Heirloom tomatoes are the rage nowadays, as everybody and their cousin with the goiter hail them for their superior, seductive flavor. But what happens when you get sucked into the hype and your special tomatoes disappoint? Join a convent? No -- listen to the wise words of Grumpy.

Grumpy recently received this heart-breaking email from a faithful reader: "We tried heirloom tomatoes in our garden this year for the first time, and this growing season in southern Tennessee seems to have been one of the hottest and driest on record. In trying to keep the 'maters happy, I would dump a bucket of water on the plants every couple of days. Instead of ripening slowly, though, the tomatoes would seem to go from half-ripe one day to rotten the next. Are heirlooms this tricky to grow or was my watering the problem? I did mulch the plants with straw."

Answer: I think your tomatoes are feeling the effects of the extreme weather. Abrupt swings between wet and dry soil can lead to a condition called blossom end rot, in which large rotten spots form on the end of the tomato opposite of the stem (see above). And you're correct about heirloom tomatoes sometimes being finicky. These plants often fail to set fruit when the temperature rises above 90 degrees ('Arkansas Black' and 'Cherokee Purple' being delightful exceptions.) Although many have superior flavor, they're not as vigorous, productive, or disease resistant as the new hybrids. (In fact, one of the most praised heirlooms, 'Brandywine,' doesn't grow well in the South at all.) But many folks decide the extra trouble is worth it.

em'Cherokee Purple' tomato. Photo:

Mulching is a good idea, as it reduces moisture loss from the soil. Try to keep the soil evenly moist and hang in there. Your plants should do better once the worst of summer is over.

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