In the kingdom of vegetables, the heirloom tomato is high nobility. Genetically unchanged from one generation to another, it offers an intense flavor prized by gardeners and gourmets.
But it has a reputation for being persnickety in the garden. While modern hybrids are tweaked and improved to resist common diseases, the old stalwarts seem to easily succumb to pathogens that can cause plants to suddenly wilt just as they seem ready to produce.
Now, as gardeners prepare to plant this summer’s crop, a number of plant breeders are offering hybrids they claim have the distinct flavors and funky looks of heirlooms but are more disease-resistant and abundantly productive.
To tomato purists, the hybrids amount to heirloom heresy. “I cringe when I hear the term ‘heirloom hybrid,’ ” says Amy Goldman, board chairwoman of the Decorah, Iowa-based nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange. The group champions the tradition of passing along heirloom seed from one generation to the next.
Some of the new varieties are bred to better withstand diseases and microscopic critters that can harm plants. Little worms are why Roger Chetelat can’t grow heirlooms. “The soil where I live is infested with nematodes,” says the director of the C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center at the University of California, Davis.
The basics on growing this popular plant
- Start seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last expected frost date.
- Gradually ‘harden’ seedings by bringing them outdoors for a few hours a day.
- Transplant into the ground in spring once soil has warmed.
- Space them a few feet apart and water down into the roots, avoiding leaves.
This year, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. in Warminster, Pa., is introducing a variety called Tye-Dye, a red-and-yellow marbled tomato that it promotes as “delivering all the heirloom flavor of Big Rainbow, Pineapple and Georgia Streak, with bigger yields, consistent form and better disease resistance.” Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C., promotes a ribbed tomato called Country Taste as having “the meaty, flavorful, tangy bite of yesteryear’s tomatoes without the poor disease resistance and small yields that plague so many heirlooms.” Territorial Seed Co., based in Cottage Grove, Ore., this year offers Golden San Marzano, a yellow version of San Marzano, which is a classic heirloom plum tomato.
Planted now or in the coming weeks, most tomatoes are ready to be picked at high summer—July and August in most parts of the country. Eating home-grown tomatoes that have delicately ripened on the vine (and not been battered in shipping) is one of the best eating experiences money can’t buy. Just add salt, a little olive oil—or nothing at all.
Breeders say they have been hearing from market growers clamoring for the look and taste of heirlooms but crossed with attributes that make them easier to grow on a larger scale. So in addition to creating more disease-resistant varieties, hybridizers have been working on giving tomatoes a longer shelf life and making shapes more uniform for ease of packing, and creating more compact plants that are easier to maneuver.
“There was such a high demand for heirlooms in the grocery store,” says Patty Buskirk, owner of Seeds by Design Inc., a wholesale seed supplier in Maxwell, Calif. “The semi-professional gardeners were asking me to come up with a hybrid that has some kind of uniformity and disease resistance.”
Beating the Blight
Researchers at Cornell University have identified some heirloom and hybrid tomato varieties resistant to late blight. See chart
These varieties are now becoming available to home gardeners. Ms. Buskirk’s first innovation was a hybrid based on the classic Brandywine tomato, known for its pink color and intense, rich flavor. The result was Brandymaster, which entered the marketplace about three years ago, and which she describes as having a Brandywine flavor, but more uniformly shaped fruits and better resistance to diseases. More recently, she created both yellow and red versions.
Totally Tomatoes, a catalog affiliated with J.W. Jung Seed Co. in Randolph, Wis., this year is selling Ms. Buskirk’s innovations in all three colors. A packet of 30 seeds sells for $1.95.
Ms. Buskirk also developed a variety called Patty’s Yellow Striped Beefsteak, which is bred to look somewhat like the popular heirloom Big Rainbow, but with more intense flavor, uniform shape, and bigger yields. Cook’s Garden, a catalog owned by Burpee, last year began selling it—a pack of 25 seeds for $3.95 or three plants for $12.50.
Some home tomato growers say such new hybrids threaten an important gardening heritage. One advantage to heirlooms is that, unlike hybrids, seed from a plant can counted on to grow looking like the parent.
“Heirlooms fill a distinct niche and empower the gardener,” Ms. Goldman, author of “The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table,” says. “Not only is there a sense of satisfaction from growing at home, but also self sufficiency.” Still, she says, there is a place in the world for both hybrids and heirlooms.
The old varieties have become increasingly coveted for their weird shapes, funky colors, and rich flavors that span the spectrum from fruity to salty.
Some are deeply ribbed, like Purple Calabash. Others have an “oxheart” shape, tapered at the end, like Hungarian Heart. A number of varieties that are almost black in color hail from Russia, like Black from Tula. Others are yellow (Manyel), orange (Flamme) or green (Aunt Ruby’s German Green). Stories of their provenance and discovery are part of the appeal.
Many of the qualities that make heirloom tomatoes appealing to home gardeners make them more of a challenge for larger-scale growers: Great flavor produced by heirloom plants sometimes comes at the expense of higher yields. Unusual shapes and softer fruit require special handling, which drives up cost. And because heirlooms generally grow on big vines, they need more trellises and supports.
Ms. Goldman concedes that while some heirloom varieties can be finicky, that’s not necessarily the case for all of the thousands of heirloom varieties that exist today. “There are so many heirlooms that are high to very-high yielding and that perform just as well or better than any hybrid you can imagine,” she says. She recommends that home growers try a schedule of different types that tend to produce in succession, to ensure a long harvest. Her suggestions on some particularly hardy varieties: For very early maturity, either Ceylon (a ribbed red variety) or Black Cherry (a maroon cherry tomato). That’s followed by either Flamme (a tangerine-colored globe tomato); Yellow Peach (a peach-textured yellow) or Red Rose (a pink globe). Then she recommends Gold Medal (a bicolor beefsteak), followed by Opalka, a blood-red paste tomato, for late season.
She also says that many home gardeners don’t space tomatoes far enough apart, which can encourage leaf diseases to spread rapidly. She gives her plants five feet of room. Watering should be infrequent, but deep—at least an inch a week is the rule of thumb—and aimed directly at the roots, not on the leaves. And most of all, provide tomatoes plenty of direct sunlight—at least eight hours a day.
Write to Anne Marie Chaker at firstname.lastname@example.org