Box Car Willie and Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter

Of course I’m talking about heirloom tomatoes. I bought some heirlooms at a fund-raising sale by Fullerton Arboretum last month. Who could resist tomatoes with names like Box Car Willie, Brad’s Black Heart, and Radiator Charley’s Mortgage Lifter? I’ll get to the names of the other varieties that I bought in a bit.

Newly transplanted Box Car Willie tomato plant.

Unfortunately, some of my tomato seedlings began to get damping off, which is a fungus that turns the stems black, then kills the plant because nutrients can’t get from the roots up the stem. A couple of the plants that I bought totally crumped, including my Brandywine Sudduth’s, but I was able to (presumably) rescue a couple of others by cutting off the top above the wilt and putting the tops into a glass of water.

Hooray, Bull’s Heart has sprouted roots. Oddly enough, the root section also was alive and resprouted new shoots. So I may get two Bull’s Heart plants. Or none. Same thing happened with my Super Marzano and Black Prince.

I transplanted most of the tomatoes before last week’s rain. I planted the others after. I now have 16 tomato plants in raised beds, a few volunteers that sprouted from my compost pile that I overwintered, and three more sprouting roots in glasses of water on my windowsill.

If you have never planted tomatoes from transplants, here is what to do. Prepare the soil by digging in planting compost (purchased or homemade), composted steer manure, and E. B. Stone’s Sure Start organic fertilizer. This fertilizer contains beneficial soil microbes and will help get your plants off to a great start.

Prepare a hole about two to three inches deeper than your pot. Add some Sure Start and mix it in. Fill the hole with water and let it soak in. This step is really important. Roots grow down, so it is important that the bottom of the hole have water in it before you put in the plant. Don’t rely on just watering from the top when you transplant. Filling the hole with water first helps the plant avoid transplant shock. If your plant is wilted the next day, it may be suffering from transplant shock. It will probably recover, but its growth will be set back.

Remove the tomato plant by turning the pot gently upside down and tapping or squeezing the tomato plant out into your other hand. You might need to pull gently on the plant to remove it.

Loosen the root ball by gently “breaking” the root ball at the base. Put the tomato plant into the hole. GREEN SIDE UP! You want the soil line of the plant to be about 2 inches below the finish soil line. Tomatoes will grow new roots out of their stems, and this helps feed the plants. Tamp the plant down to remove any air pockets. Fill the hole with soil and retamp. Water again. Place a tomato cage around your plant.

Flicking the yellow tomato flower gently with your finger will help to set the fruit if there aren't enough natural pollinators (bees) around.

If you want early fruit set, you can spray the blossoms with blossom fruit set, and/or flick them in the morning with your finger to help pollinate the flower. If you have bumblebees in the neighborhood, they will do the job of pollinating, but it doesn’t hurt to give them a hand as they may not visit every blossom. Tomatoes need nights of 55 degrees or warmer to set fruit as well.

If you follow those steps, you should have good luck with tomatoes.

I am not done buying tomatoes. I’ve only filled my raised beds at home. I haven’t even begun planting at the community garden plot. I will plant mostly hybrids at the community garden.

Each tomato plant needs at least one square foot in a square foot garden. I give them a bit more room than that. This 18 square foot bed has seven tomatoes, plus some leeks, an eggplant, and a row of pole beans on the north side that haven't sprouted yet.

These are the varieties that I have planted so far.

Amish Paste, a late season paste variety, an Amish heirloom that produces 10 oz, heart-shaped fruit with a sweet flavor.

Black Plum, a mid-season paste tomato that produces big black paste tomatoes with rich flavor, good for cooking and canning as well as eating fresh.

Black Prince, an early season, deep garnet, slicer tomato that produces abundant mid-size round tomatoes with great flavor. Smaller than Black Krim, but similar great taste and far more productive.

Box Car Willie, a slicer, produces 6 to 10 oz tomatoes, late bearing, producing over a long season. Named after a country singer who sang in Nashville at the Grand Old Opry in the 1930s.

Brad’s Black Heart, a slicer, produces exceptional black tomatoes with rich, sweet, complex flavor, mid-season, 12 oz heart-shaped fruit.

