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Plant Heirloom Tomato Plants in Your Vegetable Garden

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Shoppers at a local farmers’ market find a wide variety of harvested heirloom tomatoes ready for purchase.
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Black Prince tomatoes ripen on the vine.
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A stack of Tigerella tomatoes awaits slicing.
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Green Zebra tomatoes definitely earn the name.
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The Old German variety offers a fruity flavor and a good size for slicing.
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Brandywines are a favorite heirloom tomato for many people.

As a former certified organic market grower, I love tomatoes. I have grown more than 100 varieties and tasted even more, have served as a tomato-tasting judge, and have attended the world’s largest tomato festival. So when it comes to “the perfect tomato,” I’ve discovered that it’s really a matter of personal preference. That’s one of the things I love about heirloom tomato plants. The wide range of unique flavors, complex colors and intriguing shapes certainly give heirlooms the upper edge.

Sidebar:
13 Top Tasty Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirlooms defined

Purists define heirlooms as varieties that are more than 100 years old, but most tomato growers accept any open-pollinated variety that has been in existence for more than 50 years as an heirloom. In the less-than-50-years-old category are “created heirlooms” – varieties that have been deliberately produced by crossing two known heirlooms, such as Green Zebra. However, the one constant experts agree upon is that an heirloom must be an open-pollinated variety.

Choosing an heirloom

More than 1,000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes bring exciting color and flavor from garden to table. You’ll find familiar shades of red and yellow along with gold, orange, pink, purple, deep garnet and rose. Varieties are even green, chocolate brown or white along with multicolored stripes. Fruits can be round, oval, elongated, flattened, ribbed or lumpy. Some are shaped like pears, acorns, strawberries or sausages.

Flavor varies from mellow to bold, with acidity levels ranging from naturally sweet to traditionally tart or classic full-bodied taste. Green varieties generally have tangy citrus overtones, sometimes with a spicy-sweet flavor; yellow types tend to be mild and sweet; bi-colored types such as Pineapple or Old German are often fruity; and black varieties such as Black Krim are complex and intense, often described as smoky and rich.

Knowing the flavor characteristics of a specific tomato will help you decide which varieties to grow. But flavor isn’t the only consideration. How that variety will perform in your garden also is an important factor, as not all heirlooms reach their full potential in all growing regions. For example, a late-season variety may be productive in areas where summers are hot and the growing season long, and fail where summers are mild or fall frosts come early. Likewise, an heirloom’s flavor may excel in a warmer region and falter in cooler regions, and the flavor can even differ from season to season. In my western Oregon USDA Zone 7b garden, some years the nights are too cool to grow long-season varieties such as Pineapple to perfection.

Starting off right

Seeds can be sown directly into the ground in warmer regions, but transplants are always a boon for any gardener and an absolute essential in much of the country to ensure that fruit has adequate time to ripen. Set out 6- to 10-week-old transplants in the ground about a week or two after your average last spring frost. (The bigger the transplant, the earlier the yields.) Gently strip off the lower leaves and plant the bulk of the stem below the soil surface. New roots will form all along the buried section, encouraging a healthier and faster-growing plant.

Growing for flavor

While genetics play a part in a tomato’s overall characteristics, the fruit’s ultimate taste and performance also depend on the right growing conditions. Tomatoes grow best in a sunny spot (at least six hours of daily direct summer sun) in slightly acidic, humus-rich, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.2 and 6.8.

It’s best to test your soil before planting so you can adjust the pH level and supplement any crucial nutrients – such as phosphorus, potassium or calcium – that are lacking. Organic sources for these three nutrients include bone meal (phosphorus), crushed oyster shell (calcium) and greensand (potassium). Rock dust supplies phosphorus along with other flavor-producing trace minerals.

Additionally, enriching the soil with a shovelful of rich compost or aged manure per plant will help improve the soil structure, thereby giving roots easy access to water, air and nutrients. The added organic matter also helps increase the number of beneficial microorganisms, which help fight disease and convert nutrients in a plant-friendly form.

In lieu of compost or aged manure, you can feed your tomatoes by working in two to three pounds of a low-nitrogen (5-10-10) organic fertilizer per 100 square feet of growing space. Just be sure to use a fertilizer low in nitrogen as too much may encourage disease, delay production and weaken flavor. Apply additional compost, aged manure or organic fertilizer on top of the soil when the first fruits are the size of marbles.

Growing on

After planting, apply a layer of mulch to help cut down time spent weeding and watering. Black plastic or straw works well, but red-reflecting plastic mulch outperforms both in warming the soil and increasing yields. Since soil moisture levels are more even due to the added mulch, you’ll have less fruit cracking and blossom-end rot – an unsightly, leathery-type decay of the fruit’s blossom end. (Other contributing factors include excess nitrogen or insufficient calcium.)

Water deeply and consistently as fluctuating moisture levels can interfere with the uptake of calcium, thereby leading to blossom-end rot in susceptible plants. Cut back on watering once fruits reach full size and begin to color. Stressing plants as fruits near harvest helps to intensify the flavor.

This season why not experience your own cornucopia of flavors and grow several heirloom varieties in your garden? After all, your goal is not only to grow a tasty tomato, but also to enjoy a tomato with great taste.   

Seed Sources

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.
417-924-8917; RareSeeds.com

Gary Ibsen’s TomatoFest
www.TomatoFest.com

Seed Savers Exchange
563-382-5990; SeedSavers.org

Territorial Seed Co.
800-626-0866; TerritorialSeed.com

Tomato Growers Supply Co.
888-478-7333; TomatoGrowers.com

Totally Tomatoes
800-345-5977; TotallyTomato.com

A food writer and recipe developer, Kris Wetherbee grows heirloom tomatoes and more in her Oregon garden, preserving all the bounty nature provides.

Published on Jun 13, 2011

Grit Magazine

Live The Good Life with GRIT!