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Inheriting Genetic Resilience in Tomatoes & Ourselves

By Petra Page-Mann

(inspired by ongoing conversations with Maddie Halpert, Matthew Goldfarb among many other curious humxns) 

In my father’s garden, we grew tomatoes. Red and yellow, large and small, solid and striped: so much delicious diversity! 

We saved seeds of our favorites, often from the earliest fruit and from my earliest days, the gift of seeds was not lost on me: though we only saved a handful of tomatoes, we had more seeds than we’d ever hoped to sow for seasons to come, so we had plenty to share with everyone around us.

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As a child, I relished every summer tomato sandwich and came to expect as inevitable the day that always came: black and brown spots, sometimes slow and sometimes fast, arriving on our lowest leaves reducing our jungle of tomatoes to black ooze. 

Several decades later, still savoring every tomato sandwich, that fateful black ooze of tomato disease is much more preventable.

Especially in the throes of modernity, so much feels oozy in our world, and I wonder: What might our gardens teach us about community care? About abundance? About disease? Belonging? Not only in metaphors but deep in our DNA? 

Here are a few ways we’re living into these questions and (re)imagining the abundance of the future we all share.

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Practices of Abundance

On a purely practical level, whether you hope to harvest 10 or 10,000 tomatoes, diseases can diminish your abundance every season. Before we dive into the capacities of DNA and seeds themselves, there are four cultural keys vital to preventing tomato disease. As we hone our practices of community care and mutual flourishing, these cultural, as well as genetic practices, are the foundation of biological resilience in the garden, surrounding us all with the abundance we dream of. 

#1:  Increase AirFlow 

Most diseases are caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses that need humidity to thrive. Increasing airflow decreases a pathogen’s ability to spread, so allowing plenty of space between plants; two feet between tomato plants is beneficial. Weeds can vector disease and their presence decreases air flow, so keep weeds at bay. Trellising tomatoes early and often helps air circulate throughout each plant as well as encouraging each fruit to ripen more quickly and making them easier to harvest.

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#2: Minimize Leaf Humidity 

Tomatoes need remarkably little water to thrive; excess moisture helps disease spread. After transplanting, consistent moisture is key for establishment in the first month. After that, if you feel you must water your tomatoes, be sure to water only the soil, not the leaves. Water only in the morning, when excess leaf moisture has the greatest chance to evaporate in the heat of the day. 

#3: Mulch 

Mulching ensures that you’ll need to water less as well as reducing your risk of soil-borne diseases being splashed on your plants from rain or watering. There are so many mulches to choose from, each with pros and cons. Experiment! Play! Connect with fellow gardeners so we all can learn together, deepening our networks like the mycelium under our feet. 

#4: Scout for disease 

Channel your inner garden detective! When you find colors and textures that seem suspiciously pathogenic, immediately identify them. Find such resources on Fruition Seeds’ blog (under Identifying & Managing Tomato Disease Organically) as well as the expansive offerings of Cornell Cooperative Extension. Once you have a positive ID, continue your research to navigate the next steps, remembering you are a part of an interconnected web and the abundance of communities thousands of miles away are impacted by what you do — and don’t do. 

Inheriting Genetic Resilience 

For 400 million years, plants have been flowering — cross-pollinating! — passing adaptive brilliance from one generation to the next. Every bite we eat and the very air we breathe is the legacy of these plants; we inherit the capacity to adapt from our ancestors plants, humxn* and beyond. 

As we dive into the genetic foundations and possibilities of resilience, let us remember: We all come from a great lineage of farmers and seedkeepers. For more than ten thousand years, being a farmer has been synonymous with being a seedkeeper. Where we live in the Finger Lakes of New York, a small number of farmers are slowly rebuilding their relationship with seed, though the majority of growers no longer keep seeds on their farms. As we honor the Indigenous brilliance deep in the intergenerational memory of each seed, let us also remember that DNA was described in the 1950s, as representing just one way of being in relationship with seeds. Let us trust our keen observation and interest is enough to explore and honor the intrinsic resilience in every seed and each of us. 

As we move forward, we can be expansive in our vision of seeds, resisting the common generalization that flavorful heirloom tomatoes have little disease resistance and modern resistant varieties have little remarkable flavor. There are plenty of exceptions and so much more to consider, both in our gardens and beyond, as we learn to unlearn thinking in binaries. 

