Moyamensing or Spring Garden Jail Tomato
Origin: Philadelphia, PA
Improvement status: Cultivar
Seeds per packet: ~35 ($3.50)
Bulk seeds per packet: ~150 ($10)
Germination tested 11/2020: 97%
Life cycle: Annual
We love this productive medium-sized tomato with a mysterious and fascinating history. Based on its two names and the following account from Dr. William Woys Weaver, we believe it likely originated in either Eastern State Penitentiary (in North Philadelphia, near Spring Garden Street) or Moyamensing Prison (in South Philadelphia): "This rare and unusual African-American heirloom came into the Roughwood Seed Collection in 1982 from Mrs. M.J. Grooms of Philadelphia, great-granddaughter of a cook who worked at Eastern State Penitentiary. According to Mrs. Grooms, this tomato was grown by the prisoners in their large kitchen garden within the walls of the prison since the mid-1800s and it was from the prisoners that her family acquired the tomato. Since it exhibits many of the physical traits of Cook’s Favorite, a commercial tomato grown in Philadelphia during the 1860s and 1870s, this tomato may be a local selection of that now-extinct variety. In traditional Philadelphia cookery, it was a tomato of choice for soups, catsups, and general canning. The green tomatoes make excellent pickles. With blocky orange-red fruits growing in clusters of three, the 8-lobed fruit is about 2 to 2 ½ inches in diameter. A prolific mid-season variety, 'Moyamensing' will begin producing in 85 days and bear generously right up to frost."
Incidentally, both prisons are noted today for their rich histories. The closed but still standing (and open for tours) Eastern State Penitentiary once housed Al Capone, was a major tourist destination as soon as it opened (visited by the likes of Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville), and had running water and central heat before the White House did. The now-torn-down Moyamensing Prison housed one of America's first serial killers, H.H. Holmes, was a one-night-only home for Edgar Allen Poe following a failed suicide attempt, and for 100 days housed white Quaker abolitionist Passmore Williamson for his role in helping an enslaved black woman named Jane Johnson and her sons escape from slavery. He became a cause celebre during his incarceration, with his cell well furnished by friends and relatives, and a visitors including black leaders of the abolition movement including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
GROWING TIPS: Start seeds indoors in March or early April, transplant outside after danger of last frost. Space plants 2 to 3 feet apart. They will benefit from a trellis or tomato cage. Full sun preferred.