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Heirloom tomatoes: discover the distinctive appeal of growing tomato varieties that have been handed down from generation to generation.

AS A FORMER CERTIFIED ORGANIC market grower, I love tomatoes. I have grown more than 100 varieties and tasted even more, have served as a tomato-tasting judge, and have attended the world's largest tomato festival. So when it comes to "the perfect tomato," I've discovered that it's really a matter of personal preference. That's one of the things I love about heirloom varieties. The wide range of unique flavors, complex colors and intriguing shapes certainly give heirlooms the upper edge.

Heirlooms defined

Purists define heirlooms as varieties that are more than 100 years old, but most tomato growers accept any open-pollinated variety that has been in existence for more than 50 years as an heirloom. In the less-than-50-years-old category are "created heirlooms"--varieties that have been deliberately produced by crossing two known heirlooms, such as Green Zebra. However, the one constant experts agree upon is that an heirloom must be an open-pollinated variety.

Choosing an heirloom

More than 1,000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes bring exciting color and flavor from garden to table. You'll find familiar shades of red and yellow along with gold, orange, pink, purple, deep garnet and rose. Varieties are even green, chocolate brown or white along with multicolored stripes. Fruits can be round, oval, elongated, flattened, ribbed or lumpy. Some are shaped like pears, acorns, strawberries or sausages.

Flavor varies from mellow to bold, with acidity levels ranging from naturally sweet to traditionally tart or classic full-bodied taste. Green varieties generally have tangy citrus overtones, sometimes with a spicy-sweet flavor; yellow types tend to be mild and sweet; bicolored types such as Pineapple or Old German are often fruity; and black varieties such as Black Krim are complex and intense, often described as smoky and rich.

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Knowing the flavor characteristics of a specific tomato will help you decide which varieties to grow. But flavor isn't the only consideration. How that variety will perform in your garden also is an important factor, as not all heirlooms reach their full potential in all growing regions. For example, a late-season variety may be productive in areas where summers are hot and the growing season long, and fail where summers are mild or fall frosts come early. Likewise, an heirloom's flavor may excel in a warmer region and falter in cooler regions, and the flavor can even differ from season to season. In my western Oregon USDA Zone 7b garden, some years the nights are too cool to grow long-season varieties such as Pineapple to perfection.

Starting off right

Seeds can be sown directly into the ground in warmer regions, but transplants are always a boon for any gardener and an absolute essential in much of the country to ensure that fruit has adequate time to ripen. Set out 6- to 10-week-old transplants in the ground about a week or two after your average last spring frost. (The bigger the transplant, the earlier the yields.) Gently strip off the lower leaves and plant the bulk of the stem below the soil surface. New roots will form all along the buried section, encouraging a healthier and faster-growing plant.

Growing for flavor

While genetics play a part in a tomato's overall characteristics, the fruit's ultimate taste and performance also depend on the right growing conditions. Tomatoes grow best in a sunny spot (at least six hours of daily direct summer sun) in slightly acidic, humus-rich, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.2 and 6.8.

It's best to test your soil before planting so you can adjust the pH level and supplement any crucial nutrients--such as phosphorus, potassium or calcium--that are lacking. Organic sources for these three nutrients include bone meal (phosphorus), crushed oyster shell (calcium) and greensand (potassium). Rock dust supplies phosphorus along with other flavor-producing trace minerals.

Additionally, enriching the soil with a shovelful of rich compost or aged manure per plant will help improve the soil structure, thereby giving roots easy access to water, air and nutrients. The added organic matter also helps increase the number of beneficial microorganisms, which help fight disease and convert nutrients in a plant-friendly form.

In lieu of compost or aged manure, you can feed your tomatoes by working in two to three pounds of a low-nitrogen (5-10-10) organic fertilizer per 100 square feet of growing space. Just be sure to use a fertilizer low in nitrogen as too much may encourage disease, delay production and weaken flavor. Apply additional compost, aged manure or organic fertilizer on top of the soil when the first fruits are the size of marbles.

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Growing on

Alter planting, apply a layer of mulch to help cut down time spent weeding and watering. Black plastic or straw works well, but red-reflecting plastic mulch outperforms both in warming the soil and increasing yields. Since soil moisture levels are more even due to the added mulch, you'll have less fruit cracking and blossom-end rot--an unsightly, leathery-type decay of the fruit's blossom end. (Other contributing factors include excess nitrogen or insufficient calcium.)

