Growing Heirloom Tomato Varieties

Learn about the history and ideal growing conditions for several heirloom tomato varieties, and start growing these tempting tomatoes today.
March 2012 Web
http://www.motherearthliving.com/Vegetable-Gardening/heirloom-tomato-varieties-ze0z1203zwar.aspx
‘Cherokee Purple’ does not turn completely purple, but its excellent smoky flavor is consistent.


Photo By Marie Iannotti

There are few things in this world as instantly satisfying as biting into a sweet, summer tomato warm from the vine. In Marie Iannotti’s The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables (Timber Press, 2011), you can learn to easily grow an assortment of heirloom tomato varieties, as well as some of the most flavorful heirloom vegetables. From a history of each plant to ideal soil temperature, Iannotti goes into incredible detail so you can savor a delectable array of old-world vegetables when it comes time to harvest. This excerpt is taken from the Chapter “Tomatoes, Tomatillos, and Ground Cherries.” 

No other vegetable has done more to highlight heirlooms than the tomato. Unlike modern hybrids that are bred with thick skins to resist bruising in transit, tender, open-pollinated heirlooms lure you with their rich tomato scent and flavor. A sun-kissed tomato has been known to seduce more than one tomato lover into becoming a gardener.

Growing heirloom tomatoes is an addictive, competitive sport. You cannot grow just one. As with fresh melons, tomatoes’ sweet fragrance tells you they are ready to harvest. Just brushing up against the plant will leave their lingering scent with you.

Tomatillos are like sassy tomatoes that make their presence known no matter how they are prepared. You can mix them with any Latin spices and instantly create a flavorful meal. With their citrusy tomato flavor, their refreshing acidity can wake up any dish and get the party started in the kitchen.

Ground cherries may resemble tomatillos, but they are much fruitier and sweetly refreshing. Like tomatillos, the fruits are protected in a papery husk and are sometimes called husk tomatoes.

Cherokee Purple Tomato

‘Brandywine’ gets all the press, but most tomato gardeners I know are rhapsodic about ‘Cherokee Purple’. The dusky colored fruits are a beefsteak size with small seeds, and they are usually a nicely uniform, round shape. They grow well in most climates. The shoulders of the tomato have a tendency to stay green, which is true of several heirloom varieties, but this does not affect their unique, delectable richness. The vines are indeterminate, though not particularly tall, and produce baseball-sized tomatoes.

‘Cherokee Purple’ is believed to have originated with the Cherokee people and has been known and grown since at least 1890. Unfortunately, the romance of heirloom vegetables often makes the validity of their stories questionable.

Tomato ‘Cherokee Purple’
Lycopersicon lycopersicum 

Exposure: Full sun
Ideal soil temperature: 75–85°F (24–30°C)
Planting depth: 1/4–1/2 in. (0.6–1 cm)
Spacing: 3–4 ft. (0.9–1.2 m)
Days to germination: 6–14 days
Days to maturity: 75–85 days

Flavor ‘Cherokee Purple’ has a smoky-sweet flavor. These dusky rose tomatoes, sometimes described as black in color, have a robust flavor not shared by fruitier, pale tomatoes. Something about the synergy of flavors in the skin and flesh gives ‘Cherokee Purple’ a mature fullness. This tomato is best eaten fresh. Bite through the sweetness of the skin and flesh to enjoy the tang of the juicy pulp.

Growing notes Start seed indoors 6–8 weeks before the expected transplant date. Move seedlings into individual 3–4 in. (7.5–10 cm) pots when true leaves appear. Transplant seedlings outdoors 2–4 weeks after your last expected frost. Wait until temperatures are reliably above 50°F (10°C) before setting out. Gardeners in areas with hot summers and mild winters will fare better starting tomatoes in late summer, to grow throughout the fall and into winter.

When transplanting the plants outside, bury the stems to the top set of leaves. The underground portion of the stem will send out roots and create a stronger plant.

‘Cherokee Purple’ fruits are heavy and the plants are fairly tall. Stake the plants when you plant them and secure the branches as they grow. It is susceptible to leaf and fruit diseases. Keep the leaves dry and do not plant them in the same location in consecutive seasons.

How to harvest Harvest fruits when they begin to feel soft to the touch and their smoky color has developed. You should be able to smell their sweetness. Although the shoulders do not turn purple, the green will deepen in color when they are ripe. Fruits are prone to cracking when the plant does not receive regular water, but cracking does not affect their taste. Water regularly to keep them looking beautiful.

