Instead of trying something new this year, why not try something old? Join a growing number of gardeners who are seeking out heirloom varieties. Planting heirloom varieties offers a unique chance to connect with our past and literally taste our gardening heritage. Heirloom varieties of tomatoes are particularly popular because they offer a diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as an abundance of old-time tomato flavor. You will be able to find several popular heirloom tomato varieties at garden centers this spring, but if you wish to grow your own, now is the time to start the seeds.
In with the old
Heirloom varieties are fruit or vegetable selections that have been around since before 1950, and have often been passed down from one generation to the next. Many gardeners choose to plant heirloom varieties for their superior flavor and interesting appearance. In contrast, most commercial vegetable varieties found in supermarkets are hybrids, bred for uniformity and long shelf-life, often at the sacrifice of flavor.
For the frugal gardener, heirloom varieties offer a chance to save your own seeds. Many heirloom vegetables, including tomatoes, lettuce, and beans, are self-pollinating, meaning that different varieties do not have to be isolated from each other to produce seed that come true to type. You can plant several varieties of heirloom tomatoes beside each other in the garden and still expect seed saved from each one to produce plants like their parent.
Hybrid varieties, on the other hand, are carefully bred for particular characteristics, like disease resistance or vigor. To maintain these characteristics, parent lines of these varieties must be re-crossed each year. Because subsequent generations grown from seeds saved from hybrid varieties will not reliably reproduce these traits, new seeds must be purchased each year.
Many heirloom tomatoes are available, each with its own unique flavor, size, and shape. And oh, did I mention the names? ‘Green Zebra’ has green and yellow-striped skin that tastes like apples, while ‘Cherokee purple’ has dark purple flesh with fruits weighing in as much as 12 ounces. ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a vine-type variety that is disease and crack-resistant, and tolerates humidity well. ‘Pink Brandywine’ also does well in this region. Then there is always ‘Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter’, a behemoth tomato variety that will make your sandwich bread look like a saltine cracker. Other popular heirlooms for our region include ‘German Johnson’, ‘Marglobe’, and ‘Homestead’.
To have transplants ready to set out by mid-April, heirloom tomato seed should be started indoors in February. Plant seeds in shallow trays filled with a seed starting mix. Make sure the trays have several holes in the bottom to allow excess water to drain out. Place trays in an area that receives plenty of sunlight and stays above 50 degrees to encourage vigorous growth. Water carefully to keep the soil moist but not soaking wet; Staying too wet may cause seedlings to rot. Individual seedlings should be transplanted into small pots or cell packs when they develop their first set of true leaves. After seedlings have been transplanted, you should start feeding them with a weak fertilizer solution or compost tea.
When your heirloom tomatoes begin to ripen later this summer, saving your own seed is simple. Select plants that show the most resistance to disease, have vigorous growth, and most importantly, have the best flavor! To save seed, allow tomatoes to completely ripen on the vine. Remove seeds from the fruit and place in a jar of water at room temperature. Stir daily to help remove seeds from the pulp. Strain off floating seeds and pulp each day. After a few days, strong viable seeds will sink to the bottom. You can then strain seeds from the water and place them on a paper towel in a warm area out of direct sunlight to dry. Once seed are completely dry, store them in an envelope or jar in a cool, dry place.
For more tips on heirloom fruits and vegetables and information on saving seed, contact your local extension office. Visit ces.ncsu.edu to submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Sam Marshall is the horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Center of the Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.