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Heirloom tomatoes boast a variety of colours and shapes and feature better flavour than more uniform, hybrid tomatoes.

Gardening with Jack: Heirloom Tomatoes

The tomato growing season on Abaco is now over and we will not be able to enjoy home-grown tomatoes until late November or December. In the meantime we will have to endure imported tomatoes that are picked early and never develop rich flavour. Most home gardeners grow tomatoes from hybrid seeds and these guarantee abundant crops of uniform fruits.

One thing hybrid tomatoes do not guarantee is taste.

If taste is your priority then you need to grow heirloom tomatoes. These are varieties that have been selected as superior and have been grown for many years, sometimes centuries. Heirloom tomatoes may have green shoulders, cracks around the stem end, uneven shapes and poor production but they will have good taste. They are tomatoes with character.

Seed packets from the nursery are always labeled if they are hybrid or heirloom. If there is no indication of either it means the seeds are open pollinated and will grow true from subsequent seeds. Heirloom seeds are open pollinated so you can take seeds from your best fruits and use them for the next season’s harvest. Just squeeze some seeds onto a paper towel and spread them apart. Fold the paper and label with the name of the heirloom and the month and year. After two or three days, when the seeds are dry, put the packet in the refrigerator for long term storage.

Seed companies are aware of the demand for heirloom tomatoes and every year there is a greater selection available. In recent years I have seen Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Mortgage Lifter, Golden Jubliee, Delicious, Hillbilly, Pineapple and Brandywine on general sale from leading seed houses.

Some of the larger heirloom varieties have potato leaves instead of traditional tomato leaves. These produce greater shade for the developing fruits but make the plant much heavier for staking.

Ask a child the colour of a tomato and the answer is invariably red. In the world of heirloom tomatoes red is eclipsed by pink, white, green, purple, brown, black, yellow, orange and even blue. A plate of sliced heirloom tomatoes displays a rainbow of colours.

Tomatoes with the word ‘Black’ come originally from the Crimean area of the Ukraine. Those that were smuggled out in the days of the Soviet Union were mistakenly called Russian. Black tomatoes are not really black but have dark skin and rich dark flesh. Cherokee Purple is not really purple either, more an interesting brown around the shoulders.

Yellow and orange tomatoes tend to be far less acid than other colours and this will be a consideration for some people. Pink tomatoes tend to be the sweetest. Green tomatoes are not unripe tomatoes but ones that are still green when they are fully ripe. These often have the most refreshing and complex of tastes. Some heirlooms have yellow flesh highlighted by red, somewhat like a blood orange. Great White is better described as ivory and has intense flavour.

If you are a newcomer to the world of heirloom tomatoes I suggest you start with Cherokee Purple and Black Krim. I was introduced to Cherokee Purple by the late Marinas Schutemaker who lived in Cherokee Sound and grew them in his small garden. Black Krim is an excellent Crimean tomato from Ukraine that bears large fruits in abundance. After you have sampled these you will be convinced that heirloom tomatoes must be part of your annual garden. You may end up like me and have the seeds for dozens of heirlooms to choose from. Always remember that Pine Woods Nursery can order specialist seeds for you.

Order early so you are not disappointed.

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