Monday, January 21, 2013

Heirloom Tomatoes

 Many would argue that the heirloom tomato is the pinnacle of home grown flavor from the garden.  The huge variety of color and form can turn a simple tomato salad into a work of art.  If your grannies and your great grannies failed to pass down seeds it is easy to find over 600 varieties carefully and artfully described in seed catalogs.  Lucky for us starting tomatoes from seed is a fairly easy thing to do!

Obviously we all have our favorite seed companies...mine happens to be The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.  They have some of the best photography and descriptions you could want.  When you pair that with their excellent customer service and knowledgeable staff you have a real winner! I encourage you to check it out!  Of course we can not fail to mention the Seed Savers Exchange with their extensive test gardens and impressive history.  After browsing the catalogs or web sites I challenge you to narrow your selection down to 5 or six you would like to try this year.  I tend to pick several slicers, a cherry tomato and at least one paste tomato.

Once you have received your seeds you want to look up your average last frost date.  This is important because you can not plant out your carefully grown seedlings before the last frost.  Calculate back about 8 weeks from your average last frost date and you have your planting date.  You will need seed starting mix, containers and an adjustable light.  The ability to raise and lower your light is important so that your seedlings do not get leggy and topple over from trying to reach for the light.  Depending on where you plan to start growing your seeds you may also want a heat mat to warm the soil.

Be sure to keep your seedlings well watered and if you have more than one growing in a cell or container pinch off the weaker of the two.  This may seem brutal but just like thinning your seedlings if they are too thickly planted it is necessary.  I would plant about 6 of each type and plan on giving at least half of them away to friends and family.  This will allow you to pick the strongest transplants for your garden.

When your last average frost date approaches you can consider planting your tomatoes outside.  I would recommend hardening them off for at least a week first.  This means putting them out in the yard in a protected area for a few hours each day.  When you decide to plant out in the garden it is best to protect your plants with hot caps or walls-of-water to help them survive if you get a late frost.  I also plant my tomato deep so that they root along the stem. Just pinch back the bottom set of leaves and bury them to just below the next set.

The time to fertilize your tomatoes is early in the season to develop big healthy plants.  Once they start to flower it is best to hold off so that fruit rather than more leaves develop.  If your plants are real go getters and have flowered before you plant them out feel free to pinch off the blossoms so the plants are encouraged to grow.  Keep your bed well weeded and provide support for your tomatoes.  Heirloom tomatoes do not require much extra care but watch out for signs of disease and remove any effected plants.

When your tomatoes ripen its time for that tomato salad!  My favorite is sliced tomatoes dressed with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and bits of torn basil.  Remember to take pictures of your harvest and write some notes about your favorites.  You have many seeds left over so you can either plant those or save some of your own.  Perhaps through seed saving you will develop your very own heirloom tomato!

Happy Planting!

Please leave me a comment about your favorite tomato variety or use for fresh tomatoes!