Water deeply and consistently as fluctuating moisture levels can interfere with the uptake of calcium, thereby leading to blossom-end rot in susceptible plants. Cut back on watering once fruits reach full size and begin to color. Stressing plants as fruits near harvest helps to intensify the flavor.

This season why not experience your own cornucopia of flavors and grow several heirloom varieties in your garden? After all, your goal is not only to grow a tasty tomato, but also to enjoy a tomato with great taste.

BAKER'S DOZEN OF TOP TASTY HEIRLOOMS

Even in the best of conditions, some tomatoes are simply more flavorful than others. Cherry-types are usually sweeter, yellow tomatoes are milder, deep garnet red to black varieties develop richer flavor, and green types are livelier. Not sure where to start? One of the following varieties may just win you over.

* BLACK KRIM (70-75 days): From the Black Sea of Russia, this prolific heirloom bears wonderfully rich, globe-shaped, 8- to 12-ounce fruits with an intense flavor and hint of saltiness. Great fresh or cooked, but a real sensation in salsa.

* CASPIAN PINK (75-85 days): Intensely sweet and rich Russian heirloom with large pink beefsteak fruits (12 ounces or more) that rival Brandywine in popularity and flavor. Great for cooler climates.

* CHEROKEE PURPLE (70-80 days): Medium-large dusky-rose fruits with well-balanced, complex flavor--winey, sweet and very intense. Very productive and disease-resistant.

* GARY IBSEN'S GOLD (75 days): Globe-shaped, 14-ounce fruits are brilliant orange-gold with tropical fruit flavors and enough acid balance to guarantee a burst of tomato flavor.

* GREEN GIANT (85 days): Lime-green, 1- to 2-pound fruits are deliciously sweet and one of the best tasting green tomatoes. Potato-leaved German heirloom is vigorous and prolific.

* GREEN ZEBRA (75 to 78 days): Strikingly beautiful both in appearance and taste, the small green and amber-striped fruits sport a sweet, zingy flavor that will certainly grab your attention.

* KELLOGG'S BREAKFAST (80-90 days): Deep golden-orange fruits with bright orange flesh and an exceptional sweet-tangy flavor. Thin-skinned, few seeds and meaty throughout.

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* PAUL ROBESON (75 days): Rich and robustly flavored fruits are earthy with a good acid-sweet balance. Dusky dark red skin and red flesh. Good choice for cooler regions.

* PINEAPPLE (85-90 days): Eye-catching bicolored fruits streaked with red and yellow inside and out are exotically sweet with pineapple undertones. Very fruity. Performs best in warmer regions.

* PRUDEN'S PURPLE (75 days): Large 10- to 16-ounce fruits and crimson flesh dressed in a delicious shade of purple. The texture is creamy, and the flavor is exceptional.

* SIOUX (70-80 days): Prolific producer of 2 1/2-inch, blemish-free red fruits with a slightly tart old-fashioned tomato flavor. Tolerant to heat, pests and disease.

* STUPICE (55 days): Early cold-tolerant variety from the Czech Republic bears clusters of ping-pong ball size, deep red fruits. Great tomato flavor with a good sweet/acid blend. Extra early.

* TIGERELLA (75 days): Apricot-sized red fruits with stripes of yellow and orange boast exceptionally lively flavor on extremely productive plants that produce all season. Disease-resistant.

SEED SOURCES

BAKER CREEK HEIRLOOM SEED CO.

417-924-8917; RareSeeds.com

GARY IBSEN'S TOMATOFEST

www.TomatoFest.com

SEED SAVERS EXCHANGE

563-382-5990; SeedSavers.org

TERRITORIAL SEED CO.

800-626-0866; TerritorialSeed.com

TOMATO GROWERS SUPPLY CO.

888-478-7333; TomatoGrowers.com

TOTALLY TOMATOES

800-345-5977; TotallyTomato.com

Photographs by Rick Wetherbee

A food writer and recipe developer, Kris Wetherbee grows heirloom tomatoes and more in her Oregon garden, preserving all the bounty nature provides.
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Title Annotation:Sow Hoe
Author:Wetherbee, Kris
Publication:Grit
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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