Bev Johnson

Master Gardener

Getting experts to agree on the definition of an heirloom is nearly impossible. Some say the variety must be 50 years old, the next guy insists it has to be 100 years old. Who cares? They do agree that heirloom tomatoes come from open pollinated seeds that reproduce true to type. That is, they breed true from one generation to the next growing season.

If you save the seeds from a hybrid tomato like Early Girl and plant them this spring, the tomato that comes up won’t be Early Girl. It may have some of the characteristics of Early Girl, but it won’t be identical. This is because that tomato may have several parents to get just the right taste, immunity to diseases, size, and shape.

  Family heirlooms are seeds passed down from the family to the next generation. Commercial heirlooms are open pollinated plants that were grown before hybrids came along after the second world war. Some of the seeds are still passed down even if the company is no longer in business. Then there are created heirlooms. These are created by crossing 2 or more known hybrids or heirlooms. The seeds stay true to type.

Heirloom tomatoes have some challenges. They tend to ripen slower than modern hybrids, which is not good for short seasons like ours. They don’t always yield as much fruit as hybrids either. They are more susceptible to diseases than hybrid varieties.

So, why grow heirlooms? Flavor! There is no comparison between hybrid and an old heirloom for flavor. That is why Bunkey plants both heirlooms and hybrids. Hybrids for more fruit and heirlooms to eat all summer.

You can grow heirlooms.  Start with amending the soil with organic matter like well-rotted compost. Leave lots of room between plants to encourage good air circulation. Tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant are cousins, so be sure to give each of them a new place in the garden each year and not where a cousin was last year.  This practice will help prevent soil borne diseases. Did you know that hornworm caterpillars will munch on potato leaves if they run out of tomatoes to strip?

Heirlooms are usually indeterminate plants. That is, they keep growing and producing fruit until killed by frost. Bunkey likes to let them sprawl on the ground as putting tomatoes in cages makes them hard to pick and the interior fruit slower to ripen as they don’t get as much sunlight. George, his neighbor, also grows heirlooms, but he stakes his, giving all the fruit exposure to the sun.

All tomatoes should be mulched the day they go in the garden. This prevents soil borne diseases. A splash of soil on the plant’s stem in rain or watering can lead to a sick plant. Water deeply and consistently. Periods of wet then dry can lead to cracking fruit or blossom end rot. If you smoke, put on clean clothes and wash your hands before you touch a tomato plant, so you don’t spread tobacco virus.

Here are some recommended heirlooms to try. Black Krim from the isle of Krim, Brandywine, developed by the Amish, Caspian Pink from the Caspian Sea area, Cherokee Purple, originally grown by the Cherokees, and about 100 years old, Green Zebra, tolerates cool conditions, Hillbilly, from the hills of West Virginia, Old Ivory Egg a plum sized tomato and Stipice from the Czech Republic, a very early tomato that ripens at 52 days and does well in colder climates. Heirlooms usually ripen late, at about 80 days and are more susceptible to diseases than hybrids.

These tomatoes can be odd colors, ugly shaped and have odd coloring but they taste fantastic.