I’m not a hybrid basher,” declares Amy Goldman Fowler. “It’s just that in my garden, heirlooms fare better.” On her 200-acre spread in New York’s Hudson Valley, Fowler has raised more than 1,000 varieties of tomatoes. Peppers? A thousand of those, too, plus some 400 kinds of squash and 300 different melons. Yet the 64-year-old remains on the hunt for storied edibles she hasn’t met. Fowler, who describes her horticultural experience as a series of “encounters with remarkable vegetables,” has written four books, including Melons for the Passionate Grower and The Compleat Squash; an ode to peppers is forthcoming. The plantswoman also obliged us with advice on pond-muck fertilizer, tomato blight, and picking watermelons at their peak.
“I’ve been known to scoop seeds off restaurant plates if a beefsteak or blistered shishito pepper is particularly delicious.”
Where do you source heirloom vegetable seeds? All the national seed houses carry them nowadays, but I also swap rare regional varieties through Seed Savers Exchange. And I’ve been known to scoop seeds off restaurant plates if a beefsteak or blistered shishito pepper is particularly delicious. One important thing to keep in mind when choosing a variety is the number of days to maturity. I typically get 140 frost-free days; but gardeners in really cold climates will need plants that produce fruit super-fast, like ‘Golden Bison’ tomatoes (59 days) or ‘Bozeman’ watermelons (80 days).
What are your go-to soil amendments? We live on a former dairy farm that wants to grow rocks more than anything else, so I’ve spent three decades adding organic matter to the soil, mainly in the form of leaf mold and cover crops. Occasionally, I’ll even supplement with the rich muck that we dredge from the bottom of our pond. I steer clear of animal manure, because I once got burned using a batch full of weed seed – which created problems for years.
Got any other tips for a robust kitchen garden? Well, I have developed my little tricks: I’m religious about a four-year crop rotation and avoid growing melons in the same place every year. Removing all the spent leaves, stems, and roots at the end of the season also really helps; if pests or disease are present, don’t add the residue to your compost pile. Last, waterlogging is a no-no: Only irrigate when necessary.
Please tell us you have a remedy for the dreaded tomato blight. No one is immune. I’ve found vigilance to be the best medicine. After preparing the soil in spring, I cover my beds with a fabric mulch, or weed cloth. It’s nothing special; we get it at the local Agway. The cloth keeps water from splashing dirt – and, thus, potential pathogens – back up onto the plant. (Two side benefits: weed prevention and soil that warms up faster.) And to lessen the chance of the scourge spreading, if you have room, space your tomatoes far enough apart that full-size plants won’t touch.
How do you know when to harvest crops? Tomatoes are easy: When ripe, they change color, soften, and detach from the vine with a tug. Watermelons are more difficult. Turn the fruit over to reveal the belly of the beast, which should be yellow, not white. Now look to see if the tendril opposite the stem has started to turn brown. If all that’s happening, you can cut her from the vine. Otherwise, the flesh will lack sweetness. These are just the things I’ve learned through trial and error. And I’ve had a lot of error.