Bull’s Heart, a late season Russian ox-heart variety that produces an abundance of pink tomatoes that grow up to 2 lbs and have an excellent sweet flavor.

Early Girl, a hybrid slicer, produces4 to 6 oz fruit early in the season.

German Johnson, a beefsteak variety, late season, 1 lb pink-red tomatoes, great flavor, good yield, meaty fruit with few seeds.

Mammoth German Gold, beefsteak variety, late season, bicolor golden 2 lb fruits with red streaking, with both high acid and high sugar content, great flavor.

Mortgage Lifter, a late season red beefsteak that produces 1 to 3 lb fruits that are meaty with few seeds and has old-fashioned tomato flavor. This was a tomato developed by Radiator Charley. He said it was so productive that it allowed him to pay off his mortgage during the Great Depression. I was underwhelmed with its productivity when I have grown it in the past, but I like the name so much that I’m growing it again. It’s great on a BLT.

Paul Robeson, named after the famous black scholar, athlete, lawyer, activist, singer and star of the Silver Screen. Born in 1898, son of a runaway slave, Robeson found Europe more tolerant of people of color that America, and made England his home for some time. He traveled extensively in Russia and the Ukraine, home of black tomatoes. Not long after the Berlin Wall fell, seeds from the Paul Robeson tomato arrived in the US, given to Seed Savers Exchange in 1992. Farmers by the Black Sea had named it in honor of this remarkable man. The Paul Robeson tomato is a medium season slicer that produces fine black tomatoes with a complex sweet, yet tangy, flavor.

Pearson, a determinant(means that it will quit growing, won’t grow indefinitely like the other varieties here, which are indeterminant), late season variety that produces large, solid, meaty fruits that are perfect for canning. Produces well in hot climates.

Russian Big Roma, a large, late-season, paste tomato, 2 inches by 4 inches, deep red fruits with exceptional flavor that are great for making tomato sauce.

Super Marzano, a hybrid late-season paste tomato with VFNT disease resistance, an outstanding vigorous hybrid and one of the best paste tomatoes available.

So that’s what I have in the ground so far. I wouldn’t have selected a Pearson because I prefer indeterminant tomatoes and it doesn’t get hot here on the southern California coast, but it was a gift.

I want to get some Brandywines, as they have incomparable flavor. I made a spaghetti sauce one year using just Brandywines and it was incredible. I also would like to get Big Boy, Better Boy and Celebrity, just because they do well in southern California. Space, space, I need more space!

About Lou Murray, Ph.D.

I'm a professional writer/photographer, avid gardener, and active environmentalist living in southern California. I am retired from writing a weekly newspaper column on environmental topics in the Huntington Beach Independent, but I am still teaching at the Orange County Conservation Corps. This blog chronicles my efforts to live a green life growing as much food as possible for my husband and myself on a 4,500 sq ft yard that is covered mainly by house, garage, driveway, and sidewalks.
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10 Responses to Box Car Willie and Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter

  1. becky3086 says:

    Wow, that is a LOT of tomatoes. I wish I had enough space to plant that many.

    • Becky, I can’t imagine a garden smaller than mine. I have only three raised beds, but I use every square inch of space that I can find. I even grow yams and potatoes in Gro-pots in my driveway.

  2. Roy Jensen says:

    Lou: I found your website while searching for an image of a water strider. You obviously have a passion for gardening, and I have forwarded your website to my mother.
    I would greatly appreciate you contacting me via email regarding use of the water strider image on your website in a textbook.
    Thanks,
    Roy Jensen

  3. walknut says:

    So jealous of your garden! Nice blog and appreciate the photos, beautiful and productive use of land. Thanks for posting.

  4. Ali says:

    Hello, its me again, great post. I love making basic tomato garlic and basil sauce. I know roma tomatoes are great for it. I see you have a Russian big roma tomato plant, where would one find the seeds or seedlings for this type, besides ordering online somehow.

    Thank you.
    -ali

  5. I can never get enough tomatoes! Excellent post and very imformative. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Angela, I did indeed have too many tomatoes in 2010. I planted 20 tomato plants that summer and they all produced. I’m hoping to equal that excess this year, as I’m running low on my canned tomato sauce and soup from that bounteous summer.

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