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Gardening: Plant some fun—and history—in the garden with heirloom tomatoes

May/June 2011 California Country magazine

Insights from a true tomato fan.




Milt Whaley, owner of Whaley Heirloom Veggies, shares gardening tips and fresh-picked tomatoes with columnist Pat Rubin, left. Whaley grows several hundred varieties of heirloom tomatoes in his Sutter County garden.

I'm an heirloom tomato addict.

I pore over seed catalogs, mesmerized by the exotic, even frivolous names of heirloom tomatoes. I'm fascinated with the history they bring to the garden. Red Fig, for example, dates back to 18th century American gardens. There's Green Zebra, aptly named for its yellow-streaked green skin. The flavorful yellow orange flesh of Moonglow is almost luminous. Black Russian is a deep mahogany red. Wapsipinicon Peach, named after the Wapsipinicon River in Iowa, has yellowish, fuzzy skin and tastes sweet. Plum Lemon looks more like a lemon than a tomato and Silvery Fir Tree has delicate, carrot-like foliage and flattened fruit. So many shapes, tastes and colors!


Brown Berry


Ceylon


Chile Verde


Green Zebra


Japanese Trifele Black


Kellogg’s Breakfast


Sara Black

It depends on who you ask, but the traditional definition of an heirloom vegetable is a variety that is at least 40 or 50 years old, hasn't been available commercially and has been kept true, meaning you can expect the seeds you save to reliably produce the exact same type of tomato year after year. They are often regional varieties, cultivated by a backyard gardener and handed down from generation to generation. Taste is the overriding factor when saving tomato seeds. The downside to heirlooms is they can be more susceptible to plant diseases and some produce small crops.

Hybrids, on the other hand, are intentional crosses between varieties. Breeders may cross a disease-resistant variety with one that matures early. The same cross has to be made every year to get that variety. Seeds harvested from hybrid tomatoes will not breed true; that is, they will revert to some variety in their ancestry. Bottom line: You can't save seeds from a hybrid tomato if you want to grow that same tomato the next year. If you want hybrids like Beefsteak or Early Girl, you'll have to buy seeds each year, or buy started plants. If you're adventurous and want to see what happens, then plant the seeds you harvested from hybrid tomatoes. Each plant will be different, picking up some characteristics from its gene pool. The advantage to hybrids is they are usually vigorous, dependably producing plants from seed.

These days, most nurseries and big box stores carry heirloom tomato plants, so it's easy to try them. Grow a few, and you'll discover heaven truly is a multicolored heirloom tomato salad—green, yellow, orange and red—with olive oil, just-picked basil and fresh mozzarella.

Pat Rubin is a longtime gardener and garden writer. Send questions or comments to her at patrubinsgarden@gmail.com.

Gardening to-do list for May/June

May

  • To keep roses blooming, cut away spent flowers. Cut just above a set of outward-facing leaflets.
  • Brighten shady areas with colorful coleus, impatiens and begonias.
  • From seed: Plant watermelon, cucumbers, squash, corn, radishes and beans in the vegetable garden. Also plant sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos and asters.
  • Mulch around plants to conserve moisture and prevent weeds. Be sure to keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunks of trees and shrubs.
  • Feed indoor plants.

June

  • Water early in the day to conserve moisture.
  • Water lawns between midnight and 10 a.m., and set the blades high. Keeping the blade length higher helps the lawns conserve water and stay healthy.
  • Take indoor plants outside and give them a bath. Be sure to keep them protected from the sun.
  • Cut canna stems to the ground as soon as they finish bloom. This encourages new growth and more flowers, and helps the cannas grow more thickly.
  • Cut Shasta daisies back after flowering. You'll get a second bloom in the fall.

Tomato Quiz

How many heirloom tomato varieties can you identify? Match the names below with the numbers in the photo.

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