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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 do you choose which varieties to grow? The first deciding factor, and one that we all tend to ignore (especially me!) is the climate in which they will be grown. Tomatoes have certain parameters of growth and for best results, these must be provided. Tomatoes originally came from the mountains of Mexico. The climate is temperate due to altitude. So all tomatoes do well in temperate areas. Temperatures below 100F, not extremely humid in the summer with moderate rainfall. In areas that experience freezes, tomatoes are grown as annuals, but if there is no frost to kill them, they are perennials. In the wild, they climb across the ground like long vines. If you live in a temperate climate, almost any tomato variety will do well.
The next consideration is the length of the growing season. In the northern hemisphere, the further north you go, the shorter the growing season. In the southern hemisphere, the further south you go, the shorter the season. Most variety descriptions will say how many days from planting in the ground to when they ripen fruit. This is called days to harvest and does not include seed starting time, which can be 6-8 weeks before planting. If you are in an area where the growing season is about 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 fruit in the house. It is also helpful to find varieties that will tolerate cool temperatures, still fruit and ripen them. I tend to ignore days to harvest and just follow the rule that the smaller the tomato, the faster it ripens. Small tomatoes need less time, large and huge tomatoes need more time.
The type of growing season is also important. A lot of rain is a difficult situation in any type of climate for tomatoes. Or they must be grown in pots or in raised beds to prevent their roots from drowning. Very rainy or cloudy climates limit the amount of sunlight the plants receive. Less sunlight does not bode well for plant growth and tomato production. This combination promotes disease. Lack of rain is not so much of a problem because the plants can be mulched and if water is available, it can be added to the soil. There are generally fewer airborne diseases in dry climates, more in wetter ones.
My garden is located in upstate NY, in USDA zone 5. Search USDA Agricultural Zone maps to discover yours if you are in the US. My garden experiences summers that are rarely up to 100F and our winters can reach -25F. This is a temperate climate with a moderately short growing season. We are supposed to get a moderate amount of precipitation with occasional wetter years and drier years. Our average last frost is May 20th and our average first frost is September 20th. I have to think of tomatoes that can produce in less than 120 days, which fortunately is almost all of them, even the really big ones. Of course, I have to bring in a lot of green tomatoes at the end of the season to ripen, but it extends how long I have tomatoes to eat. The further south you travel, the longer and hotter the growing season, often with increased humidity. Most varieties can still handle this. 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 tropical climates is, well, he used the word…a nightmare. It rained every day, a lot of it at once, and it was hot and humid the rest of the day. He described what happened to them, because they looked as if they had melted. So, tomatoes grown in subtropical and tropical climates must be tolerant of these conditions.
If there are specific problems such as soil diseases, and there is no fresh garden area to grow the plants to avoid the diseased soil, the only alternatives are to grow acceptable varieties (all are unless they are bred to be resistant to them). ) in pots or grow hybrids that are bred for disease resistance to fusarium wilt and verticillium wilt. As far as I know, there are no heirloom tomatoes 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 continue to grow taller and need to be staked or caged) or determinates that can do well in pots and need minimal staking as 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 size, cherry size, beefsteak for sandwiches, sauce tomatoes, salad tomatoes, cocktail tomatoes, etc. Heirloom tomatoes also come from almost every country in the world where they have been selected to do the best in the climates. they are grown in.
I will mention some 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 the most obvious if it appears in the name. Size can be determined by the words: small, currant, grape, cherry, and represents small tomatoes with the words also describing shape. Giant is also very obvious. Shape is more difficult to determine. Beef heart refers to tomatoes that are shaped like hearts, plums are shaped like plums, sausages are like sausages. Seeing a description or a picture is the only true way to know what the shape is. Heirloom tomatoes with the name of the country they come from can give a clue to what climate they will do well. Cold tolerant and short season: those of Russia especially Siberia, Canada, Nepal, and places with high altitude that would be. has a short growing season. Tropical and subtropical areas: Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Laos, African countries, and any tomato variety mentioning any of the southern states of the United States. High heat but dry: varieties from the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, some parts of Spain. Cloudy, rainy areas: varieties with the names San Francisco, and those of Great Britain. Almost all varieties from Europe will do well in a temperate climate.
Now for specific variations for specific situations. The most difficult situations are extreme heat, extreme heat with high humidity, and a short season. The heirloom tomatoes I will mention are only the ones I am familiar with. I’m sure there are many, many others.
Tropical, subtropical, Vietnam 01, Vietnam 10, Caribbean (Vietnam), Thai Egg, Ghost (Laos), Bali
Extreme heat: Togorific (I’ve seen it listed as 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 tolerant, short season: Nepal, (Nepal) Novosadatsky 37 (Soviet Union), Sasha Altai (Siberia), Tarasenko (Russia), Zunami (Russia), Mao (China)
Just for fun and authenticity, here are some varieties from their true home all from Indian tribes in Mexico: Zapotec, Wild, Tlacalula Pink (Aztecan), Oaxacan Pink. I find these have a very complex flavor. The Tlacalula Rose almost tastes floral. The little wild tomato is about the size of a woman’s thumbnail and just bursting with tomato flavor.
One last thing. If you like to play with plants and want to create a tomato that will be the best in the conditions of your garden, this is a relatively simple matter. Choose the most productive tomato that has grown the best, produced the quality of fruit you desire, is most resistant to disease, whatever criteria you want your personal strain of tomato to be. Save the seeds of at least one fruit, I’ll explain in a minute how to do that. Sow those seeds and keep the tomato at its best again. After a few years, you will develop a strain of that variety that works best in your locale.
Saving tomato seeds is not difficult. They can be put out on a paper towel and left to dry there and if they are well spaced, the paper towel and seeds can be planted as if they are the next season. The best way to make sure all the seeds are viable and it’s not a gooey, jelly-like mess on a paper towel is to ferment the whole lot. Place the seeds complete with gel in a plastic cup or other such container and let it stand in a warm place. It’s going to get nasty, but this is what we want. Within 3 or 4 days the gel will ferment away. Take the cup to the sink and add water to it. Wait until anything that might settle has settled, and then carefully pour off the liquid, discarding anything that floats. Seeds that are not viable will float and be spilled out. Good, viable seeds will be at the bottom. Continue to add water and pour out until the water is almost free of material except for the viable seeds on the bottom. Pour these into a tea strainer and rinse under running water. Then put the seeds to dry on a paper towel, spread them out so they don’t stick together too much and they dry faster. After about 2 weeks, take them off the paper towel and store them in a paper envelope to sow the next season. Tomato seed can remain viable for up to 10 years. Just by keeping them in paper envelopes in a cool dry place, I got more than 50 percent germination from 7-year-old seed.
Welcome to the world of heirloom tomato growing, have fun, eat well and keep the varieties going. They will be around as long as someone grows them and saves seed.
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