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Earlirouge Tomatoes
October 11, 2013

Eclipse peasEarlirouge tomatoesWhen I finished up writing a feature story about working to save a pea variety, I realized that we'd been lucky enough this year to pull not one, but two rabbits out of the hat. Besides nursing a very small stand of Eclipse peas into producing a nice seed crop, we also had a great harvest of, and saved seed from the Earlirouge tomato variety.

The Earlirouge tomato was released in 1977 by Jack Metcalf of the Agriculture Canada Smithfield Experimental Farm, in Trenton, Ontario. It was probably the most commercially successful release of the eight or nine open pollinated tomato varieties developed and released there from 1967 to 1993.

Earlirouge tomato plants have a semi-determinate growth habit, making them ideal for growing in our five foot high, welded wire tomato cages. Unlike some true determinates that have a concentrated harvest and then languish, Earlirouge plants bear fruit throughout the growing season. In good growing conditions, they can produce several heavy, concentrated harvests without a lot of the rampant vegetative growth of indeterminate tomatoes.

Tomatoes from the plants are medium sized and usually will fit whole, cored and peeled, in a wide mouth canning jar and even in a regular mouth jar with a little squishing. Like several of the Metcalf releases, tomato interiors are meaty and deeply colored. And of course, they have excellent tomato flavor, usually the main reason any home gardener grows a variety of tomato.

The Long Island Seed Project: Tomatoes: 1980-1990 (Descriptions) page has the following descriptor for Earlirouge (my additions and corrections in black):

Earlirouge - (65 days) Smithfield Experimental Station, larger, more uniform fruits than Earlibright - bush semi-determinate, firm, slightly flattened 2-3" (2-4") tomatoes, high crimson interiors, some verticillium wilt tolerance, crack resistance, sweet flavor, good leaf cover.

Years ago, Stokes Seeds, with their Canadian roots, offered a number of Metcalf's releases. I tried and saved seed from the Moira, Quinte, and Earlirouge varieties in the 70s and 80s. Of the three varieties, Moira became my favorite for all of the characteristics of Earlirouge listed above and its blood red interiors.

Over the years, the Metcalf releases began to disappear from seed catalogs in the United States. I had a five year break in gardening, beginning in 1989. When I resumed gardening in 1994, I was disappointed to find some of my favorite vegetable varieties were no longer available. I was lucky to still have saved seed that had been in frozen storage and began growing Moira tomatoes once again. I later tried to grow out our Quinte seed, but found that it had gone bad in storage. I was fortunate to receive a sample of it a year or so ago from the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN).

Inventory-earlirougeEarlirouge saved seed packetLast fall, I decided to try and find some Earlirouge seed. It had been Metcalf's most commercially successful release. There had to be a reason why, and I wanted to see if it was an improvement over our favorite Moria variety. But when I searched seed catalogs, the web, the Seed Savers Exchange, and GRIN, I came up empty. Then in November while doing my annual seed inventory, I took the time to look through a section of the spreadsheet titled "Archival Storage." There, to my amazement, was a listing for Earlirouge tomatoes. When I retrieved the seed packet from the freezer, I saw that the package labeling was in my handwriting and indicated that I'd grown out the variety and saved seed in 1988. I'd totally forgotten having grown the variety during our farming years.

I sowed a pot of Earlirouge seed in mid-March. Assuming that germination rate for the twenty-five year old seed would be low, I put a good many seeds in a four inch pot. I quickly had to begin moving plants to fourpacks and individual containers, as the seed sprouted at 50% or better.

Earlirouge TomatoesEast Garden in distanceSince I had to turn a special, isolated plot for our Earlirouge plants, I didn't get them transplanted until June 9. Exactly 65 days later, just what the old seed packets advertised, I picked our first Earlirouge tomatoes. They were small, golf ball to tennis ball sized, but quite tasty. In the weeks that followed, normal sized tomatoes ripened on the two plants I set out, one plant yielding ten pounds of tomatoes in one day's picking.

Interestingly, of the two Earlirouge plants I set out, one was far earlier in producing fruit and had much larger tomatoes than the other. Obviously, I saved seed from the outstanding plant, as home gardeners can refine their open pollinated varieties by selecting seed from only the best plants. But I did wonder a bit about the variance in fruit size and maturity dates.

Next year I'll grow out a few more Earlirouge plants from the seed I saved this summer, but will also add at least one plant from the 1988 saved seed I still have lots of on hand. We'll be offering samples of the Earlirouge seed we saved this year to other Seed Savers Exchange members via the 2014 Seed Savers Exchange Annual Yearbook. A check of last year's annual yearbook revealed that there were no listings for the Earlirouge variety.

