When was the last time you ate a delicious tomato? Not just a good tomato, but a spectacularly juicy one that oozed flavor and reminded you of why you’re so proud to be from the Garden State? If it was that good, chances are you were eating an heirloom tomato.
You don’t find such tomatoes in most supermarkets. Whether grown here in the United States or abroad, today’s tomatoes have been bred largely for commerce. They’ve been designed to have thick skins to survive being picked by machine, shipped in boxes, and ripened during transport. The accepted notion—at least among supermarkets and mass producers—is that tomatoes should be round, uniform specimens with a long shelf life, and that customers won’t buy blemished or imperfectly shaped tomatoes. Astonishingly, taste isn’t a critical part of the equation. What’s lost along the way is not only taste, but a piece of our heritage.
Up until the 1950s, when large-scale farming and agribusinesses became the norm, most people had their own kitchen gardens or bought produce from the farmer up the road. Seeds were handed down from generation to generation and from friend to friend. They made their way across the ocean and across the continent, hidden in hemlines and suitcases or stored safely in jars. These are the ancestors of today’s heirloom plants.
The first tomatoes were cultivated around 700 a.d. by the Aztecs and Incas; explorers returning from Mexico introduced them to Europe in the 1500s. It is believed that there were once as many as 10,000 varieties of tomato—not just generic “large,” “plum,” and “cherry.” They came in colors that ranged from red to peach to purple. Some were fuzzy-skinned; some were speckled. Some were tiny, others huge. They came from countries such as Italy, Germany, and the Ukraine and were given names like Costoluto Genovese and Druzba. Though they had different flavors, textures, and uses, they were almost uniformly delicious.
Don Zeidler of the Burpee Company, a leading seed supplier based in Warminster, Pennsylvania, confirms that there is a strong interest today in heirloom tomatoes. Gardeners are also increasingly intrigued by heirloom flowers, with their deep fragrances and unