Heirloom tomatoes enhance the taste of summer

Heirloom tomatoes enhance the taste of summer
CHESTERFIELD—They’re all the rage at farmers’ markets and trendy restaurants and among gardeners and foodies.

That’s because heirloom tomato varieties are tasty.

“These are varieties that you can’t really get from the grocery store. People grow heirloom tomatoes because of the flavor, especially, but there are also different colors and shapes. They’re really neat things to eat, and people love that too!” said Christopher Mullins, Virginia Cooperative Extension horticulture specialist at Virginia State University.

While some heirloom varieties can be traced back hundreds of years, most were created through cross-breeding in the past two centuries.

“These breeds represent our heritage and the heritage of people who came here from various countries. Many of the heirlooms came with immigrants who came from countries like Germany, England, Poland and Yugoslavia,” said Pat Roble of the Chesterfield County Historical Society, which holds heirloom variety plant sales most years. The 19th century was a time of widespread interest in breeding unique fruits and vegetables in the U.S. and Europe.

The reason some varieties went out of production is simple. They don’t ship well and did not conform to the modern food distribution system developed in the 1940s and 1950s, Mullins said. The local foods movement has helped bring them back.

But while heirloom tomatoes are once again popular, they need special attention.
“Most of these varieties get very big, so you want to make sure you have a cage to prevent them from blowing over in the wind,” Mullins said. “Diseases can be a real problem with older heirloom varieties compared to more modern hybrids that have some disease resistance bred into them.

“So you don’t want a lot of free water on the leaves. You can have fungal problems because of that. When you irrigate them, water at the bottom, with soaker hoses or drip irrigation or watering cans. Stay away from overhead irrigation like sprinklers.”

Mulching heirloom tomato varieties is a good idea. Old newspaper works well, along with regular yard mulch. Both help prevent weeds from competing with the plants for moisture.
“Proper watering is also important,” Mullins said. “Try not to give them too much moisture. Most of the fruit has much thinner skins than modern varieties, and they crack easily. At the same time, they need regular watering to bear good fruit.”

He said most heirloom varieties don’t need as much nitrogen as modern tomato plants, and he recommended cutting fertilizer rates by about 25 percent. He also recommended planting some modern hybrid varieties as well.

“That way if you have a crop failure, there will still be plenty of tomatoes for those bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches.”

Media: Contact Mullins at 804-524-5834 or Norm Hyde, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146.

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