Heirloom Tomatoes: A Taste of the Past

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 Spring is right around the corner and now is the time to start planning your vegetable garden. An icon for any garden, nothing stands out more than the tomato. A growing number of home gardeners are seeking out heirloom varieties. Because they offer a diversity of shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors, heirloom tomatoes add an interesting perk to the garden as well as the dinner table. For the frugal gardener, heirloom varieties offer a chance to save seeds and reuse them for many years. So if you are hungry for tomatoes this year, plant a Green zebra, a Mr. Stripey, or The Mortgage Lifter, a behemoth tomato variety that will make your sandwich bread look like a saltine cracker.

 Heirlooms: out with the new, in with the old

Heirlooms are described as fruits or vegetables that have been around before 1950, or as plants that have been passed down for multiple familial or cultural generations. Many gardeners choose to plant heirloom varieties for their superior flavors, as opposed to the typical red tomato found in supermarkets, which are bred and grown for a number reasons often at the sacrifice of flavor. Heirloom plants are open-pollinated, meaning that pollination occurs via wind, insects, birds, or humans. This leads to greater genetic diversity and the unique opportunity to save seeds. Hybrid varieties in contrast are bred for particular characteristics, like disease resistance or vigor; however, subsequent generations of seeds will eventually lose these traits, and so new seeds must be purchased each year.

 Saving seeds

 One of the benefits of growing heirloom varieties is the ability to save the seeds and use the following year. For many gardeners, this is a chance to keep those varieties that produce the most flavorful fruit from year to year. Because they are open-pollinated, heirlooms can cross pollinate with different varieties, which is undesirable for saving seeds. One way to avoid cross-pollination is to time plantings so that only one variety flowers at a time. You could also cover flowers with mesh bags and pollinate plants by hand, but this process is time-consuming if you have multiple heirloom varieties.

 When selecting plants from which to save seed, choose only those plants that show the most resistance to disease, have vigorous growth, and most importantly, have the best flavor! Seeds should be harvested when they are mature, generally a few days after fruit has fully ripened. Remove seeds from the fruit and place in a jar of water at room temperature, and stir daily to help remove seeds from the pulp. Strain old water and floating seeds every couple of days and replace with fresh water and repeat. Strong viable seeds will sink to the bottom after several days. After several days, strain seeds from the water and place on a paper towel in a warm area to dry. Avoid placing in areas that are over 90 degrees and are in direct sunlight. Store seeds in an envelope in a cool, dry place.

 Planting tomatoes

 Heirloom tomatoes should be started indoors from seed. Plant seeds in a light soil mix and place trays in areas that receive a lot of sunlight to encourage vigorous growth. Tomatoes should be started inside as seedlings this time of year and transplanted at least 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date, which is usually around the middle of March for the Cape Fear Region.

 What varieties are available?

 Many heirloom tomatoes are available, each with its own unique flavor, size, and shape. And oh, did I mention the names? ‘Green zebra’ has green and yellow-striped skin that tastes like apples, while ‘Cherokee purple’ has dark purple flesh with fruits weighing in as much as 12 ounces. ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a vine-type variety that is disease and crack-resistant, and tolerates humidity well. ‘Pink Brandywine’ also does well in this region. Then there is always ‘Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter…’

 In keeping with the same vein of trying something new this year, why not actually try something old? Planting heirloom varieties offer gardeners a unique chance to connect with our past and literally taste our gardening heritage.

 Learn More!

For more tips on heirloom fruits and vegetables and information on saving seed, contact your extension office, visit http://ces.ncsu.edu, where you can post your questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or call  253-2610.