gray hair in a bun. Her voice would crack almost as much as her ruler on kids’ palms. Every day we’d get the jar of white sticky paste out and use craft sticks to spread glops of it onto paper before gluing our creations down, cementing them for all time. Then she’d offer her critique of our work. She was never very impressed with my gluing. I was too messy. Paste tomatoes are great for making sauce.

Opalka Opalka, my friend, you are back again. I’ve grown Opalka many times in the past with mixed results. In my disease-ridden garden, Opalka is quick to die. The tomatoes, however, are quite tasty. Bred for making paste, these tomatoes are meaty and sausage shaped. Be alert that many may get blossom end rot, an annoying affliction. I hear that if you mix in 1 gallon of hydrated lime juice around the plant, the condition can be mitigated.

Opalka shipped to America in about 1900, about the same time my grandparents came to America from Poland.

Indeterminate (9)

Super Marzano King of the sausage pastes. Super Marzano is the Superman of tomato sauce. Son of Marzano, this super variety really is keen.

Indeterminate (8)

Last year, more people were killed by automobile accidents, heart attacks, lung cancer, and natural causes combined than by any one tomato.

~Commercial in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don't ya? After all, what kind of dames thumb rides, Sunday school teachers?

~Martin Goldsmith

Sweet Pepper

“Sweet” is a bit of a misnomer. Sweet peppers aren’t really sweet. Rather, they are decidedly not spicy. Chocolate is sweet. Well, that’s not right either. Chocolate is actually bitter unless you add a little sugar to it to masque the bitterness. Sugar is sweet though. It’s sticky, too, which makes sugar so darned hard to clean up off the floor when you spill a sweet Coca-Cola. Sweet peppers, on the other hand, don’t make floors sticky when you clean them up. Plus, they’ll still be good and crunchy. Coca-Cola isn’t.

Bell Boy Bell Boy is your average, garden-variety bell pepper. Five inches in diameter. Thick walled and green. It is what it is. If you want a pepper that people want, then this is the pepper for you. It seems like every year, I grow some of these, but then EVERYONE asks me for them so I inevitably run out. Not going to happen this year.

Sweet (21)

Cubanelle The most perfect roasting pepper you will find is the Cubanelle. The fruit is about 2x6”. With proper soil and growing conditions will really produce large quantities of fruit. It looks like it should pack heat, but it truly is just the opposite. Of all the peppers I grow, Cubanelle is my absolute favorite. I like the way it roasts when I slice it in half, strip away the seeds, and coat it with a mixture of olive oil and a hint of garlic before tossing it on my grill.

Sweet (11)

Giant Marconi Quite possibly this is the largest pepper you will ever see. If size matters to you, then this pepper will amaze you. These massive peppers are best served roasted. They are sweeter when red, but edible anytime.

Sweet (13)

Marconi Golden Seven inches long and yellow, this Italian roasting pepper is supposed to be quite the gem in the roasting pepper world. They are staggeringly beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful sweet pepper in the garden.

Sweet (2)

Red Knight Everyone want a bell pepper it seems. Last year I tried these for the first time and was very pleasantly surprised. I had more red bells than I dreamed. The fruit is perfectly shaped and the plant is quite prolific.

Sweet (12)

Revolution Without a doubt, Revolution was the most prolific bell pepper in my garden. My plants started producing early and kept going past the first frost. Fantastic…I still have them stuffed in my freezer. That reminds me. I really need to eat them.

Sweet (17)

Sweet Banana Looks hot, but it’s not. Yellow banana shaped fruit. I love to slice these babies up then freeze them for later use on pizzas from Domino’s. Right now, I have so many of these in the freezer that they are crowding out the frozen Rosemary. Frozen Rosemary? That’s right, another failed frozen experiment. Everything in our freezer now smells like Rosemary. Did you know that Rosemary smells a lot like freshly cut pine, and its stems have a sap that’s just as sticky. Vanilla Rosemary ice cream isn’t very good. Oh yes, Sweet Bananas are my favourite sweet pepper.

Sweet (7)

Sweet peppers don’t have sugar in them. How come? Why are they sweet then? Is it good for "sugary" snacking then? Confused…

~The Internet

Hot Pepper

Many people like hot peppers. I don’t. They look pretty cool though. That’s why I grow them. I also grow them so that I can play tricks on my friends with them. Some hot peppers are very hot. Some are just hot. Others are mild, which is just a little bit hot. Peppers that aren’t hot are sweet, but not sticky. I don’t know of any sticky or sweet peppers, but I do know hot peppers.

Cayenne Long Slender and long, red cayenne peppers are known for their heat. These will deliver as promised or I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

Hot (8)

Black Hungarian I really need to get more of this seed. The plant is quite gorgeous. In fact, you’ll have a very difficult time prying these plants from my hands.

Hot (2)

Habanero So innocent looking. Cute little yellow to orange-ish fruit when mature. Vibrantly, nose-meltingly hot. A great pepper for playing eating tricks on your friends. Several years ago, my son’s friend, Greg, came over to the house after his soccer practice. He was bragging about how he loves hot peppers. So, I invited/challenged him to eat one whole habanero. He did. Then he proceeded to drink a gallon of milk in a vain attempt to quell the fire in his belly.

