the art of the heirloom tomato
Heirlooms tomatoes prove that youth and beauty are not everything.
Expressive wrinkles, creases, and folds that aggies call “cat facing” are all the hallmarks of prize produce
“They’re about the ugliest things I’ve ever seen,” says Russell Parrish, manager of – what else? -- The Tomato House, that venerable Lumpkin County farmers market. “But they sure taste good. We have a hard time keeping them in stock because they’re so popular. We’re out of them right now, as a matter of fact.”
Heirloom tomatoes are “open-pollinated,” meaning they are not genetic hybrids like their more robust cousins. The seeds are collected and handed down, from generation to generation, and, as with most plants, these cultivars can be sorted over several seasons to thrive in their geographic locations, though they are not as hardy and disease-resistant as hybrids. They tend to be smallish and sweeter, and, because they lack the genetic mutation that gives other tomatoes a uniform bold red color, mottled in their appearance. They also have a short shelf life.
So why bother with them?
“There is nothing that compares to the salsa they make, or the way they dress up a hamburger,” says Ken Akins, a retired historian who grows heirlooms in his Dahlonega garden.
The term “heirloom” evokes the sepia-toned olden days, but don’t assume that the seeds in a catalog claim a long lineage.
MR. STRIPEY AND THE MORTGAGE LIFTER
“There is no set definition of age for an heirloom,” says Nathan Eason, the University of Georgia White County Extension Coordinator. “All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated tomatoes are heirlooms. Some of them aren’t old at all, but the ‘heirloom’ label helps in marketing.”
The names of heirlooms are as colorful as their skins. There are the Paul Robeson, the Mr. Stripey, the Mortgage Lifter (it reputedly earned a fortune for its developer), Aunt Ginny’s Purple, and the Arkansas Traveler. Probably the most popular heirloom tomato in northeast Georgia, though, is the Cherokee Purple.
“They are almost black and are black and red colored when you cut them,” says Akins. “Locals tell me these were grown by Cherokee Indians in our area. A planter kept the seeds and proliferated these tomatoes long after the Cherokees were removed in the Trail of Tears.”
SOIL AND SEEDS
Sharon Mauney, who owns LoganBerry Heritage Farm, says that anecdote makes a nice story, but lacks proper documentation. “We don’t know that for sure, but we do know that they’re good,” she says. “Most of the heirloom tomato seeds in catalogs come from the Old Countries of the Soviet Bloc such as the Czech Republic and Georgia. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, the market was flooded with them.”
She grows several kinds of heirlooms, ranging widely in appearance. “They come in every color, from white to black,” she says. “My personal favorite is the Berkeley Tie-Dye, which is striped and splotched with green, red, pink, and yellow.”
Mauney concedes that the heirlooms are “finicky and high-maintenance” to grow. “Sometimes you’re lucky to get one good one out of the bunch.”
She relies on organic, biodynamic principles to get the best results.
“Sometimes I will plant each seed in an eggshell for the calcium to ward off blossom rot, in our greenhouse,” she says. “Then I transplant them deep, all the way up to their last true set of leaves, and apply our compost. To drive the fungus down, I spray them with nettle tea and horsetail tea.”
Eason also emphasizes the role of healthy soil.
“Heirlooms are vulnerable to soil-borne pathogens, so it’s important to have the right mix of nitrogen and potassium,” he says. “That’s true of all plants, but it’s especially true for heirlooms. Also, the pH should be between 6 and 6.5 to fight off the predatory insects and diseases.”
Akins grows his in wheat straw.
“I dig out a small hole in the middle of a bail of straw, keeping the bailing twine on them,” he says. “I fill with rich garden soil and some cow manure. I then plant my tomato plant. My dad once told me you just don’t water tomatoes much in these mountains. You may not want to water them at all if rain is consistent.”
Meanwhile, good luck in keeping the deer and groundhogs away from your heirlooms. Like us, they know a good thing when they bite into it.
This story is from Unwind North Georgia