The Latin Name Game

Latin names can be immensely illuminating and if reducing tomato disease is of interest to you, take note:

Most tomatoes widely available are Solanum lycopersicum, though many delicious heirloom tomatoes belong to a separate species, often conferring remarkable resilience to many tomato diseases. Solanum pimpinellifolium is one of our favorites, vigorously growing like the jungle itself. Hailing from the mountains of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Coyote are two of our favorites, super sweet cherries often the first to ripen as well as the last, thanks to their impressive disease resistance. Other wild Solanum species gloriously exist, offering unique flavors as well as disease resistance, including arcanum, huaylasense, neorickii, cheesmaniae, peruvianum, habrochaites and pennellii.

Heirlooms Past, Present & Future

Though heirlooms generally tend to be known for flavor rather than disease resistance, there are an abundance of heirloom tomatoes embodying the best of both worlds. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, each generation growing similar to the previous generations, unlike F1 Hybrids, which we’ll soon explore. This means you can save the seeds of your most deliciously disease-resistant and abundant plants, actively co-adapting with tomatoes as we have for thousands of years!

For a suite of intriguing reasons, public records of disease-resistant heirloom tomatoes are hard to come by. Nonetheless, we’ve noticed many heirlooms expressing notable resilience in our fields including Gold Medal and Italian Heirloom with moderate resistance to Late Blight.

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And Friends, heirlooms are history and though history happened, history is also happening. Can you imagine if we stopped writing new books, new songs, and new poems? Just as a quintessential family heirloom (imagine the cedar chest made by my grandfather) didn’t become an heirloom until it had been passed down across generations, so too new open-pollinated varieties aren’t beloved ‘heirlooms’ until they’ve been saved and shared 50+ years. Seiger, Finger Lakes Round and Long Paste as well as Gardener’s Sweetheart are examples of more recently cultivated open-pollinated tomatoes with notable disease resistances, though they won’t become ‘heirloom’ until our grandchildren tell stories of the tomatoes their family and friends have saved for generations.

Also, a vote for taking notes: We don’t crow about potential disease resistance in a variety until we’ve seen substantial resistance across at least three seasons. This is all to say, take note of your observations, including general precipitation and temperature accompanying disease — or lack thereof. May our collective insight surround us all with all the more abundance!

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F1 Hybrids

Words — even letters — are powerful. Hybridization with a lower-case ‘h’ has occurred naturally for 400 million years while the F1 Hybrid with an upper-case ‘H’ emerged around WWI. F1 Hybrids are the first generation (first filial generation = F1) of very deliberate and distinct parents. 

Though the F1 generation is incredibly uniform, the second (F2!) generation of seed expresses much more diversity, often looking astonishingly different from the F1 generation. Farmers return to purchase F1 Hybrid seed season after season. And though GMOs get a bad rap for patenting life (deservedly), we would do well to apply such critiques also to most parent lines of F1 Hybrids that are proprietary ‘intellectual property,’ many are patented and virtually none are publicly available. 

Here is where I confess: for decades I appreciated the reliability possible in F1 Hybrids though patenting, and proprietary relationships with seeds deeply troubled me. Further confession: this is still true! Also true: the parent lines of F1 Hybrids needn’t be inbred and certainly not patented. 

As we compost binary thinking around Hybrids, we realize it is possible to create deliciously disease-resistant F1s with publicly available parents that are not solely inbred. We also recognize that disease-resistant F1 Hybrids are impressively capable as well as nimble tools in our collective toolbox, especially as climates change. Considering that stabilizing genetic resistance in an open-pollinated variety takes at least six if not ten generations or more, we found ourselves making crosses to explore creating F1 Hybrid tomatoes with delicious disease resistance. 

The Tale of Two Tomatoes

We are immensely grateful here in the Northeast to have public plant breeders creating resilient varieties for our short seasons.

One of these public plant breeders, Martha Mutschler-Chu, recently retired from several decades of developing disease-resistant tomatoes at Cornell University.

In 2013, the variety ‘Iron Lady’ was released from her program, becoming the first F1 Hybrid tomato with ‘triple resistance:’ actual resistance to Late Blight, Septoria Leaf Spot and tolerance of Early Blight. (Though Iron Lady is Solanum lycopericum, disease resistance from S. pennellii had been crossed into one of the parent lines.) Though tasting better than a standard grocery store tomato in January, the lack of richness and depth of flavor left many growers still wanting better options.

We were among the people wondering what might happen if Martha’s triple-resistant tomato lines were crossed with the beloved heirloom ‘Brandywine:’ would triple resistance and flavor pair in the resulting F1 Hybrid?

They did!

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We immediately started making the cross to save and share the seeds of ‘Brandywise,’ an indeterminate, large red slicer with the best of both worlds: succulent flavor and resistance to Late Blight and Septoria as well as Early Blight tolerance. We’ve been sharing these seeds since 2018 and if you’d love to see how we make the crosses — and how you can, too! — hop on our blog, The Tale of Two Tomatoes. It’s really quite simple and so much fun; you’ll likely never look at tomatoes the same.