Others to try ‘Black from Tula’ is a large Russian heirloom with dark skin and a similar smoky flavor. ‘Cherokee Chocolate’ is a close relative that is a little more tart, with dark shoulders. ‘Cherokee Green’ is a cross that stays dusky green, with a tangy flavor.

Green Grape Tomato

‘Green Grape’ tomatoes certainly resemble grapes, and they are sweet and refreshing when plucked from the vine and popped in your mouth. They have even been described as resembling large Muscat grapes. The 1 in. (2.5 cm) fruits stay green at the shoulder, hinting at ripeness when yellow veining appears at the midsection with a yellow glow at the blossom end. ‘Green Grape’ grows in clusters of 4 to 12 fruits.

This young heirloom was bred by Tater Mater Seeds in California and introduced in 1986. It does not fit the definition of an heirloom (at least 50 years old, with a unique story), but because it is a cross between two older heirlooms, ‘Yellow Pear’ and ‘Evergreen’, it is allowed some slack. Chef Alice Waters helped popularize ‘Green Grape’ by featuring it on the menu at her gourmet restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.

Tomato ‘Green Grape’
Cherry tomato
Lycopersicon esculentum 

Exposure: Full sun
Ideal soil temperature: 75–85°F (24–30°C)
Planting depth: 1/4–1/2 in. (0.6–1 cm)
Spacing: 3–4 ft. (0.9–1.2 m)
Days to germination: 6–14 days
Days to maturity: 80–90 days

Flavor These zesty grapes have a clean acidity that makes them refreshing to eat. The color is a bit dull and muted on the outside, but slice one open and you will see its glossy glory. These are wonderful additions to a tossed salad, if you can resist eating them all as you walk from the garden to the kitchen.

Growing notes Start seed indoors 6–8 weeks before your expected transplant date. Move seedlings into individual 3–4 in. (7.5–10 cm) pots when true leaves appear. Transplant seedlings outdoors 2–4 weeks after your last frost. Wait until temperatures are reliably above 50°F (10°C) before transplanting out.

Tomatoes will drop their blossoms and will never fruit when temperatures stay above 85°F (30°C). Gardeners in areas with hot summers and mild winters will fare better starting tomatoes in late summer to grow throughout the fall and into winter.

Tomato seeds germinate more quickly if the potting medium is kept warm. After they are up, the seedlings grow fast indoors. When transplanting the plants outside, bury the stems to the top set of leaves. The underground portion of the stem will send out roots and create a stronger plant.

Stake the plants when you plant them and secure the branches as they grow. ‘Green Grape’ is not a large plant, but it will get heavy when it is full of fruit. It is susceptible to the same leaf and fruit diseases as other tomato plants. Keep the leaves dry, and do not plant tomatoes in the same location in consecutive seasons.

How to harvest Cherry tomatoes at the top of the cluster ripen first. ‘Green Grape’ is ready to pick when the blossom end of the fruit is a golden yellow.

Tip This is a relatively small plant with a large yield, making it perfect for containers.

Others to try ‘Current Gold Rush’ is another small plant with huge yields; fruits are delicate, with a strong tomato flavor. ‘Red Fig’ produces small, juicy, pear-shaped tomatoes that dry nicely. ‘Tommy Toes’ produces 1 in. (2.5 cm) tangy fruits that hang in long clusters that resemble garlands.

Opalka Tomato

‘Opalka’ is an amazing little package that manages to be juicy and sweet, and dense and meaty. When we think of tomatoes for making sauce, a lot of Italian names jump to mind. ‘Roma’ and ‘San Marzano’ may be familiar, but the Polish ‘Opalka’ is a welcome surprise. It is not often that a great paste tomato makes an equally great fresh eating tomato, although when you think about it, why not? The flavor has to be there or the sauce will not stand on its own.

‘Opalka’ is almost all flesh, with few seeds, making it a bit of a tease for seed-saving heirloom lovers. It was brought to the attention of gardeners by the godmother of heirloom tomatoes, Dr. Carolyn Male. It came to New York around 1900 with the Swidorski family and was given to Dr. Male by Carl Swidorski, a coworker whose wife’s maiden name was Opalka.

