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Heirloom tomatoes: new life for old varieties

By William Terry Kelley
University of Georgia

Most folks know that a store-bought tomato just doesn't taste as good as one you pick from your garden. That's why tomatoes are the most widely grown U.S. garden crop. But "new and improved" varieties don't always impress the tomato connoisseur.

The term "heirloom tomatoes" was coined a few years back. It's used to describe the old-fashioned varieties many gardeners believe have the best flavor. So why are the newer varieties "improved." Well, they resist some diseases that heirlooms don't.

Nevertheless, heirlooms are becoming popular. From red to yellow to chocolate to green, these tomatoes come in a variety of varieties. Some date back to the 1800s. Many come from Europe. Nearly all are indeterminate types that will keep growing and producing all season and require extensive trellising.

The basics of growing these varieties doesn't differ much from ordinary tomatoes. Trellising and varieties are the only real differences. Plant spacing, fertility and planting dates will all be the same as for any tomato.

Heirloom sampler

Here's a sampler of some of the more popular heirloom varieties:

"Brandywine" dates back to 1885. It produces pinkish red tomatoes from 1 to 1.5 pounds and matures in 80 days.

"Abraham Lincoln" matures in 77 days. It's a red variety dating to 1920, producing fruit from 6 to 10 ounces.

"Mortgage Lifter" got its name because the man who developed it supposedly produced so much fruit that he paid off his mortgage with the profit. It has pink fruit that can get up to 2 pounds and matures in 85 days.

"German Giant" can also reach 2 pounds. It's a deep pink and matures in 77 days.

If you're looking for a tomato of a different color, you may want to try "Cherokee Purple," which originated in Tennessee. It has rose to purple skin, matures in 80 days and weighs 10 to 12 ounces.

Or how about "Mr. Stripey," which is red, orange and yellow striped? It matures in only 56 days and has fruit only 1 inch to 1.5 inches in diameter.

Other varieties include "Green Zebra," "Old German," "Yellow Brandywine," "Old Brooks," "Thessaloniki," "Arkansas Traveler" and "Giant Belgium." Be careful how many you plant. Many of these varieties can produce as much as 15 pounds of fruit per plant.

Planting tips

As with all tomatoes, don't plant them until the danger of frost has passed. Tomatoes are best transplanted into the garden, too, rather than directly seeded. Many garden centers now carry plants of these old-time varieties.

Tomatoes must be grown in full sunlight in a well-drained area. Select a site where water is available for irrigation. The soil pH should be between 6.2 and 6.8.

Good transplants are stocky and 8 to 10 inches tall. Cover the rootball of the plant completely. Don't be afraid to plant it deep enough to cover the bottom leaves.

Plant tomatoes 18 to 24 inches apart in rows 5 to 6 feet apart. Heirloom tomatoes are best trellised, using an overhead wire stretched between two solid posts no farther than 20 feet apart. Then tie twine from the wire down to the plants to support them and keep them off of the ground. You will likely have to remove suckers and prune these varieties to two main stems.

Use about 1.3 pounds of 10-10-10 analysis fertilizer per 100 square feet. Work this into the ground before planting. Side-dress the plants with the same fertilizer rate after about four weeks and then again in another four to five weeks.

The quest for the most flavorful tomato has begun. Will it come from your garden this year?

(Terry Kelley is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Terry Kelley is a former University of Georgia Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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