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GROWING HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
Mouthwatering Heirloom Tomatoes command high prices in fancy restaurants. Growing Heirloom Tomatoes means you can indulge in their incredible taste every day without worrying about the cost. Heirloom Tomato varieties are my favorite, not only for their flavor, but the fact you can save seeds from year to year. This also saves you money, and is a big part of being self-sufficient.
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WHAT IS YOUR PRIMARY USE FOR TOMATOES?
The primary use you have in mind will determine the tomato variety that is best for you – – – and determining just how many plants you need.
If you want a large tomato slice on your hamburger or club sandwich, you might choose Beefsteak Tomatoes. Cut up in salads, tomato wedges on the plate in place of a cooked vegetable, or for making the best Chili in the world, all excite the palate.
Canning whole tomatoes, catsup, or salsa. Tomato sauce or paste. Some Heirloom Tomato varieties are so sweet they are even used to make wine. Avid gardeners can get carried away while browsing the seed catalogs in the dead of winter.
HOW MANY TOMATO PLANTS WILL YOU REALLY NEED?
Decide on how many tomato plants you will need.
- Do you have a big family of die-hard tomato lovers to feed?
- If you just want a few for fresh eating, one tomato plant might do.
- If you want to can tomato juice and sauce, you might need to plant several tomato plants. Just don’t overdo it.
Some of these tomato varieties can inundate you with their bounty. Rather than trying to give away big sacks of tomatoes to your neighbors, it might be wiser just to plant only a few.
And most importantly, how much time do you really have to devote to the care of your tomato plants, and preserving the produce? I have seen people go through the checkout line at the grocery store with a fist full of garden seed packets. They had snapped them up on impulse just because the photos on the packages were so pretty. Many times, they end up in the garbage.
INDETERMINATE TOMATOES OR DETERMINATE TOMATOES
Tomatoes commonly come in two types: Indeterminate and Determinate. I have listed only Indeterminate Heirloom Tomatoes in this article. You get more produce from them.
Indeterminate Tomatoes produce fruit till frost. They grow at least 6 feet tall, often taller, and require staking.
Determinate Tomatoes are called Bush Tomatoes. These plants usually don’t need staking. They produce all their tomatoes at once within a week or two. And they are shorter than Indeterminate tomatoes.
NUMBER OF DAYS TO MATURITY OF THE FRUIT
Next, notice the number of days that it takes to mature. If you live very far north, you might want to choose a variety that matures early so you don’t have just a brief harvest season.
Now, get out your Garden Planner and let’s make a List!
TASTE-TEST WINNING HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
When deciding on the tomato variety you want, first consider taste. Often, the Heirloom Tomato varieties have much more flavor than the Hybrids. Brandywine and Caspian Pink are two major taste test winners:
- BRANDYWINE (The Original Brandywine) is a long-time taste test winner! It is deep pink with red flesh and an amazing spicy flavor. It is a Beefsteak Tomato that can weigh 1 to 1 1/2 pounds. The “potato leaves” are unusual. Brandywine is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 80 to 90 Days to mature.
- CASPIAN PINK has a sweet and juicy flavor. It is one of the few tomatoes that has sometimes beat out Brandywine in taste test competitions. The pink fruits grow to 12 to 16 ounces. It does not produce as heavily as Brandywine. Caspian Pink is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 75 to 80 Days to mature.
LOW-ACID HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
If you are really sensitive to the high acid in many varieties, choose a tomato that is naturally low in acid.
- GERMAN JOHNSON PINK is a pink tomato with yellow shoulders. Like Brandywine, it has “potato leaves.” It is a very meaty, mild tasting tomato that is low in acid content. German Johnson Pink is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 80 Days to mature.
- MR. STRIPEY produces orange-yellow tomatoes that are mottled with red inside and out. This very meaty tomato weighs 9 ounces and up to 2 pounds. It is mild flavored with very low acid content. Mr. Stripey is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 80 Days to mature.
GIANT HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
If you especially like to grow super-sized tomatoes that makes your neighbors ogle, we’ve got you covered.
