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Ready, Set, Grow: Heirloom Tomatoes

Ready, Set, Grow: Heirloom Tomatoes

AUBURN, Ala.— Whether consumers choose to purchase their food or grow it themselves, many are interested in moving away from mass-produced items—including commercial tomato varieties.

Alabama Extension Regional Agent, Hunter McBrayer said the trend brings consumers looking for more natural and sustainable foods.

“Many believe heirloom tomatoes are more ‘natural’ and sustainable,” McBrayer said. “While you can save seed from heirloom tomatoes that will reproduce true-to-type, there are no nutritional differences between heirloom and hybrid tomato varieties.”

He said only taste—be it good or bad—and appearance are different.

Popular Heirloom Tomato Varieties

More than 10,000 varieties of tomato have been, or still are in, production since the first tomatoes were domesticated more than 2500 years ago.

“Consumer needs and wants have changed over time, as have varieties of tomatoes,” he said. “In recent years, many heirloom tomato varieties have gained popularity based on their production and taste.”

Small, pear or cherry type varieties—including yellow pear and chocolate cherry or black cherry—give consumers a choice of sweet or acidic snack-sized tomatoes. Several varieties that have become popular recently include Black Krim and Cherokee Purple. Both are saucer-sized tomatoes with a deep purple color, in contrast to the traditional red.

McBrayer said while both of these varieties are tasty and productive, the varieties have short shelf lives and tend to crack around the top. He said a tomato with long-lasting popularity—and one of his long-time favorites—is the Brandywine tomato. The Sudduth’s Strain in particular.

Consumer Complaints Against Commercial Tomato Varieties

“Many consumers feel what the commercial market has gained by hybridization (extended shelf life, even ripening, disease resistance) has compromised taste,” McBrayer said. “This is the main complaint from true tomato lovers—they are pretty but they have no taste.”

McBrayer said while this is not entirely true, there are some heirloom varieties with better taste than some hybrids.

Breeding programs and hybridization have allowed development of many highly productive varieties that are drought and disease resistant. Some varieties have an earlier picking window, while others last longer in produce outlets. Unfortunately, heirloom varieties are not resistant to many environmental factors or soil-borne diseases.

“This means heirloom tomatoes are susceptible to common diseases including fusarium wilt, Verticillium wilt and root-knot nematodes,” he said. “While these varieties are not resistant, there are many things that home gardeners can do to prevent or delay some of the disorders and disease.”

Protecting Your Heirloom Crop

Crop rotation in gardens is critical to preventing disease from occurring. Unfortunately in raised beds this may be difficult, but McBrayer said there are some solutions.

Some growers graft heirloom tomato plants on to disease resistant rootstocks.  While this allows for heirloom tomatoes with all of the benefits of hybrid tomatoes, price is the main drawback to grafting.

“In terms of shelf life, the time varies from variety to variety,” he said. “Some begin to break down within a day, others can last for a week if properly taken care of.”

Other physiological problems—including blossom end rot, cracking and splitting—are common in heirloom varieties. However, growers can prevent or minimize diseases by regulating and maintaining moisture levels throughout the growing season.

Saving Heirloom Tomato Seeds

McBrayer said saving tomato seeds is easy.

First, growers should select fruits that are healthy with no signs of disease.  Additionally if there are any differences between plants—such as vigor, taste and other desirable traits—save seed from the best plants.

Allow fruits to ripen fully, and then scoop out the seeds and surrounding gel before your eat or cook the tomatoes.

Place the seeds and gel in a glass jar filled with water. Stir or swirl the mixture twice a day. The mixture will ferment and the seeds should sink to the bottom within five days. Pour off the liquid, rinse the seeds and spread them out to dry on paper towels.

Remember the mix will ferment, so keep the jar out of sight and smell!

More Information

For more information, visit www.aces.edu or contact your local Extension office.



Photo in story by AJCespedes/ shutterstock.com/

Featured photo by Lucky Business/shutterstock.com

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