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Discovering heirloom tomatoes for Utah gardens — and tastes

Published May 8, 2012 11:31 pm

Gardening • Some date back to the 1500s, and growing them helps to keep these varieties alive.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Having so many options can be overwhelming when you're selecting tomatoes to grow in your garden this year. After all, there are old hybrid standbys, such as Early Girl and Better Boy, as well as cutting-edge cultivars and ever more varieties of heirlooms.

Deciding whether you want to grow hybrids, heirlooms or a combination of the two can guide your choices when you head to a local greenhouse or an upcoming plant sale for your starts. Knowing the pros and cons of each will help you on your way.

Heirloom tomatoes aren't for everyone. Because they're thin-skinned, they don't travel well, making it difficult to find a high-quality heirloom tomato at the grocery store. They're also laughably nonconforming. Within a single variety, heirlooms tend to vary in size, shape and appearance. And as a general rule, they don't keep nearly as well as their hybrid counterparts.

Hybrids are developed to address these kinds of shortcomings: Plant breeders take the best qualities of several varieties and bring them together in a single plant. Hybrids may be bred to grow well in certain climates and soils, to reach a predetermined size at maturity, to develop fruit that keeps for a long time or to resist diseases and pests. So, given the reliability of hybrids, why would anyone choose to grow an heirloom?

Why heirlooms? • In North America, heirlooms date back to the 1500s, and preserving them keeps a little bit of that legacy alive. David Bell, co-owner of Bell Organic, describes them as "a product that money can't buy."

Calling hybrids "freaks of nature," he says that's half the fun of growing heirlooms. Since he and his wife, Jill, began farming 14 years ago, they have grown more than 100 varieties of heirlooms, and he claims that he has loved almost all of them.

Of course, some heirlooms are more productive than others in our climate. Just like hybrids, particular varieties of heirlooms grow and produce best in certain environments. If you find varieties that you like and that grow well in your garden, you can contribute to plant diversity by saving the seeds. Heirlooms, unlike hybrids, produce true from seed, so you are assured that your tomatoes will have the same properties from one year to the next.

Because the taste, color and shape of heirloom varieties are highly variable, you need to consider how you plan to use the tomato. Will it be sliced on a hamburger, showcased in a salad or cooked into a sauce? Are you a purist, believing that all tomatoes should be red, or would you prefer a rainbow assortment of white, yellow, red, purple, black and bi-color fruits?

Local garden stores and sales are touting more than 50 organic heirloom varieties this year, and each one has its own personality. For example, Bell says that when you slice open a bi-color beefsteak called Pineapple, one of his favorites, "you hold the sunrise in one hand and the sunset in the other."

Planting heirlooms • Planting heirloom tomatoes isn't much different from planting any hybrid. The temptation is always to plant them too soon, but it's best to wait until around the middle of May, when odds are good that the last spring frost has gone. Noting each variety that you select on a garden map and then keeping track of which ones do well — and which ones put a smile on your face — will give you a head start on planning next year's garden.

Heirloom plants tend to be very large, so they are ideally planted at least 3 feet apart in rows that are separated by 3 feet. Because they tend to sprawl, they also need to be trellised. A sturdy trellis allows the plants plenty of air circulation and better exposure to the sun. It also encourages earlier and larger yields, helps to prevent damage from insects and diseases, and makes it easier to harvest your bountiful crop.

Heirlooms will make for a less predictable garden, but that's part of the fun. These plants refuse to obey the rules, and the value of the legacy created by these irreverent creatures can't be quantified.

There's a bit of magic in producing something that has been grown from the same seeds in the same way for hundreds of years. It connects us to our collective, edible history — and that history is mouth-watering, giving us rich depth and variety of flavor and incredible diversity of shape, size and color. The burst of flavor from the first sun-ripened heirloom you coax from your soil is a gift — and the beginning of a season of delicious, edible adventures.

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Heirlooms to plant

If you're interested in experimenting with heirloom varieties this year, here are some possibilities that come highly recommended and are available in Utah. Many of them have synonyms, so you may find them under slightly different names:

Black Cherry • This is the heirloom that everyone seems to be talking about. It's maroon with a wine-red interior, and praised for its complex flavor, and is the perfect size for popping in your mouth as you wander through your garden.

Isis Candy • Another cherry tomato, this one is known for its sweet, rich flavor. It's yellow-gold with streaks of red.

Amish Paste • This tomato's depth of flavor and meaty texture make it a winner for a delicious tomato sauce.

Japanese Black Trifele • Purple-black in color, shaped like a Bartlett pear and having a true tomato taste with sweet undertones, this variety is a favorite of Tanya Chatterton, the owner of Traces, a garden store that specializes in organic and heirloom plants.

Jaune Flamme • A native of France, this small bright-orange tomato is a delicate blend of sweetness and acidity, making it the perfect choice for a variety of uses.

Green Zebra • Particularly popular with local chefs, this small tomato is greenish-yellow with deep-green zebra stripes. With its striking color and high acidity, it provides visual and flavor contrast on a plate of sliced heirlooms.

Zapotec Ribbed • A drought-tolerant, high-altitude variety from Oaxaca, Mexico, this dramatically ribbed, medium-size red tomato has a nearly hollow interior, which makes it perfect for stuffing and gives it the appearance of a delicate doily when sliced, according to David Bell, co-owner of Bell Organic.

Cherokee Purple • This medium-size variety, which possibly originated from the Cherokee nation, is known as a great producer with good disease resistance. With its maroon color touched by a deep green ring encircling the stem, this variety adds great color to a plate of heirlooms.

Kellogg's Breakfast • According to David Bell, this giant beefsteak's yellow-orange color is reminiscent of the orange sun on the Kellogg's Cornflakes box.

Great White Beefsteak • Considered the best of the white tomatoes, this variety is light yellow with peach overtones and a sweet taste. —

Plant sales

Here are three community plant sales to help you get your garden growing:

Wasatch Community Gardens

Purchase garden seedlings for heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables at Wasatch Community Gardens' annual plant sale. There also will be water-wise and native plants for sale.

When • Saturday, May 12, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Where • Rowland Hall, 720 S. Guardsman Way (1580 East), Salt Lake City

Details • 801-359-2658 or wasatchgardens.org

People's Market Seedling Swap and Sale

Buy, sell or swap vegetable seedlings with local gardeners, backyard farmers, and urban homesteaders.

When • Saturday, May 19, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Where • Sorenson Unity Gardens, 1383 S. 900 West, Salt Lake City

Details • slcpeoplesmarket.org