Tomato ‘Opalka’
Paste tomato
Lycopersicon lycopersicum 

Exposure: Full sun
Ideal soil temperature: 75–85°F (24–30°C)
Planting depth: 1/4–1/2 in. (0.6–1 cm)
Spacing: 3–4 ft. (0.9–1.2 m)
Days to germination: 6–14 days
Days to maturity: 80–85 days

Flavor Texture plays a big part in the enjoyment of these tomatoes. Although juicy, they have a firm flesh with little watery gel. The skin is thin and tender, making it pleasant to bite into, and the flavor is rich but clean. It makes a luscious sauce and also slices well. Its dense texture makes it a favorite for sandwiches.

Growing notes ‘Opalka’ germinates easily and quickly. Start seed indoors 6–8 weeks before the expected transplant date. Move seedlings into individual 3–4 in. (7.5–10 cm) pots when true leaves appear. Transplant seedlings outdoors 2–4 weeks after your last frost. Wait until temperatures are reliably above 50°F (10°C) to set plants outside. Gardeners in areas with hot summers and mild winters will fare better by starting tomatoes in late summer to grow throughout the fall and into winter.

When transplanting the plants outside, bury the stems to the top set of leaves. The underground portion of the stem will send out roots and create a stronger plant.

Stake the plants when you plant them and secure the branches as they grow. ‘Opalka’ sets a heavy crop and needs a strong support. It has wispy foliage that can be prone to the leaf diseases, such as early blight and Septoria leaf spot. Keep the leaves dry and do not plant tomatoes in the same location in consecutive seasons.

How to harvest ‘Opalka’ is an indeterminate tomato, so the fruits do not ripen all at once, as do many paste tomatoes. ‘Opalka’ tends to ripen in clusters.

Others to try ‘Federle’ is drier than ‘Opalka’ but has a great flavor for making sauce. ‘Green Sausage’ produces sweet and tangy, yellow-green banana-shaped fruits. ‘Purple Russian’ tomatoes are blemish-free and fresh tasting.

Riesentraube Tomato

‘Riesentraube’ packs dense flavor into a cherry-sized tomato. The fruits may be small, but there are plenty of them, with each tall plant producing hundreds of blossoms during a season. When grown a little on the lean side, the complex flavors of this cherry tomato become concentrated and give it a character most often associated with much larger fruits.

A closet favorite among heirloom tomato lovers, ‘Riesentraube’ is finally making its way into the mainstream. The German name translates as giant grape, but it is actually the quantity of grapes in the clusters that is giant—often with 20 or more tomatoes per bunch. Food writer William Woys Weaver says the grape reference is for the biblical grapes of Eshcol, which promised a land of plenty. The 1 in. (2.5 cm) wide, plum-shaped, cherry tomatoes grow in long, heavy garlands and are easy to pick.

Tomato ‘Riesentraube’
Cherry tomato
Lycopersicon esculentum 

Exposure: Full sun
Ideal soil temperature: 75–85°F (24–30°C)
Planting depth: 1/4–1/2 in. (0.6–1 cm)
Spacing: 3–4 ft. (0.9–1.2 m)
Days to germination: 6–14 days
Days to maturity: 80–85 days

Flavor ‘Reisentraube’ is a fresh eating and snacking tomato with a rich flavor that is often likened to beefsteak tomatoes. The savory-sweet flavor is enhanced by a full aroma.

Growing notes Start seed indoors 6–8 weeks before expected transplant date. Move seedlings into individual 3–4 in. (7.5–10 cm) pots when true leaves appear. Transplant seedlings outdoors 2–4 weeks after your last expected frost. Wait until temperatures are reliably above 50°F (10°C). Gardeners in areas with hot summers and mild winters will fare better starting tomatoes in late summer to grow throughout the fall and into winter.

When transplanting the plants outside, bury the stems to the top set of leaves. The underground portion of the stem will send out roots and create a stronger plant.

The fruits may be small, but the sheer quantity of them means the plants need strong staking. The branches tend to shoot out in all directions, so caging may be the best option.

Although ‘Reisentraube’ is still susceptible to leaf and fruit diseases, it shows considerable resistance to most fungal problems. Keep the leaves dry and do not plant tomatoes in the same location in consecutive seasons.

How to harvest The large bunches of tomatoes ripen from the top down. Harvest those that turn bright red and are slightly soft. They will keep coming throughout the season.

Tip ‘Riesentraube’ can be used to make tomato wine. You can find several tomato wine recipes on the Internet. Their taste is described variously as similar to a dry white wine or a pale sherry. It should be fun to experiment.

