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Heirloom Tomato Needs a Little More Love

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

I have heard great things about heirloom tomatoes, but I never have any luck trying to grow them. They don't produce as many edible tomatoes and have too many cracks. Most of them go bad in the garden before I can harvest them. Are all the varieties like this or am I doing something wrong ? Any varieties that you would suggest growing? P.H., Maplewood

Based on my own experience of growing heirlooms in the home garden and testing varieties at our Rutgers research trials, I would conclude that many heirlooms require more attention and some are more prone to cracking and disease. I would also conclude that heirlooms can offer a tremendous range of unique flavors that make them worth the trouble.

In order to reduce fruit cracking and disease in heirlooms, I would recommend the following: Grow tomatoes on raised beds with a mulch covering to prevent splashing of disease organisms from soil onto fruit and to allow proper drainage of soil; Grow tomatoes in cages or on stakes to keep the plants vertical. This will allow better air circulation and keep tomatoes off the ground. Water plants at the base only and keep leaves and fruit dry to prevent disease, and use a slow-release complete fertilizer.

Remember to use extra-long stakes or extra-tall cages. Most heirlooms are indeterminate which means they keep growing and producing tomatoes. Heirlooms can be pruned back but care must be taken to avoid damaging the plant.

The variety selected should be based on each gardener's likes and dislikes, and also on what grows best in their garden. Taste tests conducted throughout the state by Cooperative Extension colleagues revealed that a variety rated very high by one person may receive an opposite response from another. There was some consistency with specific heirloom varieties, but the conclusion is that each person has their own unique preferences for heirlooms.

At our New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station, we've tested over 200 varieties of heirlooms in the past four years. Heirlooms were tested for their suitability to our New Jersey growing conditions. I will discuss only a few of the varieties that performed best in our research. Box Car Willie was one of the larger tomatoes tested at 7 to 10 ounces. It produced high yields and had less cracking and disease problems compared to some other heirlooms.

One of my favorites for flavor in the home garden and in research trials was a medium sized heirloom called Mortgage Lifter. Mortgage Lifter has orange red fruit, little problems with cracking and produced great yields. Isis candy was a small 0.4 ounce cherry tomato that was the sweetest tomato I've ever tasted and worth trying.

If you don't have the space to grow heirlooms, many local farmers are trying out some of the better tasting varieties based on our research. So visit a local farm market and test the varieties for yourself. There are many fascinating heirloom tomatoes that I don't have time to discuss in this article. I will be conducting a workshop on heirlooms at our EARTH center, where I will discuss the best and worst heirlooms based on research conducted at the NJ Agricultural Experiment Station. Visit our web site (www.ifplantscouldtalk.rutgers.edu) for more information on heirlooms and upcoming workshops.