Short-season tomato thrives in the far north's colder clime

IN a south-facing window I have 12 newly emerged tomato seedlings of an heirloom variety know as Landry's Russian. The seeds came from Ron and Cynthia Driskill; tests in Canada and in upstate New York suggest that they will provide some of the earliest tomatoes possible for this region of Maine and that they will have the sweetness and flavor normally associated only with the late-maturers.

The Driskills live in the town of Olds in Canada's province of Alberta, where long winters and cold temperatures are almost beyond imagining by folk in more temperate climes. Even so, this gardening couple have proven remarkably successful over the years at growing the tropical tomato.

They've accomplished this by searching out those varieties that are more tolerant of cold weather and that ripen fruit in the short growing seasons of the far north. Siberia, Glacier, and Subarctic Maxi are names that speak for themselves in the catalog of Siberia Seeds, the mail-order company the Driskills began in 1983. This year they are introducing their latest find, Landry's Russian.

Mr. Driskill, born in America's Deep South and raised, he says, ``all over the world,'' had some climatic adjustments to make at his far north Canadian home. In particular, his garden didn't produce too many ripe tomatoes until he stumbled across the Siberian tomato in a Sundre, Alberta greenhouse. It was an heirloom variety, which as its name implies hailed originally from Siberia. A century or more of exposure to the cold Russian climate saw the plant adapt enough to set fruit at temperatures as low as 38 degrees F. (3.3 degrees C.).

Discovering through a newspaper article that there were thousands like him who wanted a cold-tolerant tomato, Driskill founded what some believe is the world's ``smallest seed company'' with a $700 investment -- all the money he had on hand.

The tomato varieties he needed for his specialty company didn't come from the major breeders. They just hadn't produced any. But in a rugged climate such as Alberta's, the necessity for short-season types had kept a few family heirloom varieties in circulation. Responding to requests by the Driskills, many gardeners sent in a few trial seeds of their family favorites, from which the Driskills selected three varieties. Now they have a fourth, Landry's Russian.

Two years of testing in Olds showed the Driskills that Landry's Russian (named for the family which had kept the strain going) was a winner, so they sent some seeds to a grower in New York to see how they would fare in somewhat warmer and longer-growing climate.

The New York grower found that Landry's produced ``beautifully round, deliciously sweet, red, half-pound tomatoes with little variation in size.'' Individual plants yielded anywhere from 60 to almost 100 tomatoes. In taste tests at his roadside stand, Landry's beat out four other well-known varieties grown at customer request.

Meanwhile, there is another way to hasten the ripening of your favorite tomato whether it be a short-season variety or not. This tip comes from the nationally known garden commentator Dick Raymond who uses it year after year in his northern Vermont garden.

Once there is a good set of fruit on the tomato, Raymond takes a sharp garden spade and cuts off the roots around one side of the plant. This sudden partial interruption of nutrients to the vine causes it to stop growing and direct all its energy into filling out and ripening the green fruits. Raymond does this with every second plant in the row, leaving the others to grow to their full potential.

The plants that don't get this root pruning go on to produce a heavier crop. But much of that crop is likely to be green, particularly if an early frost comes along.

For those interested in a packet of Landry's Russian seeds (about 25), contact Siberia Seeds, Box 2026, Sweetgrass, Mont. 59484; Canadian readers: Box 3000, Olds, Alberta, T0M 1P0.

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