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Wednesday, Mar. 5th 2014

Heirloom Tomatoes!!


             It seems everyone is interested in heirloom tomatoes these days.  It’s not a wonder since they are best known for their sweet, rich, delicious, old-fashioned tomato taste.    These tomatoes are usually grown in the home garden or purchased at a Farmers market. 


Heirloom Tomatoes are classified into 4 categories:


·      Commercial Heirloom:  varieties that are more than 40 years old and have been passed between commercial growers.


·      Family Heirloom:  seeds have been saved and passed down from one generation to the next.


·      Created Heirloom:  this tomato has been deliberately crossed with either another heirloom or a hybrid tomato in order to stabilize desired characteristics.


·      Mystery Heirloom:  this cross-pollinated or mutated variety happens in the garden.  This method has produced most of the heirloom varieties known today.


            Heirloom tomatoes since the 1990’s have become a popular plant to grow for the home gardener.  Prior to the 1990’s these plants were named for the family who shared seeds or what region of what country they came from.   Some of these plants still retain those names; but some of the newer plants have been given names by commercial breeders. 


            Some of the most fascinating names come with interesting histories.  The person or community who developed the plant served as the source of its name: such as The Cherokee Purple–named after the Indian nation–; or Black Krim which originated in the Crimean Peninsula in the Ukraine.  Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter was grown and sold by a man who repaired radiators, but decided to grow tomatoes and thus was able to develop a new plant, and from the plant sales paid off the mortgage.


            Heirloom tomatoes come in many colors, shapes, sizes and flavors.   Heirloom seed catalogs list the color of these plants—such as green, orange, pink, purple, red, white, yellow and striped. Each color brings a different flavor profile.  Under each color of plant is listed the variety of fruit that the plants will produce.  For examples: beefsteak type, grape, cherry, plum or paste.  Over the last decade heirloom tomato developers have bred new extreme exotic tomato varieties.  These new varieties have been developed from the older popular heirlooms, but through genetics and mutations, new improved plants have developed.   


            Heirloom tomatoes require the same growing conditions as the traditional round red fruit tomatoes.  Plant when the soil temperature reaches 60 + degrees F. (mid-May in the Kansas City area)  Tomato fruit grows best between a temperature range of 60 to 90 degrees F–above 90 or below 60 will slow growth, pollination and maturation.    


            Soil pH should be neutral 6.5 to 7.0 (soil testing is helpful before planting).  Prior to planting, add a complete garden fertilizer to the soil, using low nitrogen, high phosphorous and medium to high potassium (8-32-16).   A tomato fruit is 95% water and will require much water to grow and develop.  Over-watering will cause cracking in the fruit and frequent watering will cause a week root system.  Plants should receive 1 to 2 inches per week, by rainfall or supplemental watering. The heirloom plant on average should produce a fruit weighing 7.1 ounces, and will produce an average of 13.5 pounds per plant.  Average time to maturing fruit is around 86 days. 


            The down side to planting heirlooms is that it is not disease resistant.  If the soil becomes infected the plants will not grow.  Grafting a non-resistant heirloom tomato to a disease resistant root stock will solve this problem.  The rootstock will grow and will not pass the disease to the heirloom. 


            The Master Gardeners will be offering for sale some of the heirloom tomatoes along with traditional tomato plants at the Annual Plant Sale on May 10 from 8 am until 2 pm, or until sold out at Bass Pro Shops at the corner of MO-291and I-70 in Independence, MO.   Come early to get the best!




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University of Missouri Extension Master Gardener Program