Note that there is a similarly named heirloom tomato named Early Rouge that is not the same variety as the plants I grew this year and am writing about. In my search for Earlirouge seed last fall, I mistakenly ordered a packet of Early Rouge, only reading later that it was a different variety dating back to 1935 or so.

A Few Words About Heirloom Varieties

There has been a resurgence of interest in heirloom vegetable varieties in recent years. Overall, I think that's a very good thing for sustaining the genetic diversity of varieties of vegetables and plants. But there were reasons for the nearly wholesale switch to hybrid varieties by seed houses over the last thirty years. One cynical reason is that hybrids can't be used for seed saving, thus insuring customers having to return to purchase more seed. But beyond my cynicism, hybrids can offer improved disease resistance, more uniform growth and ripening (important mainly for commercial growers), better shipability (again, important to commercial growers, usually at the expense of flavor), and in a few cases, better quality and flavor of produce (sh2 sweet corns come to mind as an example).

Heirlooms are often touted as having "that old fashioned taste." In some cases, that's true. But one needs to be careful when selecting heirloom varieties, as some of them are simply god awful tasting, susceptible to disease, and have unruly growth habits. One of the reasons I've become a big fan of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is their frequent comments in variety descriptions of personal favorites based almost solely on quality and flavor. So don't be taken in just by the word "heirloom." Some are great, and some aren't so wonderful.

Confusion About What is a True Heirloom

The Earlirouge and related Moira and Quinte tomato varieties developed by Jack Metcalf really don't fit my definition of a true heirloom variety. I've always thought, said, and written that if a variety was introduced in my lifetime (I'm now 65 years young.), it's not old enough to be called an heirloom.

The September, 2013, issue of The Avant Gardener (requires paid subscription) leads with a discussion of this issue and the writers there seem to pretty much agree with me on what should be called an heirloom. Leaders of the Seed Savers Exchange have recently tried to change, broaden, or possibly refine the definition of an heirloom, but Avant Gardener believes they've actually muddied the waters more than they've helped. I have to agree with Avant Gardener's conclusion:

Avant Gardener believes this new definition is far too confusing for the average home gardener who does not care how a desirable old-established seed variety came into circulation. If it has been good enough to survive 50 years of popularity, that seems to be a much more acceptable definition of an heirloom, in our opinion.

Conclusions - And Other Stuff

Squeezo StrainerWhile it's way too soon to draw firm conclusions, compared to our old favorite and related variety, Moira, the Earlirouge plants appear to have a much more compact and efficient growth habit. Of course, they went into the ground nearly a month after our Moiras were transplanted. But it seems that the Earlirouge variety may have some real advantages over Moiras while retaining their excellent flavor and deep red interior coloring. We'll need to grow them several more years to really have a true idea of their production, disease resistance, and adaptability to our growing conditions.

Earlirouge and pole beansAnd you may have noticed already that I don't have a good photo of a pile of deep red Earlirouge tomatoes for this feature story. I definitely messed up on that one. The day I picked ten pounds of Earlirouge from one plant and then picked a bunch more tomatoes from our Moira and Bella Rosa plants, I forgot to digitally record the harvest and went straight to making tomato purée with our old Squeezo Strainer.

I did, however, find a good shot of our Earlirouge growing alongside some pole beans that replaced an earlier planting of Japanese Long Pickling cucumbers. The shot could be used of a good example of image compression, as the telephoto lens I use as my standard lens makes the garage and cornfield across the road look far closer than the actual distance of a hundred yards or more.

But to give you a good idea of why I like the Moira variety so well (and to sneak in some great tomato shots), let me repost My Favorite "Heirloom" from a Senior Gardening blog posting in 2012.

My Favorite "Heirloom" (Cross posted from Senior Gardening, November 1, 2012)

I really have trouble calling any variety introduced during my lifetime as an heirloom. But when a variety moves past twenty or thirty years old, the label is now frequently being applied. So under that definition, my favorite heirloom vegetable would have to be the Moira tomato, developed by Jack Metcalf at the Smithfield Agricultural Farm (Trenton, Ontario) and introduced in 1972. Moiras produce early, 6-8 ounce tomatoes with deep red interiors and have excellent flavor. They're ideal for canning and also great for slicing, although certainly not as big as beefsteak varieties.

Although listed as a determinate variety, grower tests often carry the comment, "somewhat indeterminate." For the home grower, that means that you may have a plant that puts out growth, sets and ripens its fruit, and that's about it (determinate). But you may also get a plant that appears to continue putting out more leaf and stem growth once it has set a crop, continues to bloom and produce fruit throughout the season.

Caged Moira Moira in cage
Three Moiras Canning Moiras

I became a much happier gardener growing Moiras when I stopped growing them on the ground, put them in tall tomato cages, and treated them like an indeterminate variety. While our Moiras don't put out the extended growth of say, a Better Boy, they do continue to grow and produce excellent fruit throughout the season.

