The rewarding endeavor of growing heirloom tomatoes, and a few favorite varieties

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By: Jim Carpenter

Photo supplied/Jon Zirkle

When I get interested in a particular subject I tend to really go whole hog about it. I did that the other year with heirloom vegetables, and particularly heirloom tomatoes.

I did a lot of research and came up with a lot of materials. Soon, I discovered how to save the seeds from tomatoes and that set off a two-year quest to locate different heirloom tomatoes to obtain seed from.

Since it is considered that there are nearly 10,000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, my quest to collect seed was limited only by how many farmers markets I wanted to visit.

 

The actual process of tomato seed saving involves letting the seeds “ferment” in water for several days until the protective coating is dissolved, then drying the seeds completely and storing them properly.

For those not familiar with what actually constitutes an heirloom, I will give a little background. Basically, an heirloom plant is one whose seeds will grow “true to type.” In other words, when you plant a seed from an heirloom you will grow the exact same type of plant.

Hybrid plant seeds can never grow true to type, hence some of the interesting things that might be growing from your compost pile.

I should mention that tomatoes are easier to collect seed from because they are considered self pollinating and you have less chance of any cross pollination between varieties.

Nature has provided some pretty unique ways to maintain viability of seeds. Seeds need to be able to overwinter until the next growing season and for that reason many seeds actually need the freezing and thawing process to occur before they are able to germinate.

Also, in many cases, seeds need to have the capacity to pass through the digestive tract of birds and other animals and still be able to procreate the species.

I got to be pretty organized as I selected and recorded each new heirloom variety that I came across. My plastic cups of water with the tomato seeds in them were numbered to correspond with the name of the tomato on a master list.

After several days in the water, I strained out the seeds and put them on paper plates to dry. Again, the number to identify the seed variety correctly was also on the plate. If I erred on transferring proper identification, the seeds would basically be useless, as I would have no way of knowing for sure which variety they were. My wife was rather patient with me during this time, as I had as many as a dozen cups of water setting out on the table and counter tops.

I processed about 120 different varieties and very carefully placed them in tiny plastic baggies with proper ID written on each. Eventually I alphabetized them all in a small box. I made sure to have enough seed to give away while still keeping enough to save for later planting. I also made small notes on the container as to the characteristics of that particular heirloom.

Obviously, I could only try out a few new heirlooms each year in my garden. But that proved to be a lot of fun as I eagerly awaited the development of the fruit and the different color, shape and size of that particular variety.

One of the more interesting ones I grew was called Litchi. This tomato originated from South America and while the tomatoes on it were extremely small, the vines themselves had thorns on them. How cool is that? I considered this to be more of an ornamental type of plant and heard that in some countries the Litchi is planted as a border to keep animals out of the garden.

The colors and sizes of heirloom tomatoes have tremendous variety. There are orange, yellow, pink, black, purple, striped and even white tomatoes.

Even the names are pretty incredible: Mexican Midget, Japanese Black Truffle, Cherokee Purple and Nebraska Wedding, just to name a few.

Another neat thing about these heirlooms is the history they have, as they grow from seeds saved and handed down from generation to generation.

While the tomatoes themselves are very unique to one another, they do have some similarities. Heirloom tomatoes have incredible flavor. I have several personal favorites. The Pink Brandywine is just a delight to eat. With a little salt on a slice, it surely has a sweetness you will never find on a grocery shelf. The Black Cherry tomato variety is a small, dark colored fruit that actually has a bit of a black cherry flavor.

Of course, another reason to grow heirlooms is that you can actually save the seeds and plant them from year to year. Properly processed and stored tomato seed will keep for a number of years and might add an additional element of joy to your gardening. And how cool is it when a friend asks for a few of your heirloom seeds to try for themselves?

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