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Choosing Heirloom Tomato Varieties to Grow and Saving Seeds
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of heirloom tomato varieties from around the world. How to choose which varieties to grow? The number one deciding factor that we all tend to overlook (especially me!) is the climate in which they will be grown. Tomatoes have specific growth parameters and these must be provided for best results. Tomatoes originally came from the mountains of Mexico. The climate is moderate due to the altitude. Therefore, all tomatoes do well in temperate areas. Temperatures below 100F, not very humid in summer with moderate rainfall. In areas that experience frost, tomatoes are grown as annuals, but if there is no frost to kill them, they are perennials. In the wild, they climb the ground in the form of long vines. If one lives in a temperate climate, almost any variety of tomato will do well.
The next consideration is the length of the growing season. In the northern hemisphere, the further north, the shorter the growing season. In the southern hemisphere, the further south, the shorter the season. Most variety descriptions will indicate how many days it takes from planting in the ground to fruit ripening. This is called days to harvest and does not include the time from seed start, which can be 6-8 weeks before planting. If you are in a location where the growing season is around 90 days, it is best to find varieties that will produce fruit in that time frame, or be prepared to grow them in a greenhouse or ripen the fruit indoors. It is also useful to find varieties that will tolerate low temperatures, set fruit and mature. I usually ignore harvest days and just follow the rule of thumb: the smaller the tomato, the faster it ripens. Small tomatoes take less time, large and large tomatoes take longer.
The type of growing season is also important. A lot of rain is a difficult situation for tomatoes in any climate. Either they should be grown in pots or raised beds so that their roots do not drown. Very rainy or cloudy climates limit the amount of sunlight that plants receive. Less sunlight does not bode well for plant growth and tomato production. This combination contributes to the development of the disease. Lack of rain is not such a big problem because the plants can be mulched and if there is water, it can be added to the soil. Airborne diseases are usually less common in dry climates and more common in wet ones.
My garden is in upstate New York in USDA zone 5. If you’re in the US, search the USDA agricultural zone maps to find yours. Temperatures in my garden rarely reach 100F in the summer and can get as low as -25F in the winter. It is a temperate climate with a moderately short growing season. We are expected to have moderate rainfall with occasional wetter and drier years. Our average last frost is on May 20, and the first frost is on September 20. I have to think about tomatoes that can produce in less than 120 days, which fortunately are almost all, even the very large ones. Of course, at the end of the season I have to bring in lots of green tomatoes to ripen, but that extends the time I have tomatoes. The further south, the longer and warmer the growing season, often with increased humidity. Most varieties can still handle it. Deep south and along the coast? A difficult situation for any tomato. A friend who worked in a greenhouse in Costa Rica told me that growing tomatoes in a tropical climate is, well, he used the word…a nightmare. It rained heavily every day, and the rest of the day was hot and humid. He described what happened to them when they looked as if they were melting. Therefore, tomatoes that will be grown in subtropical and tropical climates must be resistant to these conditions.
If there are certain problems, such as soil-borne diseases, and there is no fresh garden area to grow the plants in to avoid diseased soil, the only alternative is to grow susceptible varieties (all such, unless they are bred for resistance to them) in pots or grow hybrids that are bred for resistance to fusarium wilt and verticillium wilt. As far as I know, there are no heirloom varieties of tomatoes that are resistant to these diseases, and the only option would be to grow tomatoes in pots.
After all these considerations, it comes down to personal preference and whether you want indeterminate tomatoes (those that will grow taller and taller and need to be staked or caged) or determinate tomatoes that do well in pots and require minimal maintenance. rates because they grow to about 2-3′ and that’s it. Heirloom tomatoes come in all colors: red, black, yellow, purple, white, green, pink, orange, striped, spotted, tiny, huge, sausage-shaped, heart-shaped, sour, not-so-sour, pouch-shaped, pleated , pear-shaped, hollow for stuffing, grape-sized, cherry-sized, steak for sandwiches, tomatoes for sauce, tomatoes for salad, tomatoes for cocktail, etc. Heirloom tomatoes also come from almost every country in the world where they were selected to be the best in the climate they are grown in.
