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When planning to grow tomatoes, think heirlooms

Judy Barrett Special to the American-Statesman
Choose heirloom tomatoes like persimmon that are made to work in our climate. [Judy Barrett For Statesman]

Tomatoes are everyone’s favorite — we love to grow them, and we love to eat them. This time of year, we’re chomping at the bit to get our tomatoes into the ground. There’s a Guy Clark song that includes the lines: “Only two things that money can’t buy/That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”

Every nursery, hardware store, feed store and grocery store offers little tomato plants yearning to go home with you. But, sadly, we all have limited space and can’t grow every little tomato that comes along. The good news is that it might be possible to find both true love and homegrown tomatoes in the heirloom varieties that have been passed down from one generation of gardeners to the next for decades.

Heirlooms — whether they are tomatoes or silver candlesticks — are treasured because they have stood the test of time and remained valuable. Heirloom vegetables have survived because they are resistant to many diseases, are tolerant of the vagaries of the weather and are packed with flavor. While many new hybrid varieties have been bred for such characteristics as long shelf life or the ability to be shipped across the country, old varieties are known primarily for their wonderful taste.

Luckily, heirloom tomato plants are much more widely available than they once were. Even grocery stores offer a few varieties, and nurseries are making a point of offering a selection of old tomatoes.

Most heirlooms, however, are adapted especially well to a specific location. That is a very good reason to shop a local nursery or plant sale for your tomato plants. For example, the wild Texas tomato berry was found growing in these parts and does well in very hot, humid summer conditions. Cherokee Purple comes from Oklahoma, close enough to enjoy our weather. On the other hand, the Brandywine, an Amish heirloom that produces a huge tomato, needs a long cool growing season to mature but doesn’t tolerate extreme heat and humidity well. (Many stores carry that one because of its fame, but few local gardeners report success with it.)

Some heirlooms are adapted to short growing seasons; others need plenty of time to mature. Some will get going while the weather is cool; others will keep going when it gets really hot. There are exceptions, however. The red pear, a small pear-shaped tomato introduced in 1865, produces abundant and delicious clusters of fruit in almost every climate.

Growing heirloom tomatoes is satisfying in a number of ways. You get to try something that people have enjoyed for a long time, and you get to continue an important tradition. As well, heirloom tomatoes are quite diverse in size, shape, color and flavor; if you like variety in the garden, these are for you. They come in yellow, red, purple, white, green and every hue in between. They are huge and tiny, sweet and acidic — you want it, it is possible.

On a more serious note, heirloom varieties are important in maintaining gene-pool diversity. We need these pure, sturdy source plants. All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, and most are indeterminate. That means the plants are pollinated by the wind and insects and the seeds come true every year and can be saved to plant the next year. The indeterminate vines will be more inclined to wander and sprawl, but they also will produce tomatoes throughout the season, rather than in one quick spurt.

Grow your heirlooms just as you grow any tomato. Put them in the garden as soon as you can, then protect them from sudden cold snaps or the inevitable March winds. The best solution is to plant your tender young plants inside a tomato cage wrapped with a light fabric designed as row cover. This material is feather-light so that sun, rain and air can easily reach the growing plant, but it has insulating properties that keep out the harsh winds and cold night temperatures. It is sold under several names — Harvest Guard, Plant Shield, Remay, Row Cover, etc. — but they are all the same stuff. Wrap your cage completely, including the top, and hold the fabric in place with clothespins. Once the plants begin to bloom, open the top so insects can get in to pollinate.

Be sure your soil is rich. Tomatoes are greedy feeders; add compost to the soil before planting and continue to feed with organic fertilizer all the time they are growing. Tomatoes react well to liquid feeding with a blend that includes seaweed. Seaweed protects them from some diseases and contains micronutrients that they enjoy.

Keep an eye out for the tomato hornworm. Looking like a creature from a Japanese horror movie circa 1956, the hornworms are big, fat and juicy and will rare up and try to face you down. Don’t worry: They only bite tomato parts. Pick them off and squash them or throw them to the chickens. If you have a big problem with caterpillars, spray your plants with Bacillus thuringensus, known as Bt. This is a biological control that harms only caterpillars. It does, however, harm ALL caterpillars, so keep it only on plants with infestations you can’t control any other way. You don’t want to kill butterfly larvae.

It’s a good idea to plant more than one variety of heirloom. Each type has its own characteristics, including the temperature at which it quits setting fruit, how much water it can stand, how much heat or cold it tolerates. Generally, the smaller the fruit, the more heat-tolerant it is. Cherry-size tomatoes will produce longer than giant slicers. Generally, you will find heirloom more disease-resistant, less susceptible to insect attacks, and more forgiving of lapses in the weather and by the gardener than newer hybrids. Experiment with different varieties until you find ones that you love. They are generally strong plants that will give you great rewards for little effort. Once they start producing that mouthwatering fruit, you’ll wonder how you ever did without them. True love and homegrown tomatoes all wrapped up in a tasty bite of history.

Judy Barrett is the author of the Homegrown Hints newsletter as well as many books. If you're interested in heirlooms, check out her book "What Makes Heirloom Plants so Great? Old-Fshioned Treasures to Grow, Eat and Admire."