After the revelation of Brandywise, we asked to play with one of Martha’s triple-resistant lines, hoping to find another cross whose fruit would produce another disease-resistant and uniquely delicious tomato. We fell in love with a cross between Martha’s line and Will Bonsall’s Gardener’s Sweetheart, a heart-shaped red cherry exceptionally sweet and creamy. The resulting ‘Summer Sweetheart’ is a large two-bite cherry tomato with handsome ribs scrumptious in salads, roasted and stuffed with mozzarella.

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And Friends, these two F1 Hybrids are technically ‘top crosses.’ Rather than the two parents being inbred lines, one is inbred (CU-79) and the other is more genetically diverse. If you’ve grown Brandywine, you know not all the plants are identical, though they all are delicious; as a result, Brandywise plants are not exactly identical, though they are still a fabulously consistently red, splendid slicer with impressive disease resistance.

Inheriting Genetic Resilience in Ourselves

How might we become resilient, in our values and in our actions? How might we become good ancestors, in our gardens and in our world?

Here is an invitation in three acts: 

First, and not least, (re)-Connect with Seeds. 

Lean into the 10,000-year legacy of our ancestors co-adapting with countless plants across the planet. Though this relationship may have been lost in the last few generations of your immediate family, the living memory in your every cell remembers this kinship and knows no separation. In gratitude, we rehydrate our imaginations and in sowing, saving and sharing seeds we nourish our individual and collective capacities to grow in ways that amplify abundance for us all.

If saving seeds sounds intimidating, you’re not alone and great news: there are so many ways to begin. Here is one: Choose a plant culturally meaningful for you that you love to grow, preferably an open-pollinated annual that’s easy to save. Tomatoes totally count! Save seeds from the first fruit as well as plants that overall embody health, abundance and resilience. And though seed saved from an F1 Hybrid plant will grow (often dramatically!) different from its parent, this diversity can become the foundation of a new variety the world hasn’t seen before, and how fabulous is that? If you’d love to dig deeper into seedkeeping, this is why we made Fruition’s free online course, Saving Our Seeds, Saving Ourselves, for you and for us all.

Act two: (Re-)Connect with Each Other.

Since profit-driven cultures of dependency have chipped away at interconnected seedcare networks, we must take active efforts to weave such networks stronger than ever, learning/unlearning/relearning the relationships and responsibilities we have to one another, even across continents. While I grew up saving seeds in my father’s garden in the United States, policies promoted by the U.S., among others, have in fact criminalized families in myriad countries for saving seeds their communities have carried for countless generations. What happens if we truly feel such outcomes first and foremost as an unacceptable attack on the culture and lifeways of those involved – and also as a significant threat to visions of diversity and resilience?

Let’s tune in to Indigenous seedkeepers and peasant farmers the world over – and note that their current calls include an end to policies like UPOV.

  • Never heard of UPOV? Thanks to GRAIN for sharing “UPOV: The Great Seed Robbery” – a fabulous nutshell-version of this story in less than 3 awesomely-animated minutes. Share it with a friend!
  • Follow groups organizing around seed-sovereignty issues – including La Via Campesina, African Food Sovereignty Alliance, North American Food Sovereignty Alliance, and more.
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Finally – (re-) connect with ourselves. 

Pause. 

Take a deep breath.

The deepest breath you’ve breathed all day.

Before you exhale, imagine the love you have for a dear beloved; perhaps your child, your friend, your nibling**, your sibling, your dog, your partner, or your parent.

Imagine, for a moment, the love you have for seeds in your hand as you sow them, shining and deceptively small.

Now imagine, for a moment, all our ancestors, both plant and humxn, all the moments and generations of promise and pain, all that perseverance and all those dreams, all that love and potential amplified into this moment.

Take another breath.

You are not alone.

You are so loved.

Resilience is our inheritance, yours and mine.

Deepening respectful relationships with our family both humxn and plant is the work of a lifetime.

Sharing what we love to amplify the abundance of all becomes our gift as well as our responsibility.

May we continue to (un)learn as new ways of being sprout within and around us. 

Together, we commit to becoming good ancestors for all generations and species to come and give thanks for the gardens that grow us more than we grow them.

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Enjoy every moment and every bite!

Sow Seeds & Sing Songs,

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& the whole Fruition Crew

ps

*Humxn is a gender neutral term expanding the masculine histories of ‘human.’

**Nibling is a gender neutral term expanding the binary of ‘niece’ and ‘nephew.’

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