Friday, August 5, 2011

Heirloom Tomatoes 101

First off, what is an heirloom tomato?  According to respected tomato experts Carolyn Male and Craig Lehoullier, heirloom tomatoes can be placed into the following four categories:
  1. Commercial heirloom tomato.  These are open pollinated tomato varieties more than 40 years old.  They were introduced by seed companies before 1960.
  2. Family heirloom tomato.  This refers to favorite tomato varieties whose seeds have been  saved and passed down from generation to generation.
  3. Created heirloom tomato.  These tomato strains have been crossed deliberately using two heirlooms, or an heirloom and a hybrid, to have certain characteristics.  Initially a hybrid, it becomes dehybridized through saving and replanting the seeds for about 5 seasons, until it grows consistently true to what the grower has in mind.
  4. The mystery heirloom tomato.  A tomato which arises accidentally from natural cross-pollination or mutation in the garden. This is the way most heirloom varieties originated.
Over the last few decades, seed companies have largely sold hybrids in place of heirlooms, bred largely for their commercial appeal.  This trend has, unfortunately, led to a great loss of genetic diversity.  The hybrids tend toward a thick-skinned uniformity which has led to many pulpy, boring tomatoes that many of us loath to purchase and eat.

By planting, harvesting, buying and eating heirlooms, you can help to re-establish a richer world, with more variety and better tasting tomatoes.  Only by growing different varieties in a specific area can a gardener or farmer learn what varieties are best suited for their growing environment.  This is an old-school approach that still makes a lot of sense in today's world, because it ensures a more diverse collection of plants over a larger geographic area.   T-Farm is committed to growing heirlooms, and this year about 80% of our tomato varieties are heirlooms, like the unusual Italian variety shown in the photo above.  Please support these efforts by buying, planting and eating heirloom varieties. 

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