Others to try ‘Chadwick’s Cherry’ is a prolific producer with a balanced sweetness. It was developed by the late horticultural guru and breeder Alan Chadwick. ‘Grandpa’s Minnesota’ has good sugar content that keeps it sweet. ‘Yellow Riesentraube’ is similar though not as prolific.

Yellow Pear Tomato

This sunny yellow tomato is an intriguing heirloom, because so many people have memories of eating them at their grandmother’s house. It seems to be a universal family heirloom. ‘Yellow Pear’ is deceptively vigorous. It is often the first tomato to set and ripen and the last to stop producing. Some gardeners complain that it produces too many tomatoes, so many fall to the ground and seed themselves. There are worse problems to have.

This old variety dates back to the 1700s. Despite its diminutive size, ‘Yellow Pear’ was grown for making tomato preserves or jam. Its light acidity and dense, juicy flesh make it great for preserves, plain or spicy.

Tomato ‘Yellow Pear’
Cherry tomato
Lycopersicon lycopersicum 

Exposure: Full sun
Ideal soil temperature: 75–85°F (24–30°C)
Planting depth: 1/4–1/2 in. (0.6–1 cm)
Spacing: 3–4 ft. (0.9–1.2 m)
Days to germination: 6–14 days
Days to maturity: 70–80 days

Flavor ‘Yellow Pear’ is a subtle seducer, with a gentle, sweet flavor that teases just enough to encourage you to have one more. And one more. It is the perfect little garnish, makes a nice addition to any salad or antipasto plate, and tastes great in salsa.

Growing notes Start seed indoors 6–8 weeks before the transplant date. Move seedlings into individual 3–4 in. (7.5–10 cm) pots when true leaves appear. Transplant seedlings outdoors 2–4 weeks after your last expected frost. Wait until temperatures are reliably above 50°F (10°C). Gardeners in areas with hot summers and mild winters will fare better starting tomatoes in late summer to grow throughout the fall and into winter.

When transplanting the plants outside, bury the stems to the top set of leaves. The underground portion of the stem will send out roots and create a stronger plant. Go easy on the fertilizer to concentrate the flavor in the fruits.

‘Yellow Pear’ is a surprisingly large plant for a cherry tomato. Provide strong staking to keep the branches from drooping and touching the soil.

Although it is still susceptible to leaf and fruit diseases, ‘Yellow Pear’ usually survives until late in the season. Fruits tend to crack after a lot of rain.

How to harvest Fruits turn a vivid yellow when they are ripe. You will be able to smell the sugar, and the fruits will feel a bit soft when gently squeezed.

Others to try ‘Blondkopfchen’ (little blonde girl) is a golden cherry tomato from Germany, with a crisp, citrusy flavor. ‘Red Pear’ is similar to ‘Yellow Pear’, and when placed together in a bowl, they create delectable eye candy. ‘Snowberry’ is a pale yellow cherry with a sweet and fruity taste.

Yellow Stuffer Tomato

‘Yellow Stuffer’ is neither juicy nor sweet, but it can be used to create a delicious little bowl for stuffing. If you like baked tomatoes and do not want the disappointment of seeing them turn into sad, mushy bundles in the oven, you will love this heirloom.

Stuffing tomatoes resemble bell peppers more than slicing tomatoes. The origin of this tomato is not clear, but it probably resulted from a cross with ‘Zapotec Pleated’ tomato, an old variety grown in Oaxaca, Mexico, long before the Spanish arrived. The fruit is fluted or lobed and conveniently holds its seeds in a small cluster attached under the stem. Slice off the top to reveal little more than thick, fleshy walls and some ribs. There is too little demand for these to be grown commercially, so they remain an heirloom gardener’s secret.

Tomato ‘Yellow Stuffer’
Lycopersicon lycopersicum 

Exposure: Full sun
Ideal soil temperature: 75–80°F (24–27°C)
Planting depth: 1/4–1/2 in. (0.6–1 cm)
Spacing: 3–4 ft. (0.9–1.2 m)
Days to germination: 6–14 days
Days to maturity: 80–85 days

Flavor The flavor of ‘Yellow Stuffer’ is not as acidic as we expect in yellow tomatoes. It has a subtle, fruity tomato flavor that does not overpower the stuffing. It probably will not win any contests for fresh eating, but sliced rings as a garnish are always welcome. It knows its place and complements the foods it carries, whether that be a baked and cheesy stuffing or a simple chilled salad.

