How to Grow Heirloom Tomatoes

This is the tomato time of year. Many kinds can be found at farm stands and farmers markets. There is one kind, however, that can only be found at this time and if you are lucky enough to find them, they are a delicious piece of worldly culture; they are called heirlooms.
Food historians have not decided where tomatoes originated. The general consensus is the mountains of the west coast of South America. There is evidence that they made their way to Mexico where they were domesticated and then taken to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean by the Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century along with turkeys, chocolate, vanilla, chilies, corn and potatoes. Further domestication in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries produced a number of high quality cultivars. Early Americans brought them back to this continent, but they were not widely cultivated until after 1830. During the 1800’s, mass migrations from Europe and the subsequent blending of cultures led to wider acceptance.
Canning began in 1847 and really took off in the 1920s. Serious tomato hybridizing (to accommodate the canning and supermarket needs) followed.
That is the short history of the travels and development of tomatoes as we know them in all of their forms. And now, just what is an heirloom tomato? Heirlooms are self-pollinating so their seeds produce the same fruit generation to generation. Hybrids, the most commonly grown tomatoes, commercially and by home gardeners, do not grow true from their seed. To “domesticate” a tomato, the grower chooses a tomato from his crop that has needed or wanted characteristics such as sweetness or acidity, shape or size, disease resistance or bigger yields. By making these choices year after year, he chooses a tomato that is satisfying to that location and the tastes of that person. And because these tomatoes reproduce true, the hundreds, even thousands, of varieties that are known may be generations old. In this way tomatoes have been developed specific to locations and even individuals.
Given this manner of domestication, there is great diversity in heirlooms. They may be the size of currants or up to two pounders. They may be shaped like spheres, strawberries, grapes, hearts, pears, and be scalloped, lobed or flat. They may be red, black and purple, red with green shoulders, white, pink, orange, yellow, gold, green or any of these colors with stripes
Their names usually describe a person or location. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter was developed by Charley Byles of Logan West Virginia (so one story goes) during the depression and indeed enabled him to pay off the mortgage on his radiator shop. Hillbilly comes from the hills of West Virginia. Brandywine, (a very popular variety) was developed by Amish farmers near Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania. Besser (better in German) comes from the Freiburg area of Germany. Aunt Ginny’s Purple, Arkansas Traveler and Regina’s Yellow are self-explanatory.
Small plants of heirloom tomatoes can be found in some of our local nurseries in the spring, but I have always grown them from seed, trying a few new varieties each year. I had the luxury of a greenhouse for several years, but seeds can be started in a sunny window as well. I started them in March and after hardening off, set them out in mid-May. I like to grow tomatoes as cordons. In this manner the main stem is maintained by removing the side shoots and tying the stem to a strong pole. The plant will produce three to four trusses of fruit and since it is held above the soil, bugs and damp soil do not affect it.
When you see these tomatoes at a farmers market, know that they are special pieces of history. They have been deliberately developed by individuals (not corporations) over years to have specific qualities, each variety being unique. They have been very carefully brought to the market as their skins tend to be thin and therefor they split and bruise easily. They will have odd shapes. They may be more expensive than others because their delicacy causes much loss of crop. And they are the most delicious tomatoes of all!
Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener and consultant, for gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067.

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