If you want your homegrown Tomatoes to deliver the kind of flavor that creates memories and mid-winter daydreams, you need to grow some Heirloom Tomatoes. These are Tomatoes that are best eaten straight up and still warm from the sun so nothing interferes with their natural taste and texture. Slice them open and behold their nectar-like juices. Take a bite and understand why gardeners have been lovingly passing these seeds along from generation to generation.
Many people have never experienced the pleasure of eating an Heirloom Tomato. That’s because they’re not available in supermarkets and only recently available at most farmers markets. Commercial growers don’t grow Heirloom Tomatoes because they are not as disease-resistant, weather tolerant or as high yielding as modern hybrids. And Heirlooms don’t like to travel, so the best place to grow them is right at home. At your home!
The Best of the Best Heirlooms
With dozens and maybe hundreds of different varieties of Heirloom Tomatoes from which to choose, how can you decide which ones to grow? We’ve made it easier for you by narrowing the field down to 12 delicious options, each one with its own succulent soul and special magic.
One of the first heirloom varieties to hit the big time was Brandywine, which comes from Pennsylvania’s Amish Country. We offer Red Brandywine and Yellow Brandywine, both of which produce meaty, intensely flavored fruit that typically weigh at least one pound. From more exotic lands, we offer heart-shaped, almost seedless Giant Syrian (knockout flavor) and the chef-adored, sultry, deep purple and green Black Russian Tomato.
Our newest find from Tuscany, Canestrino meaning “little basket”, has a plump, pear-shaped red body and slender green-yellow shoulders. This perfect little dumpling of a Tomato is beautifully scalloped and delicious freshly sliced. Meaty Canestrino is also a top pick for homemade tomato paste.
Often, the names gardeners have given to these heirloom treasures speaks to their amazing flavor. This is definitely the case with Black Pineapple, which has a sweet, fruity, smoky flavor and a colorful exterior that’s a mix of purple-black, green, pink and yellow! Persimmon is a aptly-named variety with a rich, fruity flavor and the most luscious peachy-orange color inside and out.
Italy and Germany are home to some of the world’s best backyard vegetable gardeners. Thanks to their seed-saving efforts, you can grow German Pink, a huge beefsteak with dark pink skin and a complex, sweet-tart flavor, and Costoluto Genovese, which has unique, undulating lobes and is wildly popular in Italy for its rich and complex flavor.
Not everyone agrees that the best Tomato is red. Green Zebra produces huge crops of baseball-sized fruit that are lime-green inside and out with a deliciously sweet, lemony brightness. Aunt Ruby’s German Green hails from seed-savers in Tennessee. These one-pound Tomatoes have super-juicy, spicy-sweet, apple-green flesh. One of the prettiest Heirlooms is also one of the tastiest. Big Rainbow Striped is a work of art, with orange and red-striped skin and brilliant, red and golden orange flesh. Up to 2 pounds big with low acid, it’s consistently a favorite in taste-offs.
How to Grow Tomatoes
Most Tomatoes require a long season, 80 to 90 days, it needs to be started indoors under lights or in a greenhouse. Sow the seed in moist, sterile seed starting mix six to eight weeks before your spring Frost-Free Date. The bottom warmth of a seed starting mat (up to 75 degrees F) will help speed germination in six to 15 days. Once the seeds have sprouted, give them 12 to 15 hours of bright light each day; moderate, even moisture and good ventilation. (Plants grown on a windowsill get leggy and flop over as they stretch for the light: normal daylight length and intensity is insufficient no matter how bright the spot.) Water only as needed by soaking the entire root ball. Once the seedlings have two sets of true leaves, transplant the strongest seedlings into 4-inch pots and begin feeding them weekly with half-strength liquid fertilizer.
Before transplanting your cherished Tomato seedlings into the garden, harden them off by putting them outdoors in a sheltered location for a few hours each day and bringing them in at night. Do this for a week to 10 days, gradually lengthening the time outdoors. This will help them to avoid transplant shock and to thrive. No matter how warm you think it may be, hold off transplanting them until after your spring Frost-Free Date and night time temperatures are reliably above 55 degrees F. (To find the Frost-Free Date for your garden, go HERE and use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chart. Select your State from the pull down menu and the select the local NOAA data collection site closest to your garden from the PDF file.)
Tomatoes need all-day sun and warmth, nutritious soil and consistent watering. Transplant the seedlings into fertile, well-draining, neutral to slightly acidic soil, to which you have added compost, well-rotted manure and/or slow-release organic fertilizer. Space the seedlings 24" to 30" apart in rows that are 36" apart. Large plants may be buried one or two leaves deeper than initially grown. Water moderately after planting and apply a 2" layer of mulch to help conserve moisture later on.
Tomatoes must have structural support and it's best to put them in place at the same time you plant the Tomato seedlings to avoid root or plant disturbance later. You can help train them soon-to-be-heavily laden branches on the supports as they grow. (If possible, provide some protection from wind and scorching sunlight with floating row covers for the first couple of weeks.) Feed Tomatoes monthly with a low-nitrogen fertilizer and keep them well-watered by soaking the soil and keeping the leaves dry to minimize the potential for disease. In a nutshell, Tomatoes dislike cold, wet weather and love warmth, water, food and comforting support for their delicious fruits. Tip: You can make the best Tomato supports by using wide gauge (4" openings) wire fencing to create 6-foot tall cylindrical tubes.
How to Appreciate an Heirloom Tomato
While some Tomatoes are smooth, perfectly round and evenly colored, Heirlooms have infinitely more character and lovable eccentricities. Many are slightly flattened with high shoulders. These are perfect for serving on a platter with nothing more than a confetti of finely sliced basil leaves, a drizzle of your best olive oil, a splash of good balsamic vinegar and some freshly ground sea salt and pepper. Or for open-face BLTs atop fresh artisan bread. (You also have to try inside-out BLTs: dunk sliced Heirlooms in egg wash and Panko crumbs and sauté quickly in olive oil until just golden. Top with Arugula, bacon and goat cheese, and press another sizzling slice on top like a sandwich. Fabulous low-carb delicacy.)
Sometimes Heirloom Tomatoes are lumpy and contorted with deep clefts. The best thing to do is to cut them into free-form chunks and toss them with torn tufts of Italian bread for a panzanella salad. Some Heirlooms have a blemished complexion, yet a glowing countenance in fresh salsa or in lavishly composed chopped salads. Heirlooms are terrific for impromptu alfresco dinners under the stars: toss some small wedges of brie with hot, drained pasta and a cup or two of Heirloom Tomato chunks. Divine. Feeling the need to hold on to summer’s goodness? Roast big chunk-cut Heirlooms and freeze them in air tight zip bags to include in winter stews, pasta sauce and soups.