Sunday, February 5, 2012

Cook County Jail Garden Tomato

Green Zebra Tomato Chicago Seed Library

If you have ever grown heirloom tomatoes before chances are that you have grown ‘Green Zebra.’  It is often sold as an “heirloom” even though it does not meet the age requirement most people expect in heirloom garden varieties. While there is no consensus on the age requirements, most would agree that plants that are 40-50 years old are heirlooms. ‘Green Zebra’ was introduced by Tom Wagner. In my preparation to launch the Chicago Seed Library I was doing research on the provenance of ‘Green Zebra’ and came across a forum post by Tom in which he stated that there was a lot of misinformation about the heritage of many of his tomatoes. Wanting to make sure I had the story straight I gave Tom a call. It was one of those relatively short conversations that you would swear lasted hours because of how much information he packed into our exchange.

Why ‘Green Zebra’ is not an “heirloom” tomato.
Tom introduced this tomato in 1980s in his Tater-Mater Seed Catalog. Because ‘Green Zebra’ does not meet the age requirements of an heirloom, it is described as a “heritage” tomato. 'Green Zebra' has an interesting history that includes four heirloom tomatoes. It began with a fascination with 'Evergreen,' a green tomato from Gleckler's catalog. He crossed it with crack-resistant red tomato, which developed a red tomato that evolved better green coloration by the F-5 filial generation. Through a process of selecting, crossing, and reselecting for taste, color and crack resistance the 'Green Zebra' that we know today was born.

During our phone conversation, I asked him if he would be OK with me starting the Chicago Seed Library with seeds that were saved from a ‘Green Zebra’ tomato. Technically, I did not have to ask for permission as ‘Green Zebra’ is an open-pollinated tomato and is not protected by a patent. Nevertheless, I thought it would be nice to at least ask and get to speak to the man behind such a famous tomato. Tom reassured me that he would be fine with it. He describes gardeners saving and trading his seeds as an honor, and mentioned a European grower who had been growing and saving ‘Green Zebra’ seeds for 19 years. “They’re open source seeds, once you get it- it’s yours,” he says. 2012 marks Tom’s 59th year of breeding tomatoes and making them available to gardeners.

The summer of 2010, I attended the harvest festival at the Cook County Jail. At the time, the jail garden had a working relationship with the University of Illinois Master Gardener program. Non-violent offenders participated in the project, worked in the garden, and completed training that allowed them to be certified as Master Gardeners. The festival acted as a graduation ceremony for the inmates and the food harvested went to local pantries. On the day of the festival, I spotted one ‘Green Zebra’ tomato that had not been harvested that was ripening on the vine and I took it. Yes, I stole a tomato from the Cook County Jail garden. When I got home, I carefully ate the fruit and saved the tomato seeds that I then passed onto my friend Monica to grow them out for the Chicago Seed Library.

Cook County Jail Garden Chicago Urban Farm
Inmates & Chef Cook County Jail Garden

I have a limited amount of these ‘Green Zebra’ tomato seeds available that I want to distribute to people and groups who are interested in becoming “branches” of the Chicago Seed Library. I will provide you with the seeds and you will grow them out, return some to me, keep some for yourself, and circulate the rest in your community. By doing this we will create a network of seed banks in Chicago that share seeds, encourage seed saving, preserve genetic diversity and inspire new gardeners. To apply to become a branch of the Chicago Seed Library fill out the form below. Please do not sign up if you cannot commit to the project (and keeping the seeds pure) or just want a free pack of seeds. If this works, we will have plenty of seeds at the end of the growing season to give out to gardeners around Chicago.

You can learn more about Tom at his blog, Tomato-Mater and on his forum for tomato growers, Tomatoville.