The tomato journey I’ve taken you on, which started in the mid 1800s, will now reflect on what we can grow today and ponder where we may end up next. This is a remarkable time to be a tomato grower and tomato lover. Thanks to efforts of the SSE and the many companies that focus on heirloom and open pollinated varieties, as well as all of the inventive research and development being done by seed companies, universities and amateur plant breeders, the array of home garden tomato options has never been greater.
Heirlooms - the explosion of varieties listed in the Seed Savers Exchange yearbook is stunning. We are talking thousands and thousands of varieties from every corner of the world, beginning with a handful in 1975 and reaching the stunning numbers only a few decades later. I’ve frankly lost track of many of the recently uncovered heirloom types; it is not possible to be on top of very many, never mind all, of them. Heirlooms continue to emerge even to this day, as families in possession of tomato treasures connect with gardeners who are seed savers and sharers. Three examples that I am very familiar with were shared with me at various speaking events, or through email contact - Cancelmo Family Heirloom, and yet to be formally named varieties from Mimi Koch in Durham (family heirloom from Italy), and from Nora Wojciechowski, hand delivered to me at my event in Oakland County Michigan last year, a local variety grown and shared by a Mr. Cutler. Both were sent to Mike Dunton of Victory Seeds, and so hopefully will make their appearance in their seed catalog before too long; I loved them both.
It is hard to make generalizations about the ability of a particular heirloom to thrive - or fail - in one’s garden. Since each variety has a unique set of genes, the ability to tolerate or resist diseases may or may not have been developed over the years. My advice is to give a well regarded variety a few chances in your garden. If it struggles, there are only multiple thousands of others to try.
There are so many sources for heirloom varieties in 2019 - seed companies, from small to large, as well as countless offerings on Facebook, ebay, and Amazon, to name just a few sources. My advice is always to tread carefully. I’ve been to farmers markets - and even our Tomatopalooza event of some years ago - and noticed tomatoes don’t always match up to the original descriptions. Crossing, seed mix ups, or simply chasing dollars rather than accuracy lead to issues. Gardening takes work and does cost some hard earned money….be sure to use trusted seed sources for your seeds, and be clear on what to expect.
Tomorrow’s Heirlooms - Open pollinated varieties that emerged beyond the 1950s are, to me, “tomorrow’s heirlooms”. If they are great varieties and end up being regrown and handed down for many years to come, the “tomorrow” will eventually be dropped. Some of these are accidental - Cherokee Chocolate (which emerged from Cherokee Purple in my garden in 1995), and Cherokee Green (as an off-type from Cherokee Chocolate in 1997) are in this category. Many are created - some by selecting from an accidental cross, as with Lucky Cross and Little Lucky, some created by actually carrying out a specific cross and then selecting until a new variety is stable, as with our Dwarf Tomato Project varieties.
They are proliferating at a rapid rate as more and more gardeners learn about the fun of doing crosses and then hunting for great things during the selection process. Some of the earliest examples of these emerged from Tom Wagner (as with Green Zebra and Lime Green Salad). Brad Gates has released numerous interesting colored varieties from his Wild Boar Farm, including Berkeley Tie Dye. Another gorgeous line of tomatoes is the Artisan series, including the various Bumble Bee and Blush selections, small fruited and with distinctive stripes.
The other tomato color rage seem to be those with high levels of anthocyanin, giving the fruit dark black/purple/blue shoulders and more when the fruit are exposed to direct sun. The first of these were a bit (to more than a bit) lacking in flavor to my palate, but this family of open pollinated varieties seem to be exploding in number as more and more breeders see what they can do with this fun color characteristic. A well known example of this type is Indigo Rose.
Hybrids - Lots of work is being done to make hybrids more interesting as well. With lots of disease tolerance factors being worked in, it is apparent that those creating hybrids are really trying to tackle some of the challenging disease issues tomato lovers face while at the same time working in improved flavor and better texture. There is a Goliath series of hybrids, lines of hybrids with essentially the same names as well known heirlooms, such as the Brandymaster series, the Chef’s Choice line of tomatoes, a series called Heirloom Marriage, A look through the catalogs of companies such as Tomato Growers Supply or Totally Tomatoes provides lots of examples of these interesting sounding and possibly well worth trying hybrids.
I confess to grow only a very few hybrids, such as Sun Gold (regularly), and on occasion, Big Beef and Lemon Boy. I’ve still got far too many open pollinated/heirloom types to test, and love to save and share seeds.
Grafted varieties are also becoming much easier to find, and different root stock can be grown to provide the opportunity for gardeners to create their own grafted plants. There are two key considerations to make this a worthwhile investment. The whole point of using a grafted plant is to prevent a disease agent in the soil from inhibiting success of the plant. So, consideration 1 is knowing what specific diseases inhabit your soil and give your tomatoes trouble - then using a rootstock that resists or tolerates the disease(s). Consideration 2 is caring for the upper part of your plant (above the graft line) well, since anything that attacks the plant from above could negate the benefit of the graft. Be sure to mulch well, minimize wet foliage, provide good air circulation and remove blemished foliage as it appears.
Plant stature (fulfilling needs of the space-constricted gardener) concerns are finally being considered, as gardeners realize the unwieldy growing character of most of the delicious heirloom types. The two options for more easily controllable tomato varieties are determinate (emerging in the mid 1920s when a “self topping” variety called Cooper’s Special appeared), and dwarf in stature. Though dwarf (also known as tree type) tomatoes have been around in limited numbers since the mid 1800s, little was done to further expand the options until the work of Tom Wagner, Ken Ettlinger, our own Dwarf Tomato Project and the various other dwarf projects that are ongoing. We’ve come a very long way in the last 50 years or so in this arena.
What’s next? There are some possibilities. We’ve certainly moved into a bit of “fad” type themes - tomatoes with stripes, tomatoes with the blue antho colored shoulders, What is most valuable, however, is to continue what we’ve begun with our Dwarf Tomato Project in terms of trying to vision what gardeners will need. To expand gardening, it is important to take space needs into consideration. There is some good work happening with microdwarfs - plants that are a foot or so tall and can be grown in very small containers. Flavor will always be a top priority, and we are now learning to accept as many colors as possible so we can “play with our food”. I think that the next logical step is to focus on disease tolerance, trying to get a handle on what is attacking crops where and carrying out the breeding work to install the genes into new varieties that will best fight the diseases. It isn’t very easy work to do, and takes time.
To finish up this three part series, I will reiterate a really important observation…we who are gardening at this time have the largest array of tomato varieties to choose from when compared to any point in history. We are lucky…go forth and fill your gardens with whatever sounds good to you after perusing catalogs, or reading SSE yearbook descriptions. Give my favorites that I list in Epic Tomatoes a try and let me know what you think!