Hot Hot (2)

Serrano Tampiqueno Serranos, in general, are very hot. This one weighs in at 30,000 Scoville units. A classic shape with fruit that goes from green to fire engine red.

Hot (17)

Chilies help you lose weight by increasing your metabolism.

The scientific journal Toxicon reported that drinking a quart and a half of Louisiana-style hot sauce will cause death by respiratory failure if your body weight is 140 pounds or less.

The hottest pepper in the world is the Naga Jalokia, or Tezpur (aka Ghost Pepper), pepper of the Assam state of India at over ONE MILLION Scoville Units.

He who has the pepper may season as he lists.

~George Herbert

Ornamental Pepper

The Beauty and the Beast of the pepper world, these plants are so beautiful to behold yet possess such fiery demons within. People eat these peppers, too. I haven’t quite figured out what makes a pepper join the ornamental class. If I were in charge of peppers, I’d classify them all as “ornamental.”

Chilly Chili Fruit is red and points upward in clusters. I consider this ornamental to be the absolute most explosive low growing ornamental. I use as the front layer in a terraced flower garden. Its colors blast off from the plants and stay strong for weeks upon weeks. Seeds were very rare and limited.

Hot, Edible (4)

Explosive Ember I’m a sucker for purple peppers. Classic purple to orange to red fruit ripening is what these 14” plants will offer this summer. I found that the purple cluster if fruit lasted a long, long time.

Hot, Edible (12)

Filius Blue Another one of my family of purple peppers. In fact, this variety is often confused with one called Pretty Purple Pepper. The little peppers grow on 18-inch plants. The leaves are dark green with no variegation.

Hot, Edible (14)

Largo Purple Amazing 2 ½ to 3’ purple variegated (white, green, purple) shrub with conical yellow fruit that turn red as they mature. Very Hot! This hot ornamental pepper is great for main flower garden planting and the fruit is great for eating if you like hot peppers. No one is getting this baby from me.

Hot, Edible (1)

Medusa Wild and crazy…like a head full of snakes that are on fire. That’s what Medusa is like. It’s, without a doubt, the most intense conversation piece in my flower beds.

Hot, Edible (12)

Numex Twilight I have two distinct batches of seeds. I’m not sure if they are in fact the same Twilight, but I’m treating them that way. Twilights are quite colourful and grow to about 2-feet tall. I like the rainbow of colours. Very similar in colouration to Sweet Pickle, but with heat.

Hot, Edible (17)

Purple Flash The best of my new purple ornamentals. It reminds me of Tri-fetti, but more civilized. The deep purple marbled fruit go from a hot purple to an electric ruby. The leaves are delightfully variegated.

Hot, Edible (7)

Riot Very similar to Poinsettia (only stocked in volunteer form) and Medusa. Some people are toasting these babies up and grinding them up to make excellent pepper flakes.

Hot, Edible (5)

Sweet Pickle Clever geneticists have done it again. They’ve bred the heat out of another ornamental pepper. These little colourful peppers look like psychedelic toadstools popping out of a green forest.

Not Hot, Edible (11)

Tri-fetti This little purple wonder is a unique variety for me. I had obtained seed for this variegated pepper plant many years ago. The plants grow to about 2-3 feet with the tricolor leaves as much of the show as the deep purple to red fruit. Oh yeah, they’re very hot to eat, too. I’m getting good at saving these seeds. I have a whole gallon sized baggie of them. The cool thing is that each time I plant them; I get a slightly different plant, but obviously closely related. I guess growing them is my own little fruit fly experiment.

I wrote all that last year. Those little suckers just keep coming and coming. I didn’t plant a single one last year and they just volunteered. These plants really frame my mailbox well.

Hot, Edible (Dig your own from my flower garden in early June)

People who eat chiles are generally healthier.

Miscellaneous Varieties

Nadia Hybrid Nadia is a classic Italian shaped eggplant. It’s reported to have strong yields of glossy purple fruit. It’s supposed to set well in cool weather, but I’m interested in seeing how it does in the muggy summers of Southwest Virginia. I grow eggplants in my main flower gardens. Their rich purple color juxtaposed with their feathery green leaves really sparkle a garden.

Tasty (7)

Cauliflower Cheddar Just thought I’d mess around a bit this year with a bizarre looking cauliflower. Hopefully, it tastes as good as it looks in the picture.

Strange (6)

Of the tomato or love apple, I know very little. It is chiefly employed as a sauce or condiment. No one, it is believed, regards it as very nutritious; and it belongs, like the mushroom and the potatoe, to a family of plants, some of the individuals of which are extremely poisonous. Some persons are even injured, more or less, by the acid of the tomato.”
‘The Young House-keeper’ by William Andrus Alcott (1846)

The federal government has sponsored research that has produced a tomato that is perfect in every respect, except that you can't eat it. We should make every effort to make sure this disease, often referred to as 'progress', doesn't spread.

~Andy Rooney

Thank you. Have a great tomato!


Find me on Facebook (Thomas Ryder) and follow me on twitter (Newt999) or don’t.