Market Watch: Local growers at Uptown Whittier market

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Uptown Whittier farmers market has 15 certified produce vendors, so it’s not huge, but it does offer a good selection of local growers, a convenient location and a manager, Kae Thomas, with 26 years of experience. The Friday market, which was established around 1988, moved several blocks last May to its current site in a parking lot at the corner of Philadelphia and Bright. Space is a bit tighter than at the previous venue, but most customers and vendors prefer the new spot because it’s more level, there’s more foot traffic, and it “feels more like a farmers market,” as one shopper remarked.

It would be hard for a vendor to be more local or more astounding than Kathryn Smith, whose stand offers, over the course of the year, 900 varieties of tomato plants that she propagates organically in greenhouses adjoining the Whittier bungalow where she lives with her husband. She actually grows 1,200 tomato varieties but sells 300 of these only by special order, to collectors; at any given market she typically offers 65 varieties. In addition, she propagates 175 varieties of chiles (including Bhut Jolokia, generally regarded as the world’s hottest), 64 varieties of basil and 60 kinds of eggplant. She also sells at the Fullerton and Yorba Linda markets; last year she renamed her business For a Good Thyme Nursery, which she chose because it was more distinctive than the previous appellation, Smith Family Farms.

Smith obtains her seed as a member of Seed Savers Exchange and by dealing directly with collectors around the world, all vetted to ensure they are keeping their lines pure by avoiding cross-pollination. Her favorite variety of tomato is Black Pineapple, which arose from a pineapple crossed with a dark tomato in a Belgian garden; the most unusual is an African variety named Togo, which has distinct lobes that must be peeled off to be eaten. She has fruited them all herself, so she has tasted the tomatoes and can describe them for you. She only sells the plants.

What possessed her to cultivate so many varieties? Smith says she inherited a love of gardening from her mother, adding: “I’m very competitive, and I just love tomatoes. They’re nature’s perfect food, they come in so many sizes and colors and flavors.”

She started out with just 20 tomato varieties, like your average gardening enthusiast, but one day she said to her husband, Vincent, “You know, there are a lot more out there.”

“Go ahead, knock yourself out,” she recalls that he replied. Now he sometimes regrets his blithe words, as stacked containers of tomato seed “have taken over half of the house,” says Kathryn, who also works as a landscape designer and nursery consultant.

Still, hers is far from the largest tomato collection –– the U.S. Department of Agriculture website lists 7,837 accessions, and Dr. Carolyn Male, the author of a book on heirloom tomatoes, has 2,500 different kinds.

“It seems as if I have to keep collecting seed in order to have the largest selection of tomatoes,” Smith says.

Another worthy local vendor at the Whittier market that sells tomato fruits, rather than the plants, is Yasutomi Farm of Pico Rivera, which offers the low-acid Momotaro variety. The stand specializes in hydroponically grown Japanese vegetables, such as mitsuba, Japanese parsley, which is in the same family as regular parsley but a different species; and Japanese cucumbers, which are slender and edible without peeling, like Persian cucumbers, but tend to be curved and have a more robust vegetal flavor.

Jaime Farms, which is based in nearby City of Industry — although they also grow in Yucca Valley, Chino and Santa Maria — has a wide selection of veggies, including ridged baby Romanesco zucchini with their flowers.

Tilden Farms has Star Ruby grapefruit from Pauma Valley in northern San Diego County, which is arguably the best microclimate for this variety west of the Rio Grande, with just the right heat units to produce intensely flavored, sweet-tart fruit. They also recently started bringing new-crop Valencia oranges from Riverside, which are now sweet enough to make good juice.

Uptown Whittier farmers market, Bright Avenue and Philadelphia Street, Fridays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.