Ultimate Guide to Growing Tomatoes – Part 4: Beyond Basic Tomatoes
We’ve been talking tomatoes for 3 weeks now and I’ve probably said “tomato” over, what, three dozen times? All these times I’ve said “tomatoes,” you’ve probably imagined something like this:
Aren’t they beautiful? Of course they are! They’re perfect standard tomatoes. But this is the Ultimate Guide to growing tomatoes, not the standard guide. Let’s go beyond standard to ultimate. I’m talking heirlooms and organics. This is what I’m talking about:
That’s the ultimate pile of tomatoes!
Let’s get started with heirloom tomatoes. The term heirloom has gotten a lot of buzz lately, but what does it really mean? Heirloom seeds are cultivars that were commonly grown years ago but are generally not grown on a large-scale commercial production. Heirloom tomatoes are open pollinated (pollinated naturally by insects, birds or wind) and retain their genetics from one crop to the next, unlike apples for example which do not and have to be “cloned” or grafted. Heirloom tomatoes are grown for their superior flavor, texture, uniqueness and even nostalgic reasons. Heirlooms are often passed down from one generation to the next and shared with friends. They are becoming more popular year by year but may not have as consistent of a shape or grow as fast as some other varieties, which makes them less appealing to growers who are producing tomatoes for commercial sale. They are also a little more disease prone than some other cultivars, but once mature, they often demand a higher price-point by discerning tomato connoisseurs.
In our Dyersville retail store we sell Seed Saver’s heirloom seeds. I am going to talk a bit about some of our favorite varieties in the following lines. Ponderosa Red has been grown in the U.S. since 1891. It is a beefsteak type of tomato with a sweet yet mild flavor. It has a flattened, rough appearance but it does well in our humid Iowa summers. Black Sea Man is a Russian heirloom tomato that bears mid-sized, brownish-pink fruit with a green shade. They are very attractive when sliced and have a rich flavor. Cherokee Purple is another beautiful, unique slicer with a deliciously sweet flavor. It bears a 12 oz. fruit and has an indeterminate growth habit. Brandywine was introduced in 1889 and named after Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania. The large, indeterminate plant produces 8 to 12 oz. fruit with an excellent flavor. They are prolific producers! One of our last favorites is called Gold Medal. It was first introduced as Ruby Gold in 1921 but was renamed Gold Medal in 1976. They are very sweet tasting with beautiful coloration and are considered one of the nicest bi-color heirloom tomatoes available.
Along with heirloom tomatoes, organic tomatoes are also increasing in popularity. Organic production is a way of growing that does not use any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. To be labeled organic, farmers must be certified by a USDA-approved state agency or a private certification agency and adhere to growing standards which are regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP). Anyone can buy organic seeds and practice methods which are considered organic, but labeling your crop for market as “organic” does not happen overnight. Each state has different regulations. For example, if you are considering “organic” certification, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides cannot have been used on the soil where you are growing for a number of years (varies by state). Also, if growing in a raised bed, you may not be able to use treated or synthetic wood. When you buy tomato seeds labeled organic, you are buying seeds that have been harvested from fruit that has been grown organically. You may find the exact same variety of tomato seed at the store with one labeled “organic” and one not. Do they taste better? I’m not sure. Are they better for you and also the environment? Undoubtedly. Organic vegetable consumption and production is a lifestyle choice. If it were easy and cheap, everyone would be doing it.
Do you think we missed anything? What ultimate guide would you like to see next?