The Accidental Hybrid: Discovering New Tomatoes There's a heady delight in stepping out in your garden and discovering a plant perhaps never before grown. It's even more fun when it happens by accident. Commentator Julie Zickefoose wasn't expecting big purple tomatoes, but now she's boiling down vats of them.
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The Accidental Hybrid: Discovering New Tomatoes

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The Accidental Hybrid: Discovering New Tomatoes

The Accidental Hybrid: Discovering New Tomatoes

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For those of you who've spent the summer trying to nurture a vegetable garden, here's a story to make you jealous.

Commentator Julie Zickefoose has done her share of planting and weeding. But she is finding delight these days in plants that appear and thrive by accident.

JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: Every time I plod out to my garden, jaw set, to pull up the nasty old green bean plants that have collapsed on the straw, their yellowed leaves riddled by bean beetles, they surprise me. They've set the table with new white blossoms, and they've made dinner for me again. And so I stay their execution and decide not to replant - why start over with a puppy when the old dog still has spring in her step?

I pick the prickly yellow beetle larvae off the leaves and toss them over the fence; I keep the plants picked clean, weeded and mulched. They look terrible, but they keep us in beans, and that's all that matters. It's practically free, gardening, if you don't count the hours spent weeding and the bales of straw bought to keep the bindweed down. You plant the seed and nurture it for a while and then stand back and let the burgeoning vegetation do the rest. Come late summer, you take a big plastic tote out each time you visit - there's that much food flooding back into your kitchen.

For the first time ever, I've kept the tomatoes tied up in their cages, and I can move among them without the pop and spurt of fruit under my bare feet. I listen to the swelling sizzle of cicadas, dodging their bomber flights through the garden; hear the steady hum of crickets and katydids in the meadow, the sputtering zzzz of bumblebees working the blazing zinnias. I kneel to extract a huge tomato - the size, shape and purplish color of a human kidney - from a jumble of fragrant stalks in its cage, working it up through the thick leaves. I heft it in my hand, marveling, then pluck a basil leaf and take a bite out of its smooth purple side.

I grew this tomato from a seed, saved on a paper towel from last summer's crop. I sit down in the prickly straw to consider this odd and delicious fruit. It's the size and shape of the pink Anderson beefsteak from which I gathered its seed. But it's the oddest color of purple, and the flavor is zingier. A smile spreads across my face as I realize that its other parent must be the little Black Krim tomatoes I grew last summer. I'd found one in a parti-colored basket of heirloom cherries and saved the seed. In my palm, I'm holding a tomato that's uniquely my own - a deep maroon delight, heavy of flesh and sparse of seed, with a more complex, nuttier flavor than its pinkish parent. And it's heavy with fruit, bundles and bundles of it. Why, I could propagate it; name it anything I want; give it to special friends to grow. This is how it happens, I think. This is how brand-new plant varieties come to be - in the happy accidents and the hum and bumble of bees, in a small Ohio garden, a long way from anywhere.

SIEGEL: Commentator Julie Zickefoose lives on a nature sanctuary near Whipple, Ohio. She's the author of "Letters from Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods."

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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