- GIANT BELGIUM bears dark pink tomatoes that average 1 1/2 to 3 pounds. Some weigh up to 5 pounds. They have a mild flavor that is great for sauces, canning, and fresh eating. These very meaty tomatoes are so sweet that some people use them to make wine. Giant Belgium is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 82 to 90 Days to mature.
- GIANT OXHEART (Sometimes just called OXHEART) produces rosy pink heart-shaped tomatoes with a mild flavor. They are firm and meaty, with thick flesh and few seeds. Some weigh up to 2 pounds. Giant Oxheart is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 80 to 95 days to mature.
- MORTGAGE LIFTER (Sometimes called RADIATOR CHARLIE) is a pink skinned, meaty tomato with few seeds. It has a wonderful sweet, mild flavor. They weigh from 1 to 2 pounds or even up to 4 pounds. Mortgage Lifter is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 75 to 85 Days to mature.
SAUCE OR PASTE HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
If you want to make tomato sauce or paste, you might prefer Paste Tomatoes. They are meatier than other types of tomatoes, and have fewer seeds.
- AMISH PASTE is a meaty red tomato with few seeds. It weighs up to 8 ounces or more. It is one of the best tasting paste and sauce tomatoes, but also tastes great fresh. Amish Paste is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 74 to 85 Days to mature.
- OPALKA produces red 3 to 5 inch elongated fruits that are nearly seedless. It is one of the best tasting sauce tomatoes, but is sweet enough you can enjoy them fresh. Opalka is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 85 Days to mature. It is very high yielding.
- SAN MARZANO produces oval 3 1/2 inch tomatoes that are bright red. The thick flesh is juicy with few seeds. It is ideal for sauces, paste, and canning, and is great for salsa and fresh eating. It is a big favorite in Italian cooking. San Marzano is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 80 Days to mature.
UNIQUE COLORED HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
Other Heirloom Tomato varieties expand on the unique color categories. An arrangement of different colored Heirloom Tomatoes on a serving plate is enough to make your mouth water.
- AUNT RUBY’S GERMAN GREEN Tomato ripens to a light green with a hint of yellow and a pink blush underneath. This large Beefsteak tomato weighs 12 to 16 ounces and possesses a wonderful sweet, spicy flavor. Aunt Ruby’s German Green is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 80 to 95 Days to mature.
NOTE: Fried Green Tomatoes made with fully ripened Aunt Ruby’s German Green Heirloom Tomatoes is an experiment I plan to try sometime. When I make Fried Green Tomatoes, I always mix chili powder, garlic powder, and onion powder into the coating.
- HILLBILLY Tomato ripens to an unusual orange-yellow that is streaked and mottled with red and pink. It is a mild-flavored Beefsteak type tomato that weighs 1 to 2 pounds. Hillbilly is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 85 Days to mature.
- OLD GERMAN Tomato is golden yellow with red to pink stripes all the way to the center. It grows to a large 1 1/2 to 2 pound tomato with an unusual boat shape. Old German is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 75 Days to mature.
- PINEAPPLE ripens to an orange yellow skin with red streaks. It has yellow flesh with deep pink streaks. This Beefsteak tomato weighs up to 2 pounds each, and is mild flavored with few seeds. Pineapple is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 85 to 90 Days to mature.
BLACK OR PURPLE HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
And a few tomatoes are a very dark color that almost defies the imagination. Their intense flavor is a bonus.
- BLACK KRIM Tomato has dark red-purple fruits with green shoulders and green-tinted flesh. They are very juicy and have a wonderful flavor with a slight saltiness. They are large 8 to 12 ounce tomatoes. Black Krim is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 69 to 90 Days to mature.
- CHEROKEE PURPLE Tomatoes ripen to a pinkish purple that appears somewhat brown. They have a wonderful flavor, and average 8 to 12 ounces. Cherokee Purple is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 80 to 90 Days to mature.
OTHER OLD FAVORITE HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
Other old favorite Heirloom Tomatoes that have stood the test of time are:
- BOX CAR WILLIE produces deep red 12 to 18 ounce tomatoes. They have a delicious sweet and tart flavor. Box Car Willie is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 80 Days to mature.
- PAUL ROBESON bears large 8 to 12 ounce tomatoes that are brick red with green shoulders. They have a wonderful earthy flavor with a good balance between acid and sugar. Paul Robeson is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 80 to 90 Days to mature.
