How to Grow Heirloom Tomatoes

Grow fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes right in your own backyard

Heirloom Tomatoes
Photo: Ralph Anderson

Once you've had a ‘Cherokee Purple' tomato sandwich, making one with any other tomato is like skipping the salt and pepper—it just ain't right. Along the same lines, snack on a ‘Black Cherry' tomato fresh from your garden and you'll find yourself constantly counting to see how many more you have left on the vine. It's the over-the-top flavor of these and other heirloom tomatoes that makes us want to grow them.

Heirlooms come in all sizes and colors—red, yellow, black, pink, orange, and green. They're not always perfectly round like the ones at your local grocery store, but you won't care one bit once you taste them.

Cindy Martin loves heirlooms. She and her husband, George, own The Tasteful Garden, which specializes in kitchen-garden plants. Each year, this mail-order nursery in Chulafinnee, Alabama, grows and ships thousands of heirloom tomato plants to loyal customers. We asked Cindy to share some of their best tips and advice.

What is an Heirloom Tomato?
Some horticulturists classify a tomato as "heirloom" only if it is open-pollinated, which means you can save its seeds and pass them down from generation to generation, Cindy explains. These tomatoes stay true to type because, unlike hybrids, they aren't the result of crossbreeding, where a particular cross has to be duplicated to get the same flavor, size, etc. ‘Green Zebra,' a hybrid, is often considered an heirloom but is a result of recent breeding.

"I define an heirloom tomato a little differently," Cindy says. "To me, an heirloom is most any tomato that has not been bred for mass production or large-scale farming. I consider any tomato grown exclusively for its taste, quality of fruit, unique size, or colorful flesh to be an heirloom." Some of these tomatoes have names as colorful as their fruit: ‘Mortgage Lifter,' ‘Arkansas Traveler,' ‘Yellow Taxi,' ‘German Johnson,' ‘Boxcar Willie,' ‘Black Krim,' and ‘Mountain Princess,' just to name a few.

How to Grow Heirloom Tomatoes
An heirloom's needs are simple: lots of sun (at least six hours a day) plus rich soil, mulch, regular water, and a trellis, stake, or cage on which to grow. Cindy likes to remind folks that heirloom types come from a time before disease resistance was crossbred into plants.

Instead, most older tomato types have a natural resistance that comes from being grown continually for so many years. "That doesn't mean an heirloom will survive a whole summer free from our Southern blight," she says. "But if you feed it well and add compost and mulch, your tomato will grow just fine and will likely have a strong, healthy root system.

"Many popular heirlooms are from Germany or Russia, and the conditions they prefer are generally cooler than our Southern summers," Cindy continues. "This makes mulching, as well as having good composted soil, very important so the plant is fooled into thinking that the temperature is cooler."

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