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Choosing Heirloom Tomato Varieties to Grow and Saving Seeds
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of heirloom tomatoes from all over the world. How does one choose which varieties to grow? The most important deciding factor, and one that we all tend to overlook (especially me!) is the climate in which they are grown. Tomatoes have specific growth parameters and to get the best results, these must be provided. Tomatoes originally came from the mountains of Mexico. The climate is temperate due to elevation. So all tomatoes perform well in temperate areas. Temperatures below 100F, not extremely humid in summer with moderate rainfall. In places that experience frost, tomatoes are grown as annuals, but if there is no frost to kill them, they are perennials. In the wild, they scramble across the ground like long vines. If one lives in a temperate climate, almost any type of tomato should do well.
The next consideration is the length of the growing season. In the northern hemisphere, the further north one goes, the shorter the growing season. In the southern hemisphere, the further south one goes, the shorter the season. Most variety descriptions will say how many days from planting in the ground to fruit ripening. This is called harvest days and does not include the time from seed which can be 6-8 weeks before planting. If one is in an area where the growing season is around 90 days, it is best to find varieties that will produce fruit within that time frame or be prepared to grow them in a greenhouse or ripen fruit in the House. It is also beneficial to find varieties that will tolerate cold temperatures, still set fruit, and ripen them. I tend to ignore harvest days and follow the rule that the smaller the tomato, the faster it ripens. Small tomatoes take less time, large and huge tomatoes take 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. Either they need to be grown in pots or in raised beds to keep their roots from drowning. Rainy or very cloudy climates limit the amount of sunlight that plants get. 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 as 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 for USDA Agricultural Zone maps to find yours if you are in the United States. My garden experiences summers that rarely reach 100F and our winters can reach -25F. This is a temperate climate with a relatively short growing season. We are supposed to have 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 need to think of tomatoes that can produce in less than 120 days, which, luckily, almost all of them are, even the very large 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 one travels, the longer and warmer the growing season, often with more humidity. Most types can still cope with 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 was, well, he used the word … a nightmare. It rained every day, a lot of it at one time, and it was hot and humid for the rest of the day. He described what happened to them as they looked as if they were melting. Therefore, tomatoes to be grown in subtropical and tropical climates need to be tolerant of these conditions.
If there are specific problems such as soil borne diseases, and there is no fresh garden to grow the plants in to avoid the infected soil, the only other options are to grow disease prone varieties (all of which unless they are bred to resist these). ) in pots or growing hybrids that are bred for disease resistance to fusarium and verticillium wilt. As far as I know, there are no varieties of heirloom 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 (ones that will grow taller and taller and need to be staked or caged) or determinate ones that can do well in pots and need very little staking 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, small, giant, sausage-shaped, heart-shaped, acidic, not so acidic, pouch-shaped, pleated, pear shape, hollow for stuffing, grape size, cherry size, beef 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 climate they are grown in.
I will mention a few specific varieties to grow but instead, there are a few simple suggestions to choose from the names of the varieties or if you know their country of origin. Color is 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 describing shape as well. A giant is also very obvious. Shape is more difficult to determine. Ox-heart denotes tomatoes shaped like hearts, plums shaped like plums, sausages like sausages. Seeing a description or 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 an idea of what type of climate they will do well in. Cold tolerance and short season: those from Russia especially Siberia, Canada, Nepal, and places with high altitude that would have a short growing season. Tropical and subtropical areas: Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Laos, African countries, and any tomato variety that mentions any of the southern states of the USA. High but dry heat: varieties from the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, some parts of Spain. Cloudy, rainy areas: varieties with the names San Francisco, and some from the United Kingdom. Almost all types of European will do well in temperate climates.
Now for specific types for specific situations. The most difficult situations are extreme heat, extreme heat with high humidity, and short season. The varieties of heirloom tomatoes I will mention are just some that I am familiar with. I’m sure there are many, many others.
Tropical, subtropical, Vietnam 01, Vietnam 10, Caribo (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 term: Nepal, (Nepal) Novosadatsky 37 (Soviet), Sasha Altai (Siberia), Tarasenko (Russia), Zunami (Russia), Mao (China)
For fun and authenticity, here are some varieties from their true home all from Indian tribes in Mexico: Zapotec, Wild, Tlacalula Pink (Aztec), Oaxacan Pink. I find these have a very complex flavor. The Tlacalula Pink almost tastes floral. The little wild tomato is about the size of a girl’s thumb and just bursting with tomato flavor.
One last thing. If you like to tinker with plants and want to create a tomato that will be the best performer in the conditions in your garden, it’s a relatively simple matter. Choose the most productive tomato, one that has grown the best, produced the quality fruit you want, the most disease resistant, whatever criteria you want your personal strain of tomato to be. Save the seeds and at least one fruit, I’ll explain in a minute how to do that. Sow those seeds and again, save whichever tomato performs best. After a few years, you will develop a strain of that variety that performs best in your local area.
It is not difficult to save tomato seeds. They can be taken out on a paper towel and left to dry there and if they are well spread, the paper towel and the seeds can be planted as they are next season. The best way to make sure all the seeds are viable and not a sticky jell mess on a paper towel is to ferment it all. Put the seeds together with gel in a plastic cup or other such container and let it stand in a warm place. It will be outrageous, but this is what we want. Within 3 or 4 days the gel will ferment. Take the cup to the sink and add water to it. Wait until everything that could settle has settled and then carefully pour off the liquid, discarding anything that floats. Non-viable seeds will float and be shed. There will be good, viable seeds at the bottom. Continue adding water and pouring until the water is quite free of material other than the viable seeds at the bottom. Pour these into a tea strainer and rinse under running water. Then lay the seeds out to dry on a paper towel, spread them out so they don’t stick too much and they dry faster. After about 2 weeks, remove them from the paper towel and store them in a paper envelope for sowing the following season. Tomato seeds can remain viable for up to 10 years. Just store them in paper envelopes in a cool dry place, I have had over 50 percent germination of 7 year old seeds.
Welcome to the world of heirloom tomato growing, have fun, eat well, and keep the varieties going. They will only be around as long as someone grows them and saves seeds.
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