May 23, 2014
Growing Delicious Heirloom Tomatoes
Every summer our neighborhood has a block party. The street is blocked off to make room for the brightly covered tables (each complete with a bouquet from someone’s garden), loads of food, grills, coolers, games and our block-party band. The only vehicle that is allowed is the ice cream truck. Dozens of kids line up at the window to order their favorite treat “for free”. As much as I love ice cream, my favorite treat among all the choices that day is the heirloom tomato salad. My mouth waters just thinking about the beautiful colors in the bowl before I even take my first bite. There are reds and yellows and purples and greens and gold and even some stripes! There are big chunks and tiny little bites that when combined with a bit of basil and olive oil can’t be beat.
So what makes these heirloom tomatoes so special? It’s their incredibly rich complex flavors as well as their gorgeous colors. An heirloom tomato is an old cultivar that may have been commonly grown during earlier periods in history but are generally not used in modern, large-scale agriculture. Popular varieties available at the Garden Center are Brandywine, Black Krim, Cherokee Purple,
>Mr. Stripey, Rutgers, Amish Paste and San Marzano. Each tomato has its own distinct flavor and some are better for slicing such as Mr. Stripey and Brandywine, while others are better for making sauce. Amish Paste and San Marzano are plum tomatoes that make great sauce due to fewer seeds and firmer flesh.
One of my favorite varieties is the Black Krim. This unusual tomato originated in Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea where the long summers are perfect for growing tomatoes. This unique tomato yields 3-4”, very dark red tomatoes with green shoulders. I love to eat slices of it alone or in sandwiches. It has a tangy, rich flavor with a hint of salt, making it the perfect choice for anyone watching their salt intake.
Heirloom tomatoes are a bit more tricky to grow than more recent introductions. They don’t have as much disease resistance and don’t produce as much fruit. Just like other varieties, they should be planted deeply and mulched with black plastic or straw. This will conserve moisture and keep the weeds down. Tomatoes require about two inches of water a week, directed at the roots, not the leaves. And don’t forget a good support. The brightly colored heavy duty cages are utilitarian while adding a bit of whimsy.
So, are heirloom tomatoes worth it? Absolutely! Their rainbow of colors and flavor variety will surprise you, especially if you’ve only sampled tomatoes from the grocery store. And, if you’re more of a burger fan than a salad fan, make sure to grow Brandywine to slice up for that next barbecue.
Jeanne Mantell | Greenhouse Sales