Heirloom tomatoes add tradition, taste to gardens - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Heirloom tomatoes add tradition, taste to gardens

(Photo source: MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman) (Photo source: MSU Extension Service/Gary Bachman)

By Gary R. Bachman
MSU Horticulturist
Coastal Research & Extension Center

Many folks have been waiting for this moment. It is after Easter, and it is time to plant our warm season vegetable crops. Let's start with heirloom tomatoes.

Heirlooms are not your typical grocery store tomato. They come in every shape, size and color imaginable. The fruits are treasured as having more flavor, increased nutritive value and greater natural beauty.

What makes an heirloom tomato different? In a word: tradition.

Heirloom tomatoes were commonly passed down from one generation to another within families in a similar way as furniture or dishes. A great example of this sharing is the Nebraska Wedding tomato. The seeds of this "love apple" are still being given to brides as part of their trousseaus. It keeps alive the farming tradition of giving part of the farm to newlyweds.

Some say the tomato variety must be at least 50 years old to be considered an heirloom. But this is an arbitrary definition, like saying all cars older than 25 years are antiques. Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated, which means they breed true from collected seed. From the gardening standpoint, once you find an heirloom tomato you really like, saving seed each year can ensure continued enjoyment for the future. This is also an important characteristic in helping to maintain genetic diversity.

These tomatoes sometimes get a bad reputation with gardeners. They have been selected for taste and flavor and have not been subjected to intense breeding programs. As such, the plants sometimes suffer more from environmental influences than their hybrid cousins. So picking good performers for the hot and humid Mississippi climate is important.

Recently, the Feb/March 2010 issue of "Mother Earth News" reported the results of reader evaluations of the "best tomatoes to grow where you live" poll. Reader heirloom favorites by type included: slicers (Brandywine, Early Girl, and Arkansas Traveler), cherry (Black Cherry), paste (Amish Paste, San Marzano), large (Red Oxheart) and nonred (Cherokee Purple and Pineapple).

In the Bachman vegetable garden, the only tomatoes my wife Katie and I grow are heirlooms. Each year, we grow approximately 25 to 30 different varieties, evaluating performance in our coastal environment.

We found several good producers in 2009, such as the Striped German, a yellow with red streaking throughout the up to 2 pound fruit. We also like the Black Ethiopian, a 4 to 5 ounce dark mahogany fruit with green shoulders. This plant produced more than 100 tomatoes in our garden last year. The Angora Super Sweet was a prolific cherry type tomato. Our dog Lego was constantly harvesting the low hanging fruit for her own enjoyment.

After singing the praises of heirloom tomatoes in this column, I feel I have to make a confession: I really don't like fresh tomatoes. I grow them because my wife likes them. So in effect, I grow the "love apples" out of love.

Heirloom tomato seeds are readily available in seed and gardening catalogs. Right now, it would be best to start with transplants, since seed needs to be sown six weeks before transplanting. Check your local garden centers for available varieties.

With so many choices for heirloom tomatoes available, there is no reason not to try some this year. Happy gardening. 

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