Planting Heirloom Tomatoes
From artichokes to zucchini, heirloom vegetables have become trendy, and heirloom tomatoes in particular are getting most of the attention. According to master gardener Paul James, the reason is simple: "Heirloom tomatoes often taste much better than their hybridized cousins."
An heirloom plant is one that has been open-pollinated; it hasn't been hybridized, and as a result, it grows true from a seed. Its ancestry must be traceable back to at least 50 years, and it must have some sort of history, although it doesn't really seem to matter whether its history is well documented or based largely on folklore.
In this heirloom-tomato garden there are 26 varieties, each with a distinctive flavor, and in many cases, a very interesting past.
'Brandywine' is one of the best-tasting tomatoes of all time, Paul says. "It's an Amish variety whose roots can be traced all the way back to 1885. Of course, it's almost certainly much older than that, but that's as far as heirloom historians can trace it."
Halladay's 'Mortgage Lifter'
Many gardeners claim to grow the legendary ‘Mortgage Lifter’. According to the story, the plants were so popular, the original grower sold enough of them to pay off the mortgage on his family farm. This heirloom hails from the James Halladay family in Kentucky, where it’s been grown since the 1930s. The pink beefsteak fruits are meaty and rich in old-fashioned tomato taste.
'Black from Tula'
A slightly salty, smoky flavor distinguishes this Russian heirloom from Tula, an industrial city south of Moscow. The fruits vary from dark brownish-purple to purple-black and can weigh up to 14 ounces. They ripen mid-season on indeterminate vines and are good sliced or canned.
This French heirloom’s name means “yellow flame.” The apricot-colored fruits have a sweet flavor with a hint of tartness and are ready to harvest early in the season. Tomatoes hang in clusters on indeterminate vines; each fruit weighs about 3 to 4 ounces.
Dating back to around 1955, these early-yielding orange tomatoes have very few seeds and a sweet, fruity flavor. The thick, meaty flesh cooks down nicely for making pastes and sauces. The indeterminate vines bear prolifically.
Italy is home to these deep red, plum-type tomatoes, and San Marzanos grown in the rich soil of the Campania region are said to be among the world’s best paste types. Their sweet flavor, dense pulp, low acidity, and low seed count make them ideal for homemade sauces and pizzas. The bright red skins are easy to peel.
Weighing in around one to two pounds at maturity, ‘Mr. Stripey’ is a beefsteak-type tomato with pinkish-red and yellow streaks, and a high sugar content that makes them sweet and delicious. The indeterminate vines start bearing in about 80 days and reach 8 to 10 feet tall.
From 1885, this Amish heirloom has a tangy, rich tomato flavor. The rosy pink fruits are beefsteak-sized, produced on indeterminate vines with leaves that resemble a potato plant’s foliage. The fruits ripen late in the season and are held in small clusters.
Another interesting tomato is 'Caspian Pink', so named because it's native to an area near the Caspian Sea and because it's pink. According to Paul, this tomato is meaty and very flavorful.
'Pineapple' bears hefty (sometimes up to two pounds) tomatoes with a mild flavor that's almost tropical-fruity-sweet. 'Nebraska Wedding' is an old favorite largely because it marries a near perfect balance of sweetness and acidity.
Because heirloom vegetables haven't been hybridized, they may be more susceptible to disease. "But what they lack in terms of disease resistance," Paul says, "they more than make up for in terms of what matters most - flavor."