writer | designer | photographer
Cynthia Sandberg talks a lot about destiny, and time, and the past. She talks about ancestors who worked the land and passed down to us a “biological urge” to get our hands in the dirt.
Maybe that’s why she loves antiques. Not the kind you import from Europe or buy in a store. The kind that grow from seed and have a look and taste like nothing you’d find in a supermarket or garden center.
Simply put, Cynthia Sandburg likes a tomato with a past.
They’re everywhere. On her porch in hanging baskets, where most people keep houseplants? Tomatoes. Around her pool, where friends and neighbors might spend thousands on landscaping? Tomatoes. All told, 140 varieties grow around her home and on her acreage, most of them heirlooms, straight out of the tomato time machine and bursting with character and flavor.
Her journey from backyard gardener to being known as California’s “Tomato Lady” began with a passion she believes is built into the human condition. “Why do people have houseplants?” she asks. “We have an urge to grow something, to cultivate something.” She cultiavted that urge with some horticulture classes at a local community college and a backyard vegetable garden at her home in Ben Lomonde, California.
“In that first vegetable garden, the things I loved the most were the tomatoes,” she says. So every year she’d stop growing something to make room for more tomatoes. “I stopped growing corn, stopped growing pumpkins, stopped growing that stupid onion that never did anything,” she says. So she bought ten seed packets, with about 30 seeds each, and stated them. “They all germinated, and I was like, ‘What am I going to do with 300 tomato plants?’” She planted what she could, and gave the rest away to family and friends. “ I wanted them to fulfill their biological destiny,” she says. “And that set me on my tomato-growing path.”
She discovered a book called “100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden,” by reknowned tomato expert Carolyn Male. Cynthia saw the beautiful colors, the unusual shapes and the descriptions of taste, and she was sold on heirloom varieties.
So now she sells them—and educates people on how to grow them and care for them. Visitors come to her Love Apple Farm (named for what tomatoes were once called in French because of supposed aphrodisiac qualities) to buy both seedlings and fruit. And Cynthia gives the occasional well-attended lecture; locals talk about people standing in the rain at Love Apple Farm to hear her talk about her passion.
Thing is, there’s a lot to learn about growing these living antiques. “Some people who have tried heirlooms don’t grow heirlooms anymore because they realize they don’t get as much fruit from them,” she says. Cynthia say most people try the popular Brandywine heirloom first since they’re widely available. Then they give up because they might only get get six or eight fruit from the plant—the whole season!
“And that’s in perfect conditions, which most gardeners can’t give and don’t have time to give,” she says. So how has she overcome the finicky nature of heirlooms? “Well, I haven’t,” she says.
Naturally, heirlooms aren’t bred for the disease resistance many hybrids have. And they aren’t bred for the perfect shape and color, like store-bought tomatoes. But offering optimum growing conditions can help you get good results in spite of the limitations.
“You have to have the climate, but you get the climate eventually,” she says, noting that you can grow tomatoes almost everywhere in the U.S. because it will eventually get warm enough. “It’s all about the soil. Tomatoes are heavy feeders in the soil, and so it has to be replenished every year.”
“I’m not such an elitist that I can’t have a hybrid tomato in my garden. I grow some hybrids because I love them,” she says, like the Super Marzano paste tomato that’s popular with her visitors.
Still, the heirlooms are her first love. She first found seed through her membership in Seed Savers Exchange; now she saves her own seed, trades and buys from people online, and scours the SSE catalog every year for “new” antique varieties.
Friends like to share the past with her, too. “People bring me seeds and they talk about how their grandmother brought the seed from Greece or Croatia or France,” she says. Sometimes she finds a jewel. “A friend brought some that are similar to Cherokee Purple but smaller in fruit and darker in color,” she says. “And they taste fabulous.”
It’s not all about taste, though. “One year my favorite was the Black Zebra. But if you grow it you’re going to be really disappointed,” she says. “The reason it was my favorite was that it’s really unusual-looking. It doesn’t taste that great and the yield is horrifically low.”
So why the fuss over a plant with such temperaments? “Because you don’t get the color range, the taste range and the shape range, from a hybrid tomato.” It’s the unique varieties—the odds and ends of the tomato world—that you’ll find in Cynthia’s huge tomato patch in the Santa Cruz mountains.
Just like a good antique store.