May 2008 Issue
Heirloom varieties —rich in color, flavor and history — make a comeback.
Cherokee Purple. Giant White. Green Zebra. These tomato varieties are not your typical round, red hybrids. Rather, the generations-old heirloom treasures are enjoying a revival as today’s backyard gardeners are redis-covering their incredible variety, mouth-watering taste and rich history.
“For years, tomatoes were bred for a lot of other reasons than taste,” says Mike Laughlin of Northridge Organic Farm in Johnstown. He says commercial growers selectively bred tomatoes to improve their disease resistance, shorten their maturity times and enhance their hardiness and shelf life.
These newer hybrids may be good news for mass producers, but many backyard tomato gardeners still favor the taste and variety of heirlooms, or those grown from seeds that have been producing that fruit for at least 50 years. From marble to softball size and in hues from burgundy to white, they provide welcome alternatives to the often more fibrous and less tasty contemporary varieties.
At the historic gardens at Adena Mansion in Chillicothe, horticulturalist Richard Warnock attests to their renewed popularity. He says Adena has seen an increase in tomato plant sales at its annual heirloom plant sale.
Farm market tastings, grocery store displays and restaurant specialties featuring heirloom tomatoes are helping raise the old-fashioned fruit’s profile, according to Warnock and Laughlin.
At Adena gardens last summer, Warnock says samplings of the property’s 50 tomato varieties helped whet visitors’ appetites for heirlooms. When Adena first offered Black from Tula at plant sales five years ago, they had to give the plants away. Now, he says the sweet rich tomato with its unusual purple color and hearty crop is one of the first to sell out.
Laughlin, who has grown heirlooms for 22 years, says he was first hooked when a friend introduced him to Seed Savers, a national organization that exchanges various seeds, including many decades-old varieties, among its members.
Names found in Seed Savers and other catalogs often give clues to heirloom varieties’ history. For example, Costuloto Genovese and Old German were brought to the United States by European immigrants. Other varieties including Cherokee Purple originated with Native Americans.
“That’s what it’s all about — the plant’s history along with its fabulous flavor,” says Laughlin. At his farm, Laughlin grows Grandpa’s, an heirloom from his wife’s grandfather, who brought the seeds with him when he emigrated from Italy 102 years ago.
Since the tomato is an important Ohio crop, both historically and today, it’s not surprising to find heirloom varieties from the state. Warnock says that this summer at Adena gardens he will grow several varieties developed by renowned seedsman Alexander Livingston of Reynoldsburg. In 1870, Livingston released Paragon, which is regarded to be the first perfectly uniform smooth-skinned tomato in the United States. Before Livingston, tomatoes had heavy ribbing, hard cores and often hollow seed cavities.
While several Livingston varieties remain, many are extinct today and others have been crossbred and changed from their original intent. Mike Duton of Victory Seed Company has taken up the Livingston flag and mined the USDA food bank and various seed collectors to assemble a collection of 13 of his varieties. He markets this collection in hopes of preserving the seedsman’s legacy for generations to come.
Growing heirloom tomatoes can be more challenging than hybrid varieties because they are susceptible to diseases and pests.
However, Laughlin, currently serving as president of the Ohio Ecological Food Association, says the extra effort is well worth it for the fruits’ flavor, colors and unusual shapes. He offers the following tips:
Begin by working 3 to 4 inches of organic compost or organic fertilizer into the soil. Many garden centers carry composted leaves, manure or mushrooms as well as organic fertilizers.
The plants can be grown from seeds in early April or purchased at several farmers’ markets, plant sales or garden centers in May. In addition, a few mail-order companies sell heirloom tomato plants.
Laughlin advises holding off planting until mid-May, when the threat of frost has passed. The new heirlooms should be staked or caged to keep the new growth off the ground and discourage pests and disease resulting from contact with the soil. McLaughlin grows his 3 acres of tomatoes using trellises. Once planted, the new heirlooms should be watered and mulched.
A key to success is consistently watering the plants at their base. Laughlin says gardeners can’t depend on the rain in growing heirlooms. “If you go through a drought, the tomatoes will grow a thick skin, then when the rain comes the skins will split.”
To prevent the spread of disease, he advises gardeners not work around the tomato plants when they are wet with morning dew. Diseases are more easily spread as gardeners move from one wet plant to another. In addition, he advises not wetting the leaves. A fresh layer of mulch every few weeks will also provide a protective layer between the plant and the bacteria-filled soil.
For fertilizing, Laughlin recommends spraying the leaves with a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer. Laughlin prefers organic versions such as liquid seaweed or a fish emulsion mix (available at garden centers).
When harvest time nears, Laughlin says to leave the fruits on the vine until they are ripe and ready to be eaten. While the somewhat fragile heirloom tomatoes should be eaten soon after harvesting, they can be stored temporarily in a cool place out of direct sunlight. He cautions that refrigerators are too cool for storing the fruit and will accelerate their deterioration.
Like old-style gardeners, today’s gardeners can save heirloom tomato seeds for next season’s garden. Laughlin says to start by taking six ripe fruits. Cut them in half and squeeze out the contents into a container. The seeds will be enclosed in a gel sack that keeps them from fermenting. He says to place the seeds in the garage for three days maximum, until a layer of mold covers the surface and begins to break down the gel sack. Scoop off the top layer of mold, then fill the container with water. The viable seeds will sink to the bottom, and the floating bad ones can be poured off. Repeat the rinsing process four times until the water is clear, and the viable seeds are on the bottom. Lay the seeds on a newspaper for one week in a dark place. The dried seeds can be stored in an envelope until next season or frozen in a container for up to five years.