- YELLOW PEAR produces dainty little 1 3/4 to 2 inch yellow tomatoes that are pear shaped. The flavor is very sweet and mild. They are wonderful in salads, fresh eating, preserving, or even for making pickles. Yellow Pear is an Indeterminate tomato that takes 78 Days to mature.
USING YOUR GARDEN PLANNER
By now, your Garden Planner has a list of the tomato varieties that interest you, and also the reasons why.
Decision making is often a process of elimination. You make a list of the things that are most important to you, such as low acidity and good flavor. You make note of the characteristics you don’t want, such as tomatoes that take too long in the season to mature and those that are skimpy on the amount of harvest you get from them. Then you consider compromises, since we all know you just can’t plant everything!
TOMATO PLANTS OR TOMATO SEEDS?
If its variety that you are after, you might consider starting your own tomatoes from seed. Many people find it easier to just buy their young plants at a greenhouse, although you won’t have as much choice of variety as you would from a catalog. Selecting tomato seeds from a catalog gives you hundreds of varieties to choose from.
NOTE: Some garden companies specialize in vegetable garden seeds. The quality of their seeds and the ability for them to germinate (sprout) is exceptional. The same company might also offer trees and plants that turn out to be sub-standard. Don’t let this concern you. Every company seems to specialize in something. Just stick with buying their seeds!
HOW TO START HEIRLOOM TOMATO SEEDS INDOORS
Starting tomatoes indoors might begin in February or March, depending on where you live. Just don’t start them too early. Sitting on a windowsill for a few months means you will have very tall, thin (I call them “long and leggy”) tomato plants that look downright “scrawny.”
Also, watering young tomato plants every day can become quite a chore if you have several. Once, I had three windowsills completely filled up with small, empty yogurt cups filled with potting soil. I had poked drainage holes in them with an ice pick. The yogurt lids were used as drip pans underneath the cups.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time, but every last one of these tomato plants grew, which was far too many! (What on earth was I thinking?) Be sure to plant your seeds just one to a pot. If you put two tomato seeds in a container, it might be impossible to separate the roots without tearing them.
NOTE: I have noticed that at the end of the season, some overripe tomatoes fell to the ground, and spilled their seeds there. Next spring, I found several “volunteer” tomatoes sprouting up and they looked amazingly healthy. As an experiment, I plan to try deliberately planting some tomato seeds in the ground in late fall just to see if they do as well.
PLANTING TOMATO SEEDLINGS IN THE GARDEN
Tomatoes like to be planted in the same place each year, unlike some vegetables that must be rotated annually. Remove the bottom few pairs of leaves from the tomato seedling and plant them deep in the ground. Just make sure all danger of frost is past before you begin!
NOTE: If you smoke, wash your hands well before working with tomato plants. They are very sensitive to tobacco.
When you plant them outdoors, be sure to put a tomato ring or cage around them for their protection from wildlife, to tie the plant to as it grows, and to help prevent it from blowing over in the wind. This also helps to deter the neighbor’s dog. Some of these animals are just natural born diggers!
Some folks pile straw around the tomato plants and just let them sprawl over the ground. I am not a big fan of this method because you have a harder time fighting tomato diseases.
Spacing your tomato plants is important. Make sure the tomatoes are planted 24 inches apart. This gives the plants adequate air circulation, and also makes the tomatoes easier to pick.
If you plant them in rows, do not space them any less than 36 inches apart. Tomato plants can get huge. When you add to it the size of a tomato cage, your 36 inch walkway between rows will get smaller in a hurry.
Tomatoes love to be planted near carrots, asparagus, basil, chives, onion, parsley, marigold, nasturtiums, and even gooseberries. In fact, I have seen people dig holes in the asparagus patch to plant their tomatoes.
Tomatoes hate being planted near corn, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, or kohlrabi.
At harvest time, rub a ripe tomato on your shirt like you are polishing an apple, and bite right into it. There is nothing better in the world! Picking a partially ripened tomato and letting it finish ripening on a windowsill costs you too much flavor. Vine ripened tomatoes are always the best!
HAPPY PLANTING! Susan