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Growing Tomatoes

  • Albany Community Center 1249 Marin Avenue Albany, CA United States (map)
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Brad Gates creates tomatoes like the food world has never seen. With such evocative names as Berkeley Tie-Dye, Big Yellow Zebra and Pork Chop, his varieties come in black, blue, purple, pink, orange, yellow and green plus combinations and stripes.

They taste even better than they look. That’s made Gates’ tomatoes highly prized by Napa Valley restaurant chefs and tomato fanatics as well as home gardeners nationwide.

Gates, 48, started his tomato odyssey more than 20 years ago while helping a friend sell produce at farmers markets. Gates soon started growing his own tomatoes to sell. He collected seed from open-pollinated heirloom varieties that can cross naturally, creating new hybrids.

A Napa native, Gates founded Wild Boar Farms in Suisun Valley, what he calls “the Napa Valley of tomatoes. It’s a little hotter, a little brighter (than Napa) with 90 feet of top soil. Conditions are perfect.”

Gates didn’t set out to rewrite tomato history, but his heirloom crosses quickly clicked with market patrons.

“You’re always looking for the holy grail – a great tasting, great looking tomato,” said Gates, who grew hundreds of heirloom varieties. “I looked for a tomato that made me say, ‘Wow! That’s really good!’ I saved the best of the best seed each season.”

Plant breeding is filled with uncertainty, he noted. It takes Gates five to seven years to develop a new variety that will grow, taste and look the same way season after season.

This is his favorite plant-breeding analogy: “If you crossed a basketball and a tennis ball, you could end up with a football,” Gates said. “You could also end up with pingpong balls and baseballs. One cross can make so many variations, but you’re looking for the best one.”

Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, a rosy sweet swirl of color and rich flavor, is his personal favorite.

“It’s polar opposites from (the original tri-color) Berkeley Tie-Dye, which I also love,” Gates said. “If I had it to do over again, I’d name (the pink) differently, but Berkeley Tie-Dye is so catchy. What’s interesting about Berkeley Tie-Dye: The different colors have different flavors. The green has a real assertive, exquisite flavor. The red is tangy, high acid, real tomato taste. The yellow melds it together.”

Lately, Gates has won more acclaim in the heirloom tomato world for his black, purple and blue tomatoes, with such names as Indigo Apple and Black and Brown Boar. To get those unusual colors, he crossed a wild tomato variety with heirlooms. That tomato ancestor “looks like a purple tomatillo, but tastes awful,” Gates said. “But it has that anthocyanin – that blue pigment that’s also in blueberries – that makes these tomatoes that color. It’s also a great antioxidant.”

Wild Boar Farms offers seed for more than 70 varieties via its website (www.wildboarfarms.com). Gates also sells seedlings to home gardeners at about a dozen nurseries plus some special events publicized on the farm’s Facebook page.

“There’s a natural urge to leave a legacy,” Gates said. “A hundred years from now, somebody will bite into a Berkeley Tie-Dye and wonder, ‘Where did this tomato come from? It’s amazing!’ ”

 

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