I will mention a few specific varieties to grow, but instead there are some simple tips to choose from the names of the varieties or if you know their country of origin. Color is most obvious when it appears in the title. The size can be determined by the words: tiny, currant, grape, cherry, and imagine small tomatoes with words that describe the shape. The giant is also very obvious. The form is more difficult to define. Ox heart shows tomatoes that are shaped like hearts, plums are like plums, sausages are like sausages. Looking at the description or image is the only sure way to know what shape it is. Heirloom tomatoes with the name of the country they come from can give a clue as to what climate they will thrive in. Cold hardy and short season: Tomatoes from Russia, especially Siberia, Canada, Nepal and high altitude areas that would have a short growing season. Tropical and subtropical zones: Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Laos, African countries and any tomato variety, mentioning any of the southern states of the USA. High temperature, but dry: varieties from the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, some parts of Spain. Cloudy Rainy Areas: Varieties with San Francisco Names and UK Varieties. Almost all varieties from Europe will feel good in a temperate climate.
Now about specific varieties for specific situations. The most challenging situations are extreme heat, extreme heat with high humidity, and a short season. The heirloom tomato varieties I will mention are just the ones I am familiar with. I’m sure there are many, many others.
Tropical, Subtropical, Vietnam 01, Vietnam 10, Cariba (Vietnam), Thai Egg, Ghost (Laos), Bali
Extreme heat: Togorific (I’ve seen it listed as being from Iran, Iraq and Togo, Africa), Banjan Roomi (Middle East)
Cloudy, rainy, temperate: Tigerella aka Mr. Stripey (UK), San Francisco Fog, Qi Huang (China).
Cold-resistant, short season: Nepal, (Nepal) Novosadatskyi 37 (Soviet), Sasha Altai (Siberia), Tarasenko (Russia), Zunami (Russia), Mao (China)
Just for fun and authenticity, here are a few varieties from their true homelands, all from Indian tribes in Mexico: Zapotec, Wild, Tlacalula Pink (Aztec), Oxacan Pink. I find them to have a very complex flavor. Tlacalula Pink has an almost floral flavor. A small wild tomato about the size of a lady’s fingernail and just bursting with tomato flavor.
The last one. If you like to tinker with plants and want to create a tomato that will work best in your garden, it’s relatively easy. Choose the highest yielding tomato, the one that grew the best, produced the quality fruit you want, is the most disease resistant, whatever criteria you want your personal tomato variety to meet. Save the seeds of at least one fruit, I’ll explain how to do that in a minute. Sow those seeds and save the tomato that performs best. After a few years, you will develop a variety that works best in your area.
Saving tomato seeds is easy. They can be pulled out on a paper towel and left there to dry, and if they are well spaced, the paper towel and seeds can be planted as in the next season. The best way to make sure all the seeds are viable and not a sticky, gelatinous mess on a paper towel is to ferment the whole batch. Place the seeds, complete with gel, in a plastic cup or other similar container and let stand in a warm place. It will be disgusting, but we want it. Within 3-4 days, the gel will ferment. Take the cup to the sink and add water to it. Wait for anything that may have settled to settle, then carefully pour off the liquid, discarding anything that floats. Non-viable seeds will float up and spill out. Good, viable seeds will be at the bottom. Continue adding water and draining until there is almost no material left in the water other than the viable seeds at the bottom. Pour them into a tea strainer and rinse under running water. Then put the seeds to dry on a paper towel, spread them so that they do not stick together and dry faster. After about 2 weeks, remove them from the paper towel and store in a paper envelope for next season’s sowing. Tomato seeds can remain viable for up to 10 years. Just by storing them in paper envelopes in a cool, dry place, I got over 50 percent germination from 7-year-old seeds.
Welcome to the world of heirloom tomato growing, have fun, eat well and grow a variety of varieties. They will only be around as long as someone grows them and saves the seeds.
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