Sunday, July 12, 2009


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/12/09)

An unintended of consequence of President Ronald Reagan's foreign policy was a boon for tomato fanciers in the High Country. When he demanded on June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate that President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union "tear down this wall," he was referring to the Berlin Wall, but the consequence was "glasnost," an opening up of the Soviet Union which, heretofore, had been a closed society. Actually, under Gorbachev's leadership there had been a gradual glasnost earlier in the 1980's.

"Glasnost" meant, amongst other things, an opening up of Soviet agriculture which meant in turn an opening up of gardens and gardeners in Siberia. Russians have long been known as excellent gardeners, but Siberian gardeners were a special breed of Russian gardeners.

While President Reagan had hydrogen bombs and an end to the Cold War on his mind, a result was the discovery of Siberian heirloom tomatoes. For decades the Soviet Union had been a closed society, especially after the end of World War II, but long before that. Winston Churchill in 1946 said, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent." Actually, an iron curtain had descended soon after the Russian Revolution of October 1917. This meant that the Soviet Union had been a closed society for about 70 years.

During those years of isolation, Siberian farmers had slowly, year after year, developed superior heirloom tomatoes, taking the seed from the best tomato plants and planting them the following year, developing hardy tomato plants with a short growing season. There had been no artificial hybridization from Western capitalist commercial agribusiness, but just natural selection, producing strong, reliable, heirloom tomatoes.

Soviet paranoia about Western imperialism kept the agricultural capitalists out of Russia, leaving the Siberians to themselves to develop robust heirlooms. The Siberian tomatoes are amongst the ironies of horticulture, the blessings of a communist blowback.

Of course, tomatoes that would do well in Siberia would certainly do well on the Colorado Plateau. One of the problems for gardeners in Flagstaff is that many of the old favorites have a long growing season. The famous heirloom Brandywine takes from 80 to 100 days to mature, leaving the Flagstaff gardener feeling the nip of frost before the first tomato.

Sad it is, but most commercial nurseries don't stock these Siberians, preferring to merchandise the old reliables of Better Boy and Early Girl, which are great early-producing tomatoes. However, the variety has been limited, except for Stupice, another early producer (52 days) from Czechoslovakia.

Perhaps, the most delightful of the Siberians is the Galina with a vine that resembles an adolescent in the throes of growth, all arms and legs. An ungainly vine that is easily espaliered, the fruit comes in clusters of golden cherries, so sweet of taste that they seldom reach the kitchen. Unlike our loppy capitalist adolescents, the Galina is productive, being both early (59 days) and abundant.

Another pleasure is Sasha's Altai which hails from the Altai Shan mountains near China. So remote, that it was considered terra incognita by Renaissance cartographers and was even designated by Medieval cartographers as hic sunt dracones (here are dragons.) Sasha, a barefooted Siberian gardener, walked, unshod, eight miles one way to give Bill McDorman, the tomato seed hunter, seeds from his own heirloom tomato plant.

The plant isn't loppy as is the Galina, but compact and bushy, reminding one of a short, sturdy, hardy Siberian gardener. An early producer (59 days), it is prolific with a prize-winning taste. Unlike Galina which falls out of a cage, Sasha's Altai can easily be contained in a medium sized cage. They are sort of the Mutt and Jeff of the Siberians.

Two other Siberian good-producing cultivars are Perestroika and Glasnost, but if one is looking for a replica with taste of those round, full-figured tomatoes in the supermarket, another Siberian, "Market Miracle," is a good bet.

President Reagan can be forgiven trying to palm off ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches because in his Cold War triumph he opened up Siberian tomatoes for High Country gardeners.

Copyright (c) Dana Prom Smith 2009

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