Mercuri Winter Keeper Tomato

The Mercuri Winter Keeper Tomato is a rare and worthwhile variety of heirloom tomato that produces fruit with outstanding storage characteristics. The flavor can’t compete with a summer tomato, but we’re less picky in December, January, February, and sometimes beyond.

We acquired the seed through the family of one of Eric’s college friends, and we offer seeds through Seed Savers Exchange. Here’s the listing that we wrote for the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook:

indet., potato leaf, winter-keeping variety, disease-resistant plants yield abundant golf-ball size yellow-orange fruits, store easily to December, an occasional tomato has persisted until the following summer, will ripen in storage if picked green; traditionally stored by hanging clusters of tomatoes, though side-by-side storage of individual fruits on shelves works well; preserved by Italian immigrant communities in Toronto, Ontario, seeds passed from renée I.A. mercuri; grown in Missouri since 2006

Members of the Seed Savers Exchange can request seeds from us for a small fee. We’re pleased that other members who have requested seed have liked the tomato enough to also offer seed that they’ve grown though the Yearbook, thus helping to make this wonderful tomato more available to others.

Planting date: Getting the planting date right can be a little tricky, as the goal is to have a big pulse of tomatoes ripening before frost, but not too long before frost (because that just means a longer storage time until they’ll be eaten). Relatively mature green tomatoes will ripen (but we’ve had more trouble saving seeds from tomatoes picked green). For the moment, we’ve settled on starting the seeds in late April/early May, followed by transplanting in early to mid June.

Growing: The plants are robust, and they’ve stood up well to some extreme insults. We often relegate them to less desirable growing areas, both to isolate them from other tomatoes for seed saving purposes, and because we know they can handle rougher conditions than most plants. One year, a bout of inattentiveness (that we attribute to a family visit) meant the plants were almost entirely defoliated by hordes of hornworms. Impressively, the plants managed to recuperate enough to still yield tomatoes by frost.

Harvest: We start harvesting when a meaningful number of fruits have turned yellow/orange. Our current preferred method is to lay these out side by side on plastic shelving with holes (to encourage air circulation) in a part of the house that stays cool-ish (50ºFs-60ºFs). If we can’t get to this task immediately, we’ll temporarily store them in a bin that has holes to allow air circulation; a solid container is just asking for mold & rot. We harvest periodically leading up to frost, and when a killing frost is looming, we’ll take (more or less) everything remaining, green or ripe.

In the kitchen: We’ve developed a liking for green Mercuri tomatoes over other green tomatoes; we think their firmness and tartness results in especially delicious fried green tomatoes. Ripe tomatoes can certainly be eaten on salads and such for those who want “fresh” winter tomatoes. We often prefer roasting them for a nice sauce.

Australian Brown Onion

This is the best intermediate day length, open-pollinated, storage onion that we’ve found. We seed these in February, transplant in late March (or so), and harvest in July. The onions below are ready for harvest.


In 2012, we dabbled in seed saving for this variety. We picked the biggest & best looking onions from the 2011 crop, stored them through the winter, culled any that sprouted too prematurely, and planted the remainder. They flowered and successfully set seed, which we collected during the drought.


Seed sources: We originally found this onion through Baker Creek. Certified organic seed has started to become available, including from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Burmese Okra


Burmese Okra’s best attribute is that it stays tender even when large. This allows for less frequent picking and/or less perfect picking, because okra pods that are overlooked at a small size will still generally still be tender at the next picking.

Burmese, like all okra, is a heat-loving crop. Production starts mid-summer and continues until frost, though it starts to slow down a bit with cooler weather. If it has had a good run and we’re sick of dealing with it, we may end its days early to allow for more time to establish a fall cover crop.

No matter how brutal the heat, picking okra is best done with a long-sleeved shirt and possibly gloves, as well. Neglecting this detail can result in intense skin irritation from contact with the leaves. Some days are worse than others, and we haven’t yet figured out how to predict when irritation will result even with a long-sleeved shirt. We’re quite often grateful for the cool water from a nearby water hydrant to lessen the intense itchy/burning sensation after an okra-picking session.

Japanese beetles & aphids (usually being farmed by ants) are pests of okra.

We started saving seed for Burmese Okra in 2010. Certified organic seed is available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

White Acre Cowpea

The White Acre Cowpea is one of many varieties of cowpeas, the most familiar of which is the Black-Eyed Pea. We normally trial many varieties of a given crop before settling on one or two favorites, but this is one of the few cases where we liked what we saw early on and just kept growing it. We originally bought seed from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and have been saving our own each year since.


