Choosing and growing heirloom tomatoes

Flavorful and delicious, heirlooms are the best

Heirloom tomatoes

(8/05) If you've been watching the tomato offerings at your local grocery, you've probably noticed the "heirloom tomatoes" that are going for at least twice and sometimes three times more than the standard vine-ripened, hydroponically-grown tomato from Canada or the seasonal tomatoes from California and Mexico. And if you're watching your budget, you've probably wondered who can afford them?

Heirloom tomatoes are expensive for a reason: they taste really, really good. They are succulent, juicy, and improve even the simplest meals. It's enough to tempt many foodies to part with their hard-earned cash for that little taste of heaven.

If you've grown tomatoes before, or even if you haven't, heirlooms are definitely worth a try. They are no more difficult to grow or susceptible to problems than any other type of tomato. They require the same selection consideration and cultivation as readily available hybrids. The payoff is in having wonderful tomatoes for a couple months of the year just outside your back door. And really, why not grow the best tomatoes if you're going to put in that kind of work?

Differences between heirlooms and newer hybrids

Tomatoes have been bred over the last 100 years or so for transportability, which means they have to hold up from the time they are picked green to crating, shipping, and market distribution.

What has fallen by the wayside unfortunately is flavor. Many new varieties have decent flavor when homegrown, but can't compare with a Red Brandywine for example. And most grocery store tomatoes have no taste at all.

Vintage family heirloom or heritage tomatoes are relatively fragile. They have thinner skins and are best picked ripe, which means they aren't cost effective to grow, package, or distribute, hence the high price at the market.

Newer hybrids have been tested for resistance to pathogens like fusarium wilt. The testing process is fairly expensive, so it's unusual for older varieties to be tested. This doesn't mean that heirlooms are more disease prone than new hybrids. The best way to find out is to check with other gardeners on Web forums, through your county extension service, or just through experience.

Heirloom tomatoes are open pollinated unlike their hybridized kin. This means that if you save the seeds of your heirloom tomatoes, you can plant them next year and count on seeing the same variety. Not so with hybrids. Hybrids are cross pollinated between a couple varieties, so what comes up is not a duplicate the plant seed is taken from. (The same thing is true of heirlooms though if they have cross pollinated accidentally.)

Where to go for plants and seeds

The major conundrum you may face with respect to growing heirloom tomatoes is where you get your seed or plants.

Many seed catalogs carry some of the more popular heirlooms such as Druzba, Cherokee Purple, Red Brandywine, Black Krim, and Mortgage Lifter. They may be available not only as seed but as small plants, which can certainly be a time and work saver if you want only a half dozen plants.

If your want something more exotic or unusual, the best source is likely to be the Seed Savers Exchange. They have been instrumental in saving and promoting hundreds of varieties of vegetables, including tomatoes. They sell seed in various size packets, so whether you want to start a few plants or a whole field, they can supply you with as many varieties as you'll ever want. And they have great books.

Another source of small plants is a local farmer's market. In the early spring, you can get the plants and advice on growing tomatoes in your area from an experienced gardener.

Don't hesitate to check with your favorite nursery. Some will even special order for you as well as provide other supplies and advice.

Resources

Books

100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden is the best book out there on growing heirloom tomatoes.


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