Roots Run Deep

Like finely crafted old furniture or antique hand-painted china,  heirloom plant varieties carry with them a sense of history and wonder about who cared for and enjoyed them before. This sense of legacy rings especially true for heirloom tomatoes, some of which boast strains that have been passed down many generations in our coastal gardens.

During our nation’s beginnings, immigrants often carried seeds in their pockets from their homelands. This explains why we have varieties from Central America, Russia, Italy, France, Japan and Germany among our heirlooms today.

Then, from the 1950s to the ’70s, hybrids began dominating the commercial tomato market, making those older brands more difficult to find. However, in recent years, with the resurgence of wholesome food trends, a return to the more flavorful heirlooms of yesteryear has been spawned.

The term “heirloom” is often applied to produce varieties that were grown before World War II. Back then, “organic gardening, ” based on animal manure and mulch, was standard practice for the home gardener.

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Many popular versions hail from Germany or Russia, where summer conditions are generally cooler than here in the Deep South. Therefore, mulch and a well-composted soil are crucial to giving these plants vital nutrients. The colorful names of these classics, conjured up with descriptive terms from grandmas and grandpas of generations past, paint quite a picture. Names such as “Mortgage Lifter, ” “Arkansas Traveler, ” “Yellow Taxi, ” “German Johnson” and “Black Krim” all hint at curious tales from lives long ago.

What Makes Heirlooms So Superior?

  • They come in all shapes, sizes and colors — red, yellow, pink, black, orange and green. Although not perfectly round like some supermarket tomatoes, their superior flavor easily outshines any unusual or imperfect shapes.
  • These tried-and-true types hail from a time before disease resistance was crossbred into plants so these “elder tomatoes” tend to have a natural defense.
  • Their seed consistently produces similar plants from one generation to the next.
  • They are typically well adapted to their environment since most have been successfully grown in the same region for many years over.
  • The plants have fairly simple needs: about six hours of sun daily, richly mulched soil, regular watering and a trellis, stake or cage on which to grow. Well-tended plants nurtured with compost and mulch should grow just fine and develop healthy root systems here in our area.

How Do I Choose a Variety?

Tomatoes are the most popular homegrown crop for Alabama gardeners, and with a bit of careful planning, there are many heirlooms that will prosper in our coastal climate.

Tracy McCarter of St. Elmo Feed and Seed says, “Each year we have more customers requesting them, and we carry several varieties (see below for the most popular). We are always experimenting and adding new ones too, such as Tommy Toes and Ivory Pear.” Most importantly, look for types that have a high tolerance for humid conditions and warmer night temperatures.

Popular Types That Grow Well Locally

Rutgers are known for uniform red coloring, smooth
skin, pleasing flavor and healthy foliage to reduce sunscald.
Cherokee Purple, an old South classic has very dark fruit and a rich flavor.
Brandywine, the gold standard for heirlooms in luscious shades of red-pink rewards you with large, beefsteak fruits.
Homestead, an old favorite developed for hot climates, produces firm, meaty tomatoes.
Atkinson thrives in our humidity and develops into big, firm, meaty tomatoes.
Arkansas Traveler is prized for flavorful, medium-sized pink fruit that resists cracking and continues to produce in drought and hot weather.

Imagine that warm summer morning — not too far off — the birds happily chirping, the sun kissing your face as you head out with a basket on your arm, ready to pluck the deliciously sweet, sun-warmed fruits of your labor and taste a juicy legacy from the past. 

Steps For Successful Planting

In coastal Alabama, tomatoes should be planted within the first two weeks of March to allow the crop to flourish before the intense heat of midsummer shuts down production. Whether growing heirlooms or hybrids, select plants that will produce their first ripened fruit in 65 to 75 days. This will ensure a good resistance to nematodes and common tomato diseases, resulting in an abundance of delicious fruit.

1) Buy seeds or ready-to-plant heirlooms at your local farmers’ market or nursery. (Or, use the complimentary packet from your March issue.) Some heirlooms, only available as seeds, should be started indoors in small peat pots or trays. Transplant to large containers or raised beds in mid-March, once temperatures remain above 50 degrees.

2) For each plant, dig a deep hole and mix in leaf mold or compost manure to enrich the soil and improve drainage. Bury the plant up to the first two leaflets. Roots will develop along the entire buried portion of the stem.

3) Firm the soil around the plant and mulch with a thick layer of pine straw. Water well and provide a sturdy trellis, stake or cage for support.

4) Water the new plants daily during early growth, flowering and setting fruit cycle. Do not allow the soil to dry out as tomatoes grow in full sun. Soaker hoses or drip systems are effective ways to irrigate. Mulching also helps conserve moisture.

Gardening Gurus

In case you need a little help cultivating a greener thumb, we’ve compiled the ultimate guide to local garden centers and nurseries. With their products and expert advice, you can create a backyard work of art just in time for spring. Click here to view the directory.

text by Dooley Berry

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