This cowpea has a bush habit. The plants grow quickly and tend to do a pretty good job of shading out weeds, though a bit of hoeing early on is usually a good idea. The long pods contain quite a few seeds, though the seeds themselves are relatively small.

The flowers are quite beautiful.


Though the peas can be eaten green, they’re a lot of trouble to shell, so we generally let the pods dry fully. We harvest by hand when the pods dry enough to sound crinkly at picking times, then we run them through a mechanical sheller. Winnowing with a box fan yields reasonably clean seed.


Sometimes we cut back the spent plants prior to frost as a nice supplemental goat food.

Cowpeas have a very nice flavor and can be used in diverse ways; we’ve used them for everything from hummus to refried beans. We somewhat prefer the flavor of the common dried bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), but we find that the cowpeas produce a more reliable crop and are less susceptible to molding in the pods if the harvest period is rainy.


bio_crocus1First recorded date of bloom (not always the same clump of crocus):

  • 2008: March 10
  • 2009: February 26
  • 2010: March 8
  • 2011: no data
  • 2012: February 18 (yellow)
  • 2013: February 17 (purple, sw of house, buried by nearly a foot of snow a few days later)
  • 2014: March 21 (purple, sw of house)
  • 2015: no data
  • 2016: March 4 (purple, sw of house & near barn)
  • 2017: February 19 (purple, sw of house)



Andover Parsnip


Andover is usually our choice variety of parsnip, largely because organic seed is (sometimes) available for this variety. (Sourcing organic parsnip seed can be challenging.) We haven’t noticed major quality or yield differences between this variety and a couple others we’ve tried, though we haven’t done side-by-side trials. Perfect parsnips are usually accompanied by a high percentage of small/split/oddly shaped ones, but that just seems to be the reality of growing parsnips in our soil. We think they are delicious enough to be worth the hassle.

We’ve learned the hard way to avoid weeding parsnips in the morning, especially on sunny days. Contact with the leaves, seemingly in conjunction with sun exposure, can cause a skin reaction in the form of blister-like bumps. Based on a small sample size, we’ve concluded that a high percentage of people exposed to parsnip leaves and sun will develop this rash. However, we wonder if the growing conditions matter; we’ve been growing parsnips for years, but had hardly encountered this problem until the severe drought year of 2012.

More on parsnips in the kitchen here.

Organic seed source: Fedco.


Astro Arugula

Arugula is a cool-season crop grown both in spring & fall at Chert Hollow Farm. Depending on weather conditions (temperature & moisture), soil fertility, and plant age, the flavor ranges from nicely tangy to intensely potent/bitter. The taste buds of the eater also are a factor: Eric loves the strongest flavors that Joanna thinks taste awful if eaten plain.

If you love strong flavors, using arugula is easy. If you’re not a fan of the intense flavor of arugula, the trick is to combine it with appropriate flavors. For salads, mix it with other greens (which is often how we distribute/sell it anyway), perhaps top the salad with a combination of cheese & fruit (apples or raisins, for example), and a strong dressing. Or, saute it; garlic and a dash of good balsamic vinegar really help to balance the flavor, as well.

House Cat

This is our friendly house feline, whose job description includes household rodent control.

She is an indoor cat for several reasons:

  • For food safety reasons, we don’t allow domestic animals in growing areas, and keeping an outdoor cat away from vegetable & herb beds that have the perfect texture of a litter box can be pretty much impossible.
  • Outdoor cats tend to decimate populations of lizards and song birds, and we like lizards and birds. We’d rather her hunting talents be exercised indoors on rodents.
  • We lost our previous cat to cytauxzoonosis, a really nasty disease that has been likened to ebola for cats. The disease is carried by bobcats, with ticks as the vector, and it is very often fatal to domestic cats. Though keeping a cat indoors isn’t guaranteed prevention (as ticks still ride into the house on us), it is a reasonable precaution.
  • She is reasonably content to stay inside; this was an attribute we tried to select for at the Humane Society, and we seem to have chosen well.

White Tomesol Tomato

White Tomesol are medium to large slicing tomatoes with a nice, fruity flavor. This is an open-pollinated variety.

Seed source: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
(As of 2012, we do not know of a source for certified organic seed.)