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TOTALLY TRANSFIXED BY TOMATOES.

Byline: Nancy Dillion

Staff Writer

MARCH is the plum time for tomato lovers to start planning their backyard gardens, and few people are as excited as Scott Daigre.

The local tomato expert intends to try his luck with the unusual and peculiar Sweet Pea Currant, a sugary mini tomato about the size of a caper.

"It's bizarre how teeny-tiny it is," he said. "A chef challenged me to do it so he could pickle the fruit and use it like caviar. It will probably wear me out at picking time. Who knows."

Daigre, the author of "Tomatomania!: How to Grow Tomatoes in Southern California," will discuss his strategy and help local gardeners pick the right tomatoes for their micro-

climates at a free "Growing Tomatoes" class at California State University, Northridge, on March 10.

He says the threat of frost should disappear in the next six weeks, and savvy growers already are sowing seeds in containers on warm window sills and protected sun porches.

His best advice: Raise the stakes and keep adding new varieties to your mix.

"Most people just want to grow that big county-fair tomato, and if that's all they choose, they waste a whole season without enjoying their labor until the end.

"So don't just go for generic nursery six-packs. Grow a little of everything -- at least one beefsteak tomato, one slicing tomato and then something kind of wacky."

His favorites include the black heirloom Pierce's Pride and a medium yellow named Lemon Boy.

For first-time growers or families with shovel-wielding kids, experts recommend sturdy cherry tomatoes.

"They're really reliable and disease-resistant," said Renee Shepherd of seed purveyor Renee's Garden in Felton, Calif. "They produce early, taste delicious and keep yielding abundant harvests in almost any climate."

Shepherd's $2.69 "Garden Candy" tricolor cherry tomato packet is a perennial favorite, she said. A mix of three types of seeds -- orange Sungold, red Supersweet 100 and bright-yellow Sweet Gold -- it's one of her three top sellers online and at stores such as Orchard Supply Hardware.

She's also selling Sungold seeds in a single variety pack for the first time this year, thanks to popular demand. "These really are like candy. It's hard to stop eating them."

"I bought my tomato plants from Home Depot last year, and they weren't very successful," said Dana McCauley, 62, a retired teacher living near Los Angeles International Airport who has signed up for Daigre's CSUN class. "We had some yellow pear tomatoes that were delightful to look at but really had no taste."

She hopes to ask Daigre about the best heirlooms to grow in her coastal garden.

"If you're in Pasadena, where it's warmer, you can grow most any variety. You may even have to protect your plants from the sun," Daigre said. "At the beach, containers are a good idea because you need to get your plants warmer. And short-season tomatoes are the best there. Matina and Early Girl are my favorites."

Nancy Dillon, (818) 713-3760

nancy.dillon@dailynews.com

Garden knowledge

What: "Growing Tomatoes"

Where: California State University, Northridge

When: March 10. Session 1 runs 9 to 10:30 a.m. Session 2 runs 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Register: Sign up via e-mail at botanicgarden@csun.edu or call (818) 677-3496

Cost: Free

TOMATO AND BUFFALO MOZZARELLA SALAD

1 pound buffalo mozzarella, sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 very large tomato (such as Brandywine) OR 3 medium tomatoes, cored and sliced

1 to 2 stems fresh basil

2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Sea salt

Edible flowers, such as violas, nasturtiums, marigold petals, borage blossoms OR cilantro blossoms (optional)

Arrange mozzarella slices alternating and overlapping with tomatoes on an oblong platter or large dinner plate. Slip some basil leaves between slices along sides so they are protruding halfway out.

Drizzle or spoon oil over tomatoes. Do the same with vinegar. Lightly sprinkle salt on tomatoes. Distribute flowers on slices and plate, if desired. Let sit for a few minutes and serve.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

VARIATIONS: Mayonnaise may be substituted for olive oil, producing a slightly different effect. Spread 1/2 teaspoon on top of each tomato slice as you arrange them on the plate and let sit for 10 minutes. Very thinly sliced rings of red or sweet white onion may be scattered on top of cheese and tomatoes.

From "The Tomato Festival Cookbook, 150 Recipes That Make the Most of Your Crop of Lush, Vine-Ripened, Sun-Warmed, Fat, Juicy, Read-to-Burst Heirloom Tomatoes," by Lawrence Davis-Hollander.

Can't wait for your own heirlooms?

Tarzana-based Country Fresh Herbs will begin selling its greenhouse heirlooms starting April 1.

Yellow marbled Pineapple tomatoes, Cherokees Purples and huge Amana Oranges will cost about $3.50 a pound.

Call (818) 345-8810.

Get some

In the market for some hard-to-find seedlings? Tomatomania! will have almost 300 varieties up for sale this month at one of Los Angeles' oldest garden traditions.

What: Tomatomania!'s Largest Seedling Sale

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 23-25.

Where: Tapia Brothers Farm Stand, 5251 Hayvenhurst Ave., Encino.

How: For more info, call (818) 905-6155.

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, 2 boxes

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Hot tomatoes

They come in all sizes, shapes and colors - even stripes - and now's the time to get started

(2 -- color) 'Tis the season for tomatoes, and savvy growers are already planting theirs, from seeds or seedlings. First-time growers are encouraged to start with the sturdy and tasty cherry tomato. They can be grown in almost any climate and are disease-resistant. California State University, Northridge, is offering free courses on how to grow them. Local tomato expert Scott Daigre says to "grow a little of everything" and recommends trying something a little "wacky."

(3 -- color) NEED FOR SEED: This "Summer Feast" seed packet from Renee's Garden offers a trio of treasured heirlooms. There's the medium-size, richly flavored Black Krim from the Russian Black Sea area, the meaty, glowing orange Sweet Persimmon and the lobed, deep-red Italian Costoluto. The packet sells for $2.69 at Reneesgarden.com or at Orchard Supply Hardware.

(4 -- color) SLICE PRECISE: This Tomato Slicer from Williams-Sonoma has serrated blades that glide through a tomato with razor precision, creating thin, uniform slices. Available for $11 at local Williams-Sonoma stores and online at williams-sonoma.com.

(5 -- color) TOMATO ART: Artist Gaila Lebherz makes these Giclee Tomato Prints in Carmel Valley, Calif., from photos taken by renowned photographer Tom O'Neal. Choose from a yellow heirloom, a green-and-red-striped heirloom (pictured), a "perfect" red tomato or a deep-crimson heart-shaped tomato. Each print is $49.95 at local Sur La Table stores or online at surlatable.com.

(6 -- color) TASTEFUL TOOLS: These Calle Gardening Tools from Italian design firm Con & Con snuggle together to save space and look great. The tools can be stored in a wall-mount holder that also stands up in soil like a sprout. Available for $38 in your choice of orange, green or blue at Silver Lake-based design mecca A+R, 1716 Silver Lake Blvd., L.A., or online at aplusrstore.com.

(7 -- color) BAG IT: This whimsical Red Tomato Beanbag is handcrafted in 100 percent cotton with detachable cotton velveteen leaves. The fresh pick from San Jose-based Eazy Bean comes in a 31-inch child size for $240 or a 42-inch adult size for $285. Buy it online at EazyBean.com.

Box:

(1) Can't wait for your own heirlooms? (see text)

(2) Get some (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Recipe
Date:Mar 3, 2007
Words:1244
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