We weasels don’t have any family heirlooms. Nothing gets passed down except our pointy noses and passion for gardening. You’d think with all the digging we do that one of my ancestors would have discovered a buried treasure. But, alas, no. Maybe that is why I am so intrigued by Heirloom Tomatoes.
What are Heirloom Tomatoes?
Many tomatoes found at grocery and garden stores today are hybrids. This means they are commercially grown with controlled pollination to retain or introduce desired traits – like thick skin or disease resistance.
Heirloom Tomatoes are unique, pure-bred tomatoes that are considered so good their seeds are preserved and passed down like a family inheritance. They’re the varieties our grandparents ate many years ago. In the past they were often rare and grown by a particular family. Today the term encompasses tomatoes with unique characteristics or that have been around for 50 years. Now more than 3,000 varieties exist in the U.S. and 10,000 in the world.
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
To enjoy Heirlooms you have to learn to see beauty in uniqueness. Hybrids are grown to be uniform red orbs of perfection. Not so with Heirlooms. No two heirloom tomatoes are alike; their shapes vary greatly. I’ve seen a heart-shaped tomato and many that look rather bulbous. They are also known to crack because their skin is not grown to be thick to bear weight in transportation like many hybrids.
Don’t Judge a Tomato by Its Cover
Bite into an heirloom and you will discover why their appearance doesn’t matter. The taste of an heirloom is always robust and flavorful. The color actually tells you a lot about the tomato. Dark means acidic, light means less acidic. Red equates to sweetness. Green means tart. Yellow and orange are milder. Purple and black are bold and rich.
The book 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden by Carolyn J. Male wonderfully illustrates and describes this great garden item.
Plant for the Plate
When deciding what to plant, I like to visualize my plate. Heirlooms come in a range of beautiful colors from yellows to reds to purples and everything in between. And, because they taste so great, they can be cut and served as their own beautiful and delicious dish. So I like imagine what colors would look good on a plate served together and make my selections about what to grow from there.
Or, maybe you would prefer to choose them by name. Unique vegetables deserve unique names and heirlooms have them: German Giant, Box Car Willie, Cherokee Chocolate, Pink Ping Pong, Orange Strawberry, Green Zebra, to name a few. One of the most common heirloom tomatoes is the beefsteak variety and they have some great names, too: Big Ben, Big Rainbow, Watermelon, Italian Sweet.
The Heirloom Tomato Cookbook by Mimi Luebbermann has 50 great recipes to try once your crop comes in.
Where to Get Them
You have to be careful when buying tomato seeds or plants from your local nursery. Many plants sold are hybrids, so you will want to make sure you check with the horticulturalist to make sure what you are buying is truly an heirloom variety.
There are also some great online sources. I like www.tomatofest.com. They sell organic heirloom tomato seeds from all around the world.
Tips for Successful Growing
As heirlooms in your home require limited but special care, so do heirloom tomatoes. They will flourish if grown in 18-24” of fluffy, fertile soil with plenty of good quality mulch. I use my Garden Claw to cultivate the soil because tomato plants are water drinkers and well cultivated soil absorbs water instead of letting it run off.
Tomatoes need lots of sun. Do prune old leaves and unproductive stems to maximize growth.
Heirlooms may not produce as much as hybrids, nor as consistently, so I also plant hybrids in my garden as well to ensure I have plenty of tomatoes.
Save the Seeds
Another unique thing about Heirloom Tomatoes is their seeds. Hybrid seeds are sometimes sterile, or do not reproduce the same tomatoes if saved and replanted. But Heirloom Tomato seeds can be saved and used to grow the same tomatoes again next year.
When you find the tomato you’d like to pass on in your family, here’s how you can save the seeds and create your family’s culinary heirloom:
- Choose a good, ripe tomato.
- Cut it and squeeze the seeds into a cup.
- Put a couple inches of water over the seeds and set aside for 2-3 days.
- When white mold begins to grow, dispose of any floating seeds. Rinse the remaining seeds and place on a paper plate in a single layer.
- Set aside to dry completely for several days.
- Place in a sealed container and label it.
- Keep in a cool dry place for up to 10 years.
Tools used: Garden Claw