Once picked, tomatoes don't tend to last long, unless you've got the right variety.

Hamlet tomatoes don’t come cheap, but store well

My daughter was the first to notice I paid $12.95 for Hamlet tomato seeds.

And as she looked over my shoulder at the price, I was embarrassed. I admitted I ordered them without price checking and I wondered: would these seeds really be worth three times the price of every other seed?

According to the label, Hamlet, is an “organic cluster tomato bred for taste. It produces firm, dark red, fruits. Can be picked vine ripe.” I poured the ten seeds from the packet into my hand. Had I been outfoxed by the sexy description?

Like so many gardeners, I start so many kinds of tomatoes: I order seeds from suppliers, buy them locally, and save some from my garden.

I seed everything into fresh Promix soil using a clean plastic tray in mid-March. I place seeded trays over a heat mat and under a plastic dome cover to keep the humidity high until they sprout.

After three weeks, all the tomatoes are up and big enough to separate into little cell packs. By early May, sturdy seedlings go into my greenhouse or into four-inch (9 cm) pots under indoor lights to give away or to plant outside in late May.

This season, I will proudly order Hamlet again, but will smartly grow only five plants and save the leftover seed for next year.

Last year, the pricey Hamlets were first to ripen evenly in late July and I started giving them away to friends and neighbours. “Those tomatoes are really hard and tough,” said a neighbour. And I agreed. They were both “firm and dark red” as advertised. But firm and hard are not good adjectives for home-grown tomatoes.

I ate the lucscious Sweet Hearts, Jaspers and Candyland cherry tomatoes fresh from August into fall. I froze and sauced Juliet and Pony Express paste tomatoes in September. Mid-sized red tomatoes like Big Beef and Seattle’s Best offered steady supplies for fresh eating from August onwards.

Black Beauty, I discovered, were not ripe until they went from black to red to rotten, so the tasteless fruits were blended into sauces or frozen when I guessed they were ripe. The Heirloom Brandywine tomatoes, mushy in texture, died an early death from leaf diseases.

But the thick-skinned Hamlets kept on going, and while I reread the description and wondered again about paying so much for such hard fruits, I kept using them in salads and salsas. Suddenly, it was the third week of December. By then, all the little cherries were a distant memory and all the other tomatoes were frozen or had flopped into a pile of mush in their ripening box.

The last Hamlets, picked green in fall when the weather got cold, kept ripening on a sheet of newspaper in my pantry. When the last one ripened it was served fresh in December, six weeks after bringing it indoors.

So, if Hamlet tomatoes weren’t especially tasty, they were the last fruit standing. The last tomato alone was probably worth at least the $1.30 I paid for each seed. This season, I will proudly order Hamlet again, but will smartly grow only five plants and save the leftover seed for next year.

With hundreds of varieties of tomato seeds for sale, it seems criminal not to start at least one new kind in 2017. So, of course, I ordered the delicious-sounding cluster tomato Alegra, with “exquisite taste and perfect colour.” And this time, I read the fine print: ten seeds cost only $3.95.

Donna Balzer is starting a new program for aspiring new gardeners. Check out www.growfoodcalgary.com for more information.