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Tomatoes with a Past

Posted on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 3:47 pm

In a world that reveres the new, sometimes older is better. This is true with tomatoes.  While modern hybrid tomatoes look good, the old heirloom varieties have the taste and look of real tomatoes.

What is an heirloom tomato? They are regional varieties, many having been passed down within families or gardener to gardener. Heirlooms can trace their roots back at least 75 years, more in most cases.

Heirloom tomatoes differ from the modern hybrids. They tend to have a wider variety of colors and shapes. The fruits are softer, meatier, and more flavorful with a good blend of sweetness and tomato flavor.

Here are a few favorite heirloom tomatoes that grow well in our region:

Cherokee Purple: Crimson purple in color, this heirloom tomato is thought to be descended from the Cherokee Indians. It has a rich, full, sweet flavor and is excellent on sandwiches and in salads.

Cherokee Chocolate: A sister to the Cherokee Purple, the Chocolate has a brownish skin with a deep, rich flavor.

Cherokee Green: One of the most popular heirloom greens, and a preferred tomato with celebrity chefs, this tomato is somewhat tart, but well balanced with acid and sweetness.

Mortgage Lifter: Large, meaty, and flavorful with few seeds, this heirloom has a remarkable story. Marshall Byles, “Radiator Charlie,” developed it during the Great Depression in West Virginia. Looking for a way to stay afloat, Byles cross-pollinated several different tomatoes. He said the resulting tomato would “feed the whole family.” People drove from miles around to purchase these large tomatoes and he was able to pay off his $6,000 mortgage within 6 years.

Brandywine: Originally from the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania, this is probably the most widely known heirloom variety. One-pound fruits are pink, red or yellow and have a perfect blend of sugars and acids. The plants feature unusual potato-shaped leaves.

You can grow heirloom tomatoes from seed or transplants. Heirloom tomato transplants are easier to grow and are becoming more readily available at local nurseries and online.

If you use seed, sow them indoors six to eight weeks before your last frost date in 2-inch-diameter pots filled with sterilized seed-starting soil. Thin the seedlings to one per pot after germination, and keep them under grow lights for 14 hours a day. Keep the lights within inches of the seedling tops.

Water and feed the transplants lightly. Once they are 6 inches tall, transplant into a 4-inch-diameter pot. One week before setting them into the garden, harden off the transplants by setting them outdoors for a few hours each day.

For container growing, plant in a 12-inch-diameter pot filled with potting soil. In the garden, amend the soil with compost, and stake or cage these varieties to keep them upright.

April is National Garden Month.