We’re past our last frost date and it is high time for planting out tomatoes. Whether you’ve grown your own from seed or plan to buy garden-ready seedlings, selecting varieties for your garden is always fun. Many of us have favorites we’ve grown ourselves or remember from our childhood. The renewed interest in heirloom tomato varieties in recent years is bringing back more and more “new” (old) varieties into garden centers for purchase as seedlings.
What exactly is an heirloom? It’s any variety that has been passed down through multiple generations for its particular qualities. Heirlooms are open pollinated, and their seeds are stable. If you save seeds from an heirloom and plant them, the resulting plant will produce fruit like its parent. Seeds from a hybrid do not come true, however. To recreate the hybrid, the two parents must be crossed again and again each year.
The Story of a Tomato
According to local tomato guru Craig LeHoullier, both categories (hybrid and heirloom) have some great tomatoes to choose from. But one of the biggest draws to growing heirlooms is the diversity of color, flavor, shapes and sizes. Each tomato is unique, many with long histories, and unlike hybrids, seeds can be saved and passed down or shared with friends (at nominal fees), continuing their saga.
Perhaps it is these stories that make our home gardens more than just vegetable production. After all, the cost and labor of growing your own tomatoes doesn’t really make it financially cheaper. We grow our own for the variety of tomatoes we can’t purchase in the grocery store. We like the color and the experience of wandering to the garden just before supper to pluck a handful of fresh red, orange and green fruit (plus make our friends jealous!)
For fun, we thought we’d share a few of the stories associated with some tomatoes we have at the garden center this year. We hope they inspire you and bring a new depth to the tomatoes in your garden!
Dark Purple, Beefsteak, 6-16 oz
In 1990, Craig LeHoullier received seeds for this tomato from a man in Tennessee. The man had acquired the seeds from a neighbor, who claimed the tomato had been in his family for over 100 years and had been given to them by Cherokee Indians. After LeHoullier trialed the seed, he sent it to the Seed Savers Exchange and Southern Exposure Seed and Johnny Seeds. Since, it has become one of the most popular heirlooms readily available.
Pink, Beefsteak, 10-18oz with outstanding flavor
Considered a legendary heirloom these days. Johnson and Stokes first mentioned the tomato in 1888, when they tested in their trial gardens as Tomato #45. A man from Ohio had given the seed to Johnson and Stokes a few years earlier. A tomato expert of the time, wrote this description of Brandywine in 1888 following his own trials of it:
“The more I see of the Tomato No.45, the more I am pleased with it. It is certainly a magnificent new and distinct variety, and worthy of the name of Brandywine, after that most beautiful of all streams, which flows near our Quaker village. It is also spoken of in the highest terms by all to whom I gave a few plants for trial.”
Red, Plum, 4-8 oz. More juicy than a typical paste tomato.
A Family heirloom from Wisconsin with a history that goes back to the 1870s. Tom Hauch of Heirloom Seeds acquired the seed in Lancaster Pennsylvania from Amish farmers, who told him the seed was originally from Amish farmers in Wisconsin. It was first introduced to the Seed Savers Exchange in 1987.
Red, Cherry, 0.5 inch diameter
Craig LeHoullier received this seed in 1990 from a man in California who got the seed from his brother, a truck driver. According to the story, the brother found the tomatoes while driving through Mexico, where they grew wild.
For more tomato stories, check out www.tatianastomatobase.com