The downside with the variety is that they seem to have no resistance to some nasty seed and soil borne diseases we continually fight here at the Senior Garden. Even when we hot water treat our seed and plant on clean ground that hasn't had tomatoes or related crops on it for several years, we still get some bacterial spot and anthracnose. Interestingly, when we planted a related variety, Quinte (also developed by Jack Metcalf at the Smithfield Agricultural Farm, released in 1975) [in 2012] at the far end of a field where I knew no tomatoes had grown for twenty years, we had no bacterial spot or anthracnose, but the plant did develop bacterial speck late in the season!

A Bit More (7/23/2015)

In 2015, we grew our Earlirouge tomatoes for the first time in our main raised garden bed. Previously, we'd grown them in the rather poor soil of an outlying isolation plot and our large East Garden plot. The response of the plants to good soil was pretty amazing.

Earlirouge Tomatoes

Our first major picking of the four Earlirouge plants we put out produced a little less than a bushel of 2-3" tomatoes!

Update: (5/5/2017)

From various listings on the Seed Savers Exchange Online Yearbook, I found that SSE has the Earlirouge variety of tomatoes in their seed bank. That's good news, as if I should soon pass, the variety will still be preserved! (An no, I'm not dying. I'm actually feeling pretty chipper tonight!)

A month or so ago, I was surprised to receive an email from the daughter of Jack Metcalf. Jack passed in 2013. She was seeking information about his tomato development efforts. After several very pleasant email exchanges, I sent her samples of the Metcalf developed varieties we had on hand: Earlirouge; Moira; and Quinte.

Update: (11/12/2017)

Earlirouge Tomato Plants

Clusters of Earlirouge tomatoesRow of tomato and pepper plantsOur Earlirouge plants this year were stunted, possibly by some poor, early season weather conditions. While the related Moira and Quinte tomatoes planted much later and in the rather poor soil of our East Garden filled their cages, the Earlirouges grew much more like true determinates this year.

Interestingly, the shorter Earlirouge plants still produced an incredible amount of great tomatoes this season, equal in yield to their taller cousins growing in our East Garden.

The dramatic change in plant height will necessitate some changes when we start our tomato plants next spring. While I'll definitely use some seed produced this year (2017), I'll also start some from 2014 that previously produced full-sized plants. Our plants this year came from 2015 saved seed, as we had a crop failure last year due to blight.

For good measure, I'll start one or two plants if I can from that very old packet of saved seed (1988) that got us growing Earlirouges again. It will be a good test to see if that seed is still good after thirty years in frozen storage!

Update: (7/5/2018)

We have a lovely row of Earlirouge tomato plants growing this year in another narrow raised garden bed. It's mid-July, and the plants have already outgrown last year's stunted plants in height and are filled with small tomatoes.

Earlirouge tomatoe plants - July 4, 2018

While I attributed the stunting last year to weather conditions, I learned or re-learned a hard gardening lesson this spring. The narrow bed where we grew our Earlirouges last season was planted to peas in early March this year. The seeding totally failed. I reseeded, and that seeding also failed. I wondered if moles were gobbling up the seed.

I reworked the bed, digging and tilling it deeply and zapped any mole tunnels I found with mole bombs. I replanted with some short pea varieties. Some came up, but germination was still quite poor. To get a crop, I started pea transplants inside and eventually moved them to the raised bed where they did okay, but not great.

At this point, I'm guessing that the stunting and poor pea germination were caused by mulch I used that had some herbicide drift on it. We use Roundup Extended on our gravel driveway and to a lesser extent, on cracks in our sidewalks. I apparently had some herbicide drift when I sprayed and later swept up grass clippings to be used as mulch.

The whole experience has been disappointing, but I feel lucky that I apparently only used the killer mulch I'd created on just one of our raised garden beds. At nearly 70 years of age, I'm still learning and re-learning gardening know-how.

Update: (12/11/2018)

I was encouraged last night when I saw that the Turtle Tree Seed Initiative is now offering seed for the Earlirouge tomato variety for sale. Having a commercial entity offer the seed is a giant step forward in our effort to preserve the variety. Having a biodynamic and organic grower/vendor offer the seed is another plus. Our saved seed, sadly, is not organically grown, as we still use some commercial fertilizers and our raised beds are all enclosed with treated timbers (which precludes organic certification).

With Earlirouge seed now commercially available, I'll begin referring all seed requests we receive for it to Turtle Tree. I believe in supporting vendors who grow and carry endangered open pollinated vegetable varieties.

Send comments and feedback to Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening

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last updated 12/11/2018