The best tomato plants in Tulsa County — and probably in the entire state of Oklahoma — are growing in Darrell Merrell’s driveway.
From mid-April to May, Merrell — better known as “The Tomato Man” — and his daughter, Lisa, sell heirloom tomato plants from big tables covered with flat after flat of seedlings on Merrell’s unassuming property at 2208 W. 81st St.
A few varieties are available April 1 for “early birds,” but the Merrells save the bulk of their offerings for those gardeners wise enough to wait until after the last frost date (which coincides with tax day) to plant.
Merrell, a member of the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange, sells more than 50 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, along with dozens of peppers (everything from Aji Dulce to Yellow Peter) and herbs; a few tomatillos, ground cherries, and eggplants; and a flower or two.
At $2.50 for tomato and pepper plants and $3 for herbs and flowers, Merrell’s prices are higher than a lot of stores, but you get what you pay for. Tomato Man plants are always strong, healthy, and come with plenty of free information and advice. I would consider them a bargain at twice the price. Merrell hands out a detailed guide to the plants he sells (also available on his Web site as a downloadable PDF), and he can talk about tomatoes the way a sommelier talks about wine.
For instance, look at the way Merrell describes his favorite variety for 2007:
CHEROKEE PURPLE: The Best of the Best. Absolutely magnificent flavor!!! Most years Cherokee Purple has consistently out performed all my other tomatoes. The flavor is a perfect blend of rich sweet/tartness that rivals Brandywine. Marches to the beat of a different drum when it comes to color. It ripens to the color of a deep hematoma bruise, a deep dark smoky, brownish/reddish/purple with green shoulders and dark brick red flesh. Round to oblate, 8 to 16 ounces plus. Hearty, pest and disease tolerant plants with excellent production. Heavy autumn production right up to a killing frost. My number one seller by three to one over any other tomato. Introduced through the Seed Savers Exchange in 1991 by Craig LeHoullier, a tomato seed collector from Raleigh, NC. A Mr. J.D. Green of eastern Tennessee sent Craig the seed, saying that it had been in his family for over 100 years and they had received them from the Cherokee Nation of that area.
If you’re going to go to the trouble of growing your own tomatoes, you owe it to yourself — and your garden — to do business with folks who understand and share your passion. The Merrells’ tomatoes are the healthiest, most beautiful plants I’ve ever seen, and their service is second to none. There is not one thing I would rather eat than a ripe, juicy, homegrown heirloom tomato … and I am not exaggerating when I say that there is not one day out of the year that I look forward to more than opening day for the Tomato Man.
Ron chooses an interesting variety to plant in our garden. With more than 50 varieties to choose from — and space in our garden for only a dozen plants — narrowing down the possibilities is always a challenge.
Hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through May. For more information or directions, visit the Web site or call (918) 446-7522. A map is available on the Web site.