Growing Heirloom Tomatoes

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Jerry Pavia
Green zebra tomatoes
Farming in the City

Some say that you haven’t really tasted a tomato until you’ve eaten heirlooms – which are unmistakably higher in flavor, especially when compared with their mass-marketed counterparts. They also are often beautiful. It’s easy to love the swirls of orange, purple, pink, yellow, green, red and cream.

As their popularity soars, these delectable fruits can cost as high as $6 to $10 per pound in grocery stores. It makes pure economic sense to cultivate your own – whether you live on a farm, or in a small town or suburb.

“Heirlooms are harder to grow than regular tomatoes,” says Tim Wilson, manager of Urban Agriculture for the Resource Center. “They are thin-skinned so they tend to spilt open more easily.” This makes them more susceptible to pests.

“We love growing them,” he says. “The system we use is pure compost. We have a great amount of available nutrients and very loose soil that has been laid out in an abandoned lot. I recommend putting eggshells and gypsum right underneath the transplanted tomato plant.”

Here are more City Farm tips to cultivate heirloom tomatoes prized by top gourmet restaurants:

  • Select carefully. There are hundreds of varieties of heirlooms; some with better taste, others with appealing texture, color or yield, Wilson says. Research to find the right culinary treasures in your own home kitchen.
    City Farm grows Cherokee Purple because of its superior taste and Striped German, a large multi-color tomato, among others. (See “Digging Deeper” for ordering information.)
  • Grow seedlings. Start your seedlings in a greenhouse with full sun and at least 40 to 50 degrees temperature, says Wilson. However, if you don’t have a greenhouse, a south-facing window with full-scale light is perfect.
  • Plant more. Heirlooms aren’t as prolific as regular tomatoes.
  • Save seeds for a new crop. “We save our seeds from the previous year,” says Wilson. “If seeds are cleaned, soaked and dried correctly, they may be planted in the early spring in Chicago.” For more information on saving seeds, see “Breed the Best Tomatoes,” in the July/August issue of GRIT.
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