Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Weird Tomatoes (page 2 of 3)

by Jack Ruttle

What Do Heirlooms Offer

For most gardeners, heirlooms probably won't be the only tomatoes to grow. If you have a favorite tomato or two of the round-and-red type, you probably won't find an heirloom that will totally replace it; at least not on your first try. But the heirlooms have a great deal to offer, not least of which is the great fun you'll have watching these new shapes and colors emerge from the familiar mass of foliage on our favorite-of-all vegetable plants.

Keeping in mind that there's a tomato out there that will disprove any rule, here are a few things to remember as you begin to shop for some heirlooms to try this season.

Flesh is soft and juicy. This is one of the most appealing traits of many older tomato varieties, and one of the first things to go as breeders develop tomatoes to sell. Heirlooms often have a succulent texture that releases flavors fully. On the downside, some may be more watery or have a shorter shelf life than you like.

Flavors will vary. Some are absolutely delicious. Some are unusual. Some are far nicer to look at than to eat.

Expect fewer perfect fruits. Many of the varieties have large shoulders that don't ripen evenly or are easily blemished. That's a big problem at the farmstand but not for the gardener. The answer is obvious: Cut imperfect parts away and compost them. Some heirloom varieties do not yield heavily.

Most are large plants and indeterminate growers. You'll need to use trellises, stakes and cages for these plants to really do their best.

More regional variation, less disease resistance. Some heirlooms are very prone to disease, while a handful are remarkably disease-resistant. Most fall somewhere between. A lot depends on how well a variety responds to local weather and soil. Many heirlooms are best suited to a narrow range of climatic conditions, though a few are widely adapted. Problems like cracking are especially climate-dependent.

Five Top Heirlooms

  • Brandywine
    The most famous heirloom, and rightly so. The flavor and texture are superb. Fruit quality stays high late in the season. The plant often appears disease-resistant.
  • Big Rainbow
    One of a handful of bicolor beefsteaks. Not only is the skin gold and red, but the flesh is marbled, too. Eating quality is very similar to Brandywine.
  • Cherokee Purple
    One of the most widely adapted of the "purple" or "black" tomatoes. The flesh inside is brick red and soft and it has good flavor.
  • Hugh's
    A very large beefsteak with an unusual pale yellow color that borders on white. There is sometimes a pink blush on the blossom end. Typical tender beefsteak texture. The flavor is mild.
  • Green Zebra
    You could easily grow this one for looks alone. And it holds its attractive skin color a long time. The flavor is mild and fruity. The flesh is green and makes an interesting substitute for tomatillos in salsa verde.
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