With at least 600 different types, there's a variety for every taste

February 05, 2009

By Michael Vandeveer, Victoria County Master Gardener Intern

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon, Victoria County Master Gardener
Photo Credit: Tomatofest.com
Unique shapes, colors and sizes of heirloom tomatoes have made for conversation and interesting additions to salads and salsas in recent years. The Green Zebra is one that resembles its name.
Are tomatoes a staple in your spring garden? If so, I've got a new (actually very old) option you might want to consider - heirloom tomatoes.

What makes them heirloom?

What is an heirloom tomato? No single characteristic defines a tomato as an heirloom more than the need for it to be an old variety (more than 50 years). They might have been passed down through the generations in a family or introduced commercially decades ago. They have stabilized characteristics (color, shape, size) and are predictable in their output from one generation to the next.

Heirloom tomatoes have been gaining popularity throughout the last 25 years. Unique shapes, colors and sizes make these throwbacks an interesting addition to salads and salsas, as well as fuel endless conversations with everyone who encounters them. After being introduced to them by a friend a few years ago, I have been growing heirlooms in my vegetable garden ever since.

One for every taste

With at least 600 different types, there's an heirloom variety for every tomato taste. From the small, brightly colored Yellow Pear, to the orangey-red Hawaiian Pineapple (the ultimate hamburger slice). There's the beautiful, rosy-pink, very meaty Marianna's Peace and the Green Zebra, whose name describes the appearance, but only tasting can reveal the tangy flavor they hold. Maybe the starkest example of variety between heirlooms is the sweet Black Cherry (really more purple) and the Snow White, an almost white, mellow, thin-skinned cherry tomato. If you can't find an heirloom to fit your taste, you might be too picky. Refer to the accompanying table for a short list of South Texas-friendly heirloom varieties.

Start them from seed

Finding them might be the hardest thing you encounter when trying to incorporate heirlooms to your garden. Since few nurseries carry them, you're best bet is to start them from seed. It requires a little more work than buying started plants, but a good result is much more rewarding. You can find several online sources for tomato seeds: www.tomatofest.com and www.tomatogrowers.com, both carry hundreds of varieties.

Seeds to seedlings

Once you've selected your seeds (about six to eight weeks before you'd traditionally place started plants outside), find a warm, sunny spot for the seedlings. Use a sterile potting mix (I use equal parts perlite, vermiculite and sand) in small pots and plant your seeds -inch deep; the mix should be slightly moist. For the first few days, I loosely cover the pots with plastic, such as a trash bag, to keep the atmosphere around them moist. After about five days, the first seedlings should appear. Uncover the pots, and make sure the seedlings receive plenty of sunlight.

If you don't have a sunny spot for them, you can use a fluorescent lamp about 6 inches above the seedlings. If your tomatoes are getting their light from a nearby window, you'll probably need to rotate the pots to avoid the plants becoming too leggy, trying to reach the light source. Keep the soil moist by watering every few days. I use a weak solution of fish emulsion fertilizer every third or fourth time that I water.

Seedlings and sun

A couple of weeks before I plan to transplant the seedlings to my garden, I acclimate the seedlings by moving them outdoors. At first, this process, also called "hardening off," might only be a few hours on a warm (70 degrees or warmer) afternoon. If you have a cold frame, this is a perfect use for it, as it will protect the seedlings from the wind and help the sun warm the plants on cooler, sunny days. This is an important step, as it helps the young plants adjust to the elements and gives them a better chance of success when you move them to the garden.

As the transplant date nears, the seedlings should spend more and more time outside, even overnight, as long as the weather permits. When the day arrives and it's time to plant your seedlings, treat them as you would any tomato plant. Bury the seedlings at least halfway up their stalk to promote strong, healthy plants. Refer to the checklist of items you'll find helpful in starting tomatoes from seed.

Tempting tastes for next generations

Consider involving your children or grandchildren in the process. In addition to teaching them a little about nature, they seem to really enjoy seeing the variety of shapes and colors that a tomato can have. They might also be more inclined to give them a taste test if they've been involved with them since they were seeds. My cherry tomatoes have a hard time making it from the garden to the table because my 9-year-old son pops them in his mouth as soon as he pulls them off the vine.

Much more information on heirloom varieties and growing tomatoes from seed can be found online. The sites mentioned above (tomatofest.com and tomatogrowers.com) have hundreds of seed varieties available for sale. There is also some very helpful tomato information available at http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu; search the site for heirloom tomatoes.

If you want an opportunity to acquire seedlings this season, the Victoria County Master Gardener Association will have a limited amount of heirloom tomato seedlings available at the Spring Plant Sale on March 21.

Only two things money can't buy

Tomatoes are a large part of most home gardens. Become the envy of your neighbors by growing basketfuls of unusually colored and shaped treasures from the past. Remember the words from the great Guy Clark song,
"There's only two things that money can't buy, and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes."

Happy old-time tomato growing.
Yellow Pear
Black Cherry
Snow White
Texas Wild
Green Zebra
Garden Peach
Amish Gold
Hawaiian Pineapple
Marianna's Peace
Mortgage Lifter
Texas Star

Tomato Seeds
Small pots or divided trays
Sterile potting mix
Fluorescent lamps (if no sunny spot is available)
Weak fertilizer solution
Cold frame (optional)
Photo Credit: Tomatofest.com
There are more than 600 varieties of heirloom tomatoes with similar, but different, tangy tastes. Numerous ones are shown in this competition display.
Photo Credit: Michael Vandeveer/Victoria County Master Gardener Intern
These seedlings at two weeks are receiving adequate light on the window sill. The pots should be rotated to avoid the plants becoming too leggy trying to reach sunlight.
Presented by: Victoria County Master Gardener Association

Where: Pattie Dodson Health Center, 2805 North Navarro, Victoria

Topic: "Preparation for Spring Vegetable Gardening" by Roy Cook

When: Monday, noon to 1 p.m.

Cost: Free

Bring your lunch and drink
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.