Growing notes Start seed indoors, 6–8 weeks before the expected transplant date. Move seedlings into individual 3–4 in. (7.5–10 cm) pots when true leaves appear. Transplant seedlings after the weather stays reliably above 50°F (10°C), even at night. Gardeners in areas with hot summers and mild winters can start tomatoes in late summer to grow throughout the fall and into winter.

Tomato seeds will germinate more quickly if the potting medium is kept warm. Once they are up, the seedlings grow fast indoors. When transplanting the plants outside, bury the stems to the top set of leaves. The underground portion of the stem will send out roots and create a stronger plant.

Stake the plants when you plant them and secure the branches as they grow. ‘Yellow Stuffer’ is susceptible to the same leaf and fruit diseases as other tomato plants. Keep the leaves dry and do not plant tomatoes in the same location in consecutive seasons.

Allow the plants plenty of room for air circulation to prevent the spread of diseases, keep the branches up off the ground, and preserve the appearance of the fruits. Presentation is more important with stuffing tomatoes than with slicers because they are served whole.

How to harvest Harvest while the tomatoes are still glossy and a glowing yellow. Cut off the fruits to prevent injury to the branches.

Tip ‘Yellow Stuffer’ can produce more fruit than you care to eat at one time. You can clean and freeze them to use later, and they will hold their shape and firmness.

Others to try ‘Pink Accordion’ is a flavorful slicer but shaped like a stuffer. ‘Striped Cavern’ is a small heirloom that can be served as an appetizer. ‘Zapotec Pink Pleated’ is sweet and meatier than most stuffers.

Purple Tomatillo

Enveloped in a papery husk, ‘Purple’ tomatillos hide out among the plant’s foliage until they begin to flush and finally burst open to display their glowing purple cheeks. This pretty plant is finally getting some notice as more of us embrace spicier foods. ‘Purple’ tomatillo is too charming and delectable to relegate to an occasional treat, and tomatillos can be more than just salsa ingredients. The Aztecs knew this, and they grew and cultivated tomatillos as far back as 800 BC.

Tomatillo ‘Purple’
Mexican husk tomato
Physalis ixocarpa 

Exposure: Full sun
Ideal soil temperature: 65–75°F (18–24°C)
Planting depth: Barely cover with soil
Days to germination: 7–10 days
Spacing: 2–3 ft. (0.6–0.9 m)
Days to maturity: 90–100 days

Flavor ‘Purple’ tomatillos are smaller and sweeter than the traditional tart, green tomatillo often used in salsas. The spicy, sweet flavor reminds me of an herbal tomato. Many recipes call for raw tomatillos, but ‘Purple’ tomatillos mellow nicely when cooked and especially when roasted, which sweetens and intensifies their qualities. They also make great additions to soups and stews.

Growing notes Start seed indoors in a warm spot, 6–8 weeks before expected transplant date. Move seedlings into individual 3–4 in. (7.5–10 cm) pots when true leaves appear. Keep them indoors until the temperature stays around 50°F (10°C), even at night. Transplant seedlings outdoors 2–4 weeks after your last expected frost. Gardeners in warmer climates can direct seed in the ground. Tomatillo is a tropical perennial, hardy to Zone 10. Gardeners with warm winters can plant in midsummer to late summer and harvest into winter. Tomatillos have a tendency to self-seed profusely if fruits are left on the ground over winter.

Like peppers and tomatoes, tomatillos will root from the base of the stem, so transplant them a little deeper than they sit in their pots. If you are direct seeding, plant the seeds about 1/4 in. (0.6 cm) deep and then mound soil around the emerging stem.

Tomatillos need regular watering to get established, but they can handle drier conditions after that. Pests and disease are not usually a problem. Add mulch around the plants, because the fruits can sometimes droop and touch the ground.

Tomatillos are self-sterile, so at least two plants are required to produce fruit.

How to harvest A tomatillo is ripe when the husk breaks open and turns yellow or brown. Remove the husk; the tomatillo inside often has an oily feel to it, so wash it off before storing.

Others to try ‘Dr. Wyche’s Yellow’ is similar in flavor to the green varieties but is yellow when ripe. ‘Green Husk’ is a sweet, green variety used for traditional salsas. ‘Purple de Milpa’ is a smaller, tarter, purple variety.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables published by Timber Press, 2011.