Old Fashioned Tomatoes Are In Style ... by mark powell
(Our guest in the Garden today is Mark Powell, Manager of the Earl May Nursery and Garden Center)

          There is nothing like eating a fresh tomato on a hot summer day, especially one you grew yourself. Even the blandest home grown veggies are wonderful compared to most store bought, artificially ripened varieties. But people are now re-discovering the best tasting, most interesting fruits you can grow-heirloom tomatoes.

          Heirloom tomatoes are non-hybrid, open pollinated varieties developed before 1940. Because of this, their seeds can be saved from year to year and be true to the variety. With very few exceptions, they are more flavorful and come in a wider assortment than the modern hybrid tomato.  Some heirlooms, like Yellow Pear and Brandywine, are widely planted and loved. Others, like Mortgage Lifter and Abe Lincoln, are just getting noticed.  There are now hundreds of heirloom tomatoes available from seed and most good garden centers will carry ten or twelve varieties in started plants, too.  With today’s nostalgic garden trend, people are excited to grow and taste vegetables that taste like Grandma’s did and heirlooms really do.

          There are those who will downplay these old-fashioned tomatoes as being merely the forefathers of today’s super hybrid improvements. I have grown heirlooms for a few years now and would offer these observations:

1.     Heirloom tomatoes germinate as easily as hybrid tomatoes.  They start as quickly and grow to transplant stage just as easily.

2.     Heirlooms are no more likely to get tomato blight than a hybrid. If you follow the proper cultivation practices you will keep blight at bay on all tomatoes. In addition, many heirlooms have “potato leafs”, which goes back to the origin of the plant, and is even less likely to get blight.

3.     Most heirlooms are indeterminate, meaning they continue to bear throughout the season, resulting in a bigger crop. I grew 30 heirloom plants last season and my wife threw up a white flag about October 1st.

4.     You can grow different varieties of heirlooms that cater to your tastes. If you want juice, use Caspian pink. For slicing try Brandywine or Arkansas traveler. For the best paste tomato around, plant San Marzano. For fried green tomatoes, go with Green Zebra. The choices are endless.

          One of my favorite parts about growing old fashioned, non-hybrid tomatoes is that I can save the seeds from my best plants to be used again in the future. It is easy to do and allows me to preserve some of the harder to get varieties. But the real payoff is that with every season of seed saved my varieties are tailoring themselves to our climate, resulting in even better flavor and production.

          Heirloom tomatoes are not for everyone. Some of their fruits are ugly, misshapen, bumpy, and prone to cracking. Some have green shoulders, and not all produce the pounds of fruit required to beat your neighbor in a friendly contest. But most of them are clean, pretty fruits that always taste better than any tomato you’ve ever eaten before.  So if you love growing tomatoes and want to turn it up a notch, try some heirloom tomatoes this season. You’ll never go back!