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Best Heirloom Tomato Varieties

So what is an heirloom tomato, anyway?

According to The Seedsavers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, an heirloom seed is one that has been passed down from one family to the next for many generations. In my experience, heirloom tomato varieties are selected more for their flavor than their looks. Grocery store tomatoes often look nice, but are lacking in that mouthwatering flavor of an heirloom tomato.

Learn more about the Seedsavers Exchange

My Top 5 Favorite Heirloom Tomatoes:
Click on the variety link for additional information and photos of each variety. If you’re still not quite sure which varieties to try, you can attend an heirloom tomato tasting event in Decorah, Iowa at The Seed Savers Exchange and taste from a selection of hundreds of heirloom tomato varieties.
My picks:
Kellogg’s Breakfast: This is one of the strangest, largest tomatoes I have ever seen. The flavor is out of this world, if you are lucky enough to harvest one before your crazy veggie loving dogs get to them. It is low on acidity, for those of you with sensitive tummies, but still high on flavor. Absolutely my favorite.
Green Zebra: This one is my second favorite. It is a smaller 2 to 3 inch diameter tomato that is green and yellow striped, like a mini watermelon. It has a very tangy zesty flavor and is beautiful for salads. A must try.

Mortgage Lifter:  This one is a gorgeous pink blush, has lower acidity, but still great flavor.  It is one of the prettiest tomatoes I have ever seen, and still packed with flavor!

Cherokee Purple: This one is one of mine and my hubbie’s favorites. It has a mild sweet flavor. Its purple blush tinged with pink fruit is very unique and contrasts wonderfully with greens. Isn’t it nice when food is beautiful. Looks aren’t everything, but a nice bonus.
Hillbilly Potato Leaf: , I have not tried this one yet, but it’s on my list for next summer.
Brandywine: This is a classic red heirloom robust in size and flavor. One of the best sellers at the farmers market.
How to get the most flavor out of your tomatoes:
The best way to get the most flavor out of your tomatoes is to find a nice plump, slightly soft one, pick it, and slice it within a few hours of picking. Tomatoes ripened by the sun contain more of the compound, Z-3 hexenel, which is responsible for the delicious, mouth watering ripened tomato flavor and scent. This is why you should never ripen your tomatoes in the fridge, as the cold hinders the conversion of the tomato’s linoleic acid to the flavor compound, Z-3 hexenel.

When should I pick them?
Pick when slightly soft to the touch if you are planning to eat them that day. If you have to pick them before fully ripened, be sure to store them at room temperature. If there is danger of frost and you want to pick unripened hard tomatoes, it is possible to ripen them by wrapping them in newspaper.

Should I keep them in the fridge?
Only store already ripened tomatoes in the fridge for up to 4 days. All other tomatoes should be stored at room temperature out of the sun.

Growing Tips

How Much Space Do I Need?
Space Saving Tomatoes
Indeterminate is the term used to describe tomato plants that grow taller and taller. Indeterminate varieties do not have the arms or branches that sprawl along the ground, therefore, you can plant them as close as 18 inches apart. The fruits of indeterminate varieties are produced up and down the length of the main vertical stem. Indeterminate tomatoes grow well up a tall sturdy stake or even a trellis along the sunny side of your house. A 1″ x 2″ stake of at least 8 feet tall, driven about 2 feet into the ground.

The Ramblers
Determinate is the term used to describe tomato plants that form a bush with arms that love to ramble on and on. These varieties have branches that grow horizontally over the ground. Determinate tomatoes do produce more fruit than the indeterminate types, but they do require a lot more space. One way to save space with determinate tomato varieties is to wait until the plant begins to form fruits, and then start removing any new side shoots from the main stem. Doing so will cause the plant to put more energy into ripening the existing fruit on the plant. These types of tomatoes will do well with a large cage support, get the big ones, as the little ones are worthless and buckle under the weight of the plant. Plant determinate varieties at least 4 to 6 feet apart, if you don’t intend to do much pruning.

Light: Full Sun

Soil: Light, well drained soil with lots of organic matter, the more black compost, the better. If you have a raised bed, they will do even better.

If your soil has a lot of organic matter and compost worked into it, you should not need too much fertilizer. The one thing you should consider doing is adding bone meal or lime to the hole you dig, and mix it into the soil in the bottom of the whole before planting, to insure the plant will get ample calcium and magnesium. This is key to insuring healthy, robust fruits.

The most important thing to remember, is, if you are going to water, only water the soil, not the plants. Avoid allowing the water to hit the soil and splash back up on the plant as this is what can cause disease. Make sure the soil stays evenly moist. One way to do this without racking up a huge water bill is to mulch the soil heavily with grass clippings from your yard. Not only will you help reduce your water consumption, but you will reduce storm water pollution. Even better, a heavy mulch layer will also prevent disease on your tomato plants.

There are a few different schools of thought on this topic. Rather than going into all of that, I am going to go out on a limb here and make my own recommendation.
  • More leaves exposed to sunlight=more flavor.
  • Fewer fruits on one plant=more flavor.
  • Less pruning= less opportunities for disease to strike.
So prune sparingly, to thin the plant so it doesn’t get too top heavy, and make sure you have ample support with cages, trellis, or large sturdy stakes, to get all those leaves exposed to as much light as possible. If you want to limit fruit production, pinch off a few of the flower buds as you see them.

Where can I get heirloom tomato plants?
One of the best places to look for tomato starter plants is at your local farmers market during the month of May. For those of you living in the Des Moines area, the Saturday Morning farmers market down on Court Avenue has several growers who have starter plants available at the beginning of the season.
One Des Moines vendor, named Coyote Run Farms, had beautiful starter plants in about 20 varieties of heirloom tomato, all grown chemical free.

For more information about growing tomatoes and other vegetables, try this book. It is beautifully photographed, well written with loads of interesting trivia and folklore, and fabulous salad and salad dressing recipes:

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