Try colorful, delicious heirloom tomatoes
Many folks have been waiting for this moment: the day it’s warm enough and past the main threat of frost to become tomato planting time.
An old garden tradition is planting tomatoes on Good Friday. The only problem is that Easter moves around, and where you live in Mississippi makes a difference. When Easter is early, the planting date is just right. This year, Good Friday is April 19, which is a good planting date for the northern part of the state but too late for coastal counties. April 5 is the optimum planting date on the Coast.
Everyone has their own favorite tomatoes to grow in the garden, but one group of tomatoes creates a lot of buzz. I’m talking about heirloom tomatoes.
Heirlooms are not your typical, grocery store Stepford tomato. They come in every shape, size and color imaginable. These tomatoes are treasured for being more flavorful, nutritious and beautiful than other varieties. And, to some, growing heirloom tomatoes is a status symbol.
But what makes an heirloom tomato different? In a word: tradition.
Heirloom tomatoes were commonly passed down from one generation to another within families, in much the way furniture or dishes are inherited. A great example is the Nebraska Wedding tomato. The seeds of this “love apple” are still being given to brides as part of their trousseaus. It keeps alive the farming tradition of giving part of the farm and wishing fertility to the newlyweds.
Some say a tomato variety must be at least 50 years old to be considered an heirloom. But this is an arbitrary definition, like saying all cars in Mississippi older than 25 years are antiques.
Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated, which means they breed true from collected seed. From the gardening standpoint, once you find an heirloom tomato you really like, saving seed each year can ensure you will continue to enjoy it in the future. This is also an important characteristic in helping maintain genetic diversity.
Heirloom tomatoes have been selected for taste and flavor, and they have regional environmental preferences. As such, they suffer more from environmental influences than their hybrid cousins, which are bred for consistent performance around the country. So, picking good heirloom performers for the hot and humid Mississippi climate is important.
I’ve grown more than 70 different heirloom tomatoes. A few of my favorites include Black Ethiopian, Angora Super Sweet, Cherokee Purple and Homestead. Unfortunately, these delicious tomato varieties probably won’t be available at garden centers this spring. But look for other heirloom varieties available.
It may already be too late to start your own heirloom tomatoes this year, since seed needs to be sown six weeks before transplanting. But now is the time to start planning for next year.
Heirloom tomato seeds are readily available in seed and gardening catalogs. Check online sources like Tomatofest and Totally Tomatoes for available varieties.
With so many choices for heirloom tomatoes available, there is no reason not to try some this year. Happy gardening!