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Heirloom tomatoes.

If you are anything like me, the vegetable garden just isn't right without at least half a dozen tomato plants; going a little further, you are sick and tired of the taste of the hybrids available these days. Do you remember those great tasting tomatoes you ate as a kid but can't find anymore? Chances are they were grown from heirloom seeds, not seeds that have been engineered to create long lasting fruit suited to truck travel like many of the tomatoes we find in supermarkets today. It is the true tomato taste that makes these memories so remarkable.

First of all, what is an heirloom tomato? There is some disagreement among experts as to what the definition of an heirloom variety should include but basically, heirlooms fall into one of the following categories:

1. Commercial Heirlooms: Open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940.

2. Family Heirlooms: Seeds that have been passed down for several generations through a family.

3. Created Heirlooms: Crossing two known parents of known heirloom varieties and from the resulting plants selecting those that meet the desired and stable characteristics.

4. Mystery Heirlooms: Varieties that occur through natural genetic mutation or crossbreeding (outcrossing) resulting in a new, hopefully stable and unusual variety.

What makes heirloom tomato varieties so much better than commercial hybrids? There is a phenomenal selection to choose from, including varieties with distinctly unusual flavours, disease resistance and suitability for local conditions. Some have been bred in cold climates and suit our short season. Amanda Botincan grows many varieties from her home greenhouse near Beausejour, Manitoba, and is spreading the word on the benefits of heirlooms. When I talked to her in early March 2006, she had already started more than 1,900 seeds of 360 varieties to fill the increasing demand! She says, "We need to take back control of growing what we eat ... and have fun doing it, which in the end, is really what it is all about."

Almost all heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, i.e., they need staking or other support at some point. Determinate varieties tend to be of shorter stature and of a sturdier tree form, either ripening all at once or over a long period of time. Varying in size from the tiny currant types (both red and yellow) from South Africa, to super large-fruited varieties that can weigh up to 2.5 kg (5 lbs.), heirloom tomatoes run the full circle in fruit size. Heirloom tomatoes come in a multitude of colours with red being the most common. Other colours include pink, brown, black, orange, purple, white, green (even when ripe), and various striped varieties with Tiger Stripe being the most often grown striped heirloom.

Some varieties are oblong; some are flat with ribs. Some are heart-shaped (oxheart types), some ruffled and some pepper-like (hollow too). And, there are many combinations of these traits. While most plant breeders have tried to make tomatoes rounder and more uniform in shape, other breeders have tried to make them square so that they will fit into boxes more easily. Suffice to say, most heirloom varieties do not come in uniform shapes and sizes, which is the major reason they do not ship well.

As tomatoes sold commercially have had to travel greater and greater distances, and with most now being grown outside local or even regional areas, they have been bred to be harder and harder. Commercial varieties, most of which are picked green, then transported, then left in storage for days or weeks, and finally gassed to colour them, are the hardest of all. On the other hand, the green (when ripe), black, brown, purple and white varieties are the softest of all and will not tolerate being shipped when ripe. They should be placed on a flat surface and then eaten within three days of picking. Those who care the most about tomato flavour tend to like the softer varieties and know just when to serve them, based more on how they taste and feel to the touch rather than how they look to the eye.

Scientists have identified at least 30 flavour components (and there are probably more they haven't yet found) present in tomatoes to a greater or lesser degree. All tomatoes have acidic flavourings but some have a higher level of sugars than others. As a rule, red tomatoes are usually the most acidic, while yellow tomatoes have the highest proportions of sugars. Pink, purple, black, white, brown, orange, and green (when ripe) have varying acidic to sugar balances, with the Striped German variety (yellow with red stripes) being the sweetest of all.

To me, the perfect tomato bites you back when you take a bite--in other words, it's a very acidic tomato. Most people are disappointed with commercial varieties because their flavour is so bland, but that is the characteristic of any tomato picked green and then later gassed for ripening. Their flavours never truly develop.

In addition, it is not quite accurate to say that one variety is necessarily more acidic than another variety. The flavours change with the season, with most varieties becoming more acidic as the season progresses from early to late summer. I do not know why, but perhaps it is a combination of shorter days, cooler nights, and the maturing of the plant.

So, which are the best of the best in heirloom tomatoes? Following is a list and descriptions of the top varieties, in no particular order, recommended by Amanda Botincan:

Ildi--A yellow tomato with up to 50 salad-sized 14.2 g (1/2 oz.) tomatoes in clusters on a vigourous indeterminate vine that grows about 60 cm (2') tall. Mature fruit holds well. 70 days.

Mr. Jack--Fruit is large, oval-shaped and highly ruffled with small seed cavity. Ideal for stuffing. 75 days.

Isis Candy--From Eastern Europe, this golden yellow-marbled red variety is a complex blend of richness, sweetness and fruitiness. Fruits are 42.5 g (1.5 oz.) on short trusses. 73 days.

Orange Strawberry--Large strawberry-shaped, vivid orange fruits with a rich and sweet flavour. They average 227 to 454 g (8 oz. to 1 lb.). Vines are indeterminate and productive. 80 days.

Opalka--One of the best paste tomatoes. Fruits are large and shaped like a banana pepper with a pronounced tip. Vigourous and very productive, it has very few seeds and is very meaty with a rich, sweet flavour. Originally from Poland. 75 days.

White Bush--A dwarf indeterminate known for continuous production on compact plants that require no pruning or staking. White fruits average 142 g (5 oz.). Plants produce until a killing frost. 60 days.

Mortgage Lifter--This large, meaty, oblate-shaped tomato has a mild flavour with few seeds and is the perfect canning tomato. Plants are indeterminate with 454 to 908 g (1 to 2 lb.) pure pink fruits, producing all at once. 75 days.

Siberia--An excellent cool weather variety that can set fruit at low night temperatures. Small to medium-sized tomatoes are produced on 60 to 75 cm (2 to 2.5') bushy plants. Delicious eaten fresh or for sauces and pastes. 48 days.

Sub Arctic--One of the earliest tomatoes, this variety is suitable for northern regions with short seasons. Determinate plants are disease-resistant and produce 113 g (4 oz.) red tomatoes in only 42 days!

Striped German--Bi-colour with smooth fruit, yellow colour with red stripes marbling the interior and a strong flavour. 78 days.

And, finally, where to get plants or seeds of heirloom tomato varieties?

One answer, talk to a local grower. Amanda Botincan is one resource for southern Manitobans for starter plants. She can be contacted by calling (204) 268-3984 and leaving a message. Please remember, heirloom tomatoes are her hobby. She will get back to you as soon as she can.

Another local heirloom grower is Tanya Stefanec of Heritage Harvest Seed in Carman, Manitoba (see opposite). Tanya wrote an article on heirloom veggies for The 2006 Prairie Garden, and her business was recently featured in Manitoba Gardener (Planning 2006). For a catalogue of heirloom vegetables offered by Tanya's business you can contact her at Box 2177, Carman, MB R0G 0J0.

Alternatively, you can order seeds from any of the following Canadian companies:

Seeds of Diversity, Canada's Heritage Seed Program:

Salt Spring Seeds:

Terra Edibles:

Prairie Garden Seeds:

Spring Arbour Farms:

The Cottage Gardener:

Good growing and good eating to all!

Colour photos, pages 94 to 95.

Tanya Stefanec's favourite heirloom tomatoes include:

Sara Black--An excellent heirloom tomato originating from Germany. This tomato has smooth, blemish-free 280 to 340 g (10 to 12 oz.) oblate fruit that are dark reddish-purple. One of the best tasting "black" tomatoes; the term black is often used to describe tomatoes but the colour is actually a dark purplish red with green shoulders. The plants are medium-sized and indeterminate and produce prolifically.

Fargo Yellow Pear--This tomato is excellent for the prairie climate. It is definitely one of the most productive tomatoes that I have ever grown. The determinate or bush plants are covered with oval to pea-shaped, gold fruit that are the perfect size for cutting in half and throwing in a salad or for snacking. Great for small gardens or containers. Extremely rare.

Silvery Fir Tree--A very unusual tomato that has very fine foliage totally unlike regular tomato foliage, which looks great in containers on the patio or mixed into the flowerbed. The determinate plants also produce medium-size orange-red slicing tomatoes that are very tasty. This tomato originated in Russia and is an excellent tomato for short season climates.

Andrew Rahart's Jumbo Red--One of the tastiest tomatoes there is. Fruit average 1 pound but can be larger. The flesh is absolutely delicious and very aromatic. Excellent for tomato sandwiches or salads. Large indeterminate plant with real tomato taste.

There are many other excellent heirloom slicing tomatoes with exceptional taste, including: Brandywine (Sudduth's Strain), Nile River Egyptian, Druzba and Mule Team.


B.J. Jackson was co-Guest Editor of The 2005 Prairie Garden featuring 'Lilies.' She is a Master Gardener through the University of Saskatchewan and recently completed her horticulture certificate at the University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.
COPYRIGHT 2007 This material is for informational use. Views are not those of the editorial committee. Reference to commercial products is made with no discrimination intended or endorsement by The Prairie Garden.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:tomatoe growing
Author:Jackson, Barbara-Jean
Publication:Prairie Garden
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:Vegetable gardening--naturally.
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