The Heirloom Revolution
Taking a new look at old tomatoes
Over a decade ago I decided that I was going to grow my own tomatoes for my customers. I also decided, I was going to grow for flavor. A handful of flavorful fruit my grandparents would be proud of rather than bushels of hybrid ‘me-to-matoes’. So, in search of the heirlooms I went. Even back then the mystique of the old fashioned, full flavored tomato was alive and well in such varieties as Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Box Car Willie, and Mortgage Lifter to name just a few. Over the years my passion for growing tomato plants has progressed to a point where I look forward to working with about ten thousand, sown by hand, little ‘maters. Almost one hundred varieties, mainly heirlooms, will grace the benches of my greenhouse this spring. This short article is, I hope, an introduction to the whys’ of the up-swell in popularity of this fantastically diverse group; Heirloom tomatoes.
What Is An ‘Heirloom’ Tomato
According to noted authorities, there are four descriptions or categories of heirloom tomatoes. A ‘Commercial’ Heirloom means an open-pollinated variety introduced prior to 1940. ‘Family’ Heirloom describes a variety grown from seeds that have been handed down, from generation to generation. The deliberate crossing of two varieties basically creates a hybrid. By planting many seeds of this cross and then collecting seeds from the best plants among this group. Over a succession of at least five generations of this refining process we can ‘dehybridize’, the original strain. This results in a ‘Created’ Heirloom. Then finally, the ‘Mystery’ Heirloom, which is a product of cross pollination, though usually unintentional.
It can be said be said that all heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. Open-pollinated basically means that if seeds are collected form a fruit, the plants grown from these seeds will yield identical fruit
Like another of my favorites, the Antique Roses, there are hundreds if not thousands of varieties of heirloom tomatoes. They will offer all colors, shapes, and sizes of fruit to temp your senses. We are all familiar with the perfect red orbs found in the grocery. Some even consider these to be the standard. But you will find that the majority of Old fashioned heirloom tomatoes are far from ever perfectly symmetrical. They were not engineered to be uniform in size or shape. Heirloom tomato varieties are passed down through generations because of their individually superior characteristics of dependability and outstanding flavor.
Flavor vs. Marketing
How many times have we seen a tomato roll off the grocer’s shelf only to bounce across the floor? Surely someone will dust it off before they put it back? A vine-ripened tomato could never pass this test. SPLOT! Just too soft and juicy; All of that delicious flavor would just go to waste. A tomatoes flavor is at its peak when vine-ripened, picked fresh and eaten within a few days. Let your sense of feel be your guide to ripeness. The commercial tomatoes offered at our local grocery are picked in the ‘mature green, state, stored, and later treated with ethylene gas to ‘ripen’ them. These tomatoes retain little flavor and are basically used in food dishes only for the color they add. Most of us know this and expect nothing more. Vine- ripened heirloom tomatoes have a multitude of flavors, ranging from highly acidic to sugary sweet. Even most commercial varieties advertised as ‘Vine-Ripened’ will only be left attached a few extra days until the very first signs of pink appear. When a tomato fruit is harvested in this mature green stage it is unable to develop its inherited complexity of flavor due to the removal of natural heat and sunlight. The commercial USDA Quality hybrid tomatoes seem to be chosen for the uniformity of fruit size, which aids greatly in packing, and shipping ability, or how long can this fruit sit in storage or on the shelf. When plants are engineered or hybridized for these and other traits, flavor is usually the first trait sacrificed. Results are tomatoes typically inferior in quality with bad taste and texture that show up looking perfect on our grocer’s shelf.
It has recently come to my attention that even some groups of Amish and Mennonites are giving up on their time-honored heirloom varieties and have begun growing the new modern hybrids. Economic concerns related to shipping and marketing have even affected these groups. They are being forced to give up their more flavorful heirlooms for those newer varieties which keep and ship better.
Weather, soil conditions, and care methods all play a role in the overall health, productivity, and fruit flavor of your tomato plants. As a rule of thumb, heirloom varieties are no more difficult than their hybrid cousins. Think about it this way, a tomato variety that has been around so long probably has a lot of natural disease resistance already acquired. As well, when an open-pollinated variety is grown repeatedly in a particular geographic area, they tend to adapt quite quickly. A variety that does not meet expectations one year may impress the next! Little tricks used on any tomato variety will also aid your heirlooms. Soft rock phosphate, micro-rhizal inoculants and regular foliage spraying with seaweed and molasses are all fantastic additions to an already successful tomato grower’s repertoire.
Which Is Best?
Which ONE is the best? Which One is the sweetest? Which variety is highest in acidity? I want a tomato that bites back. Which ONE produces the most? My best answer is always, a variety. Any tomato left to ripen on the vine will have a considerably higher acid content and, by variety, a greater proportion of sugars. Some believe red colored tomatoes to be higher in acidity. Actually, the higher sugar content of the lighter varieties serves to mask, but not to eliminate the acidity. Black tomatoes are known for being rich and complex in their flavor structure. Green varieties are often fairly citrusy while the yellow, orange and bi-color fruit offer an assortment of mildly fruity tropical flavors. Some note these yellow and yellow stripped varieties to be the sweetest of all. Hillbilly, Pineapple, and Dr. Wyches’ Yellow are but a few heirlooms fitting this category. The tomato coinsures are rapidly becoming ever more savvy. Black, brown, purple, white, green and orange fruited heirloom tomatoes are now among the most sought after for the variety of flavors and textures they offer.
Is it really possible to grow too many tomatoes? Yes. Or so I‘ve read, and been told. Repeatedly by some. But alas, I disagree. I always profess to grow a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes. You can never anticipate which will perform from year to year. Cherry tomatoes are always reliable, producing consistently through our hot summers. Remember, the smaller the fruit the more fruit you get. In addition to a good number of cherries I recommend a handful of smaller fruited varieties. There are too many beautiful fruit in the 2 to 3 ounce size. Green Zebra, Black Plum, Yellow Perfection, Garden Peach, Juan Flamme … A paste variety or two, or three. Experiment with a couple of green or black fruited varieties. These will soon become favorites in your garden, as they are in mine. Fill out your garden with five or six varieties of Beefsteak type slicers, your choice of traditional red or pink, fruity yellow or tangy orange.
Perhaps the greatest mystique of the heirloom tomato is the ability to collect your own seeds. Seed saving can be fun and easy if you will follow a few easy steps. Plant varieties you intend to collect seeds from in clusters, at least 12 feet from other types (25 feet for cherries). Collect fruit/seed from your healthiest plants. Open the fruit and remove the pulp and seeds. Place these into a clears small plastic container or glass jar. Fill the container half to three fourths full without mixing. Adding air will slow down fermentation. Allow to sit at room temperature or outdoors in shade undisturbed. A few days later a fungus will develop which causes the seeds to fall to the bottom. Scrape off and discard this fungus and pulp. Poor the remaining seeds into a sieve and rinse clean with tap water. Spread out your seeds one layer thick on a labeled pie plate or coffee filter to dry. When dry, store in an envelope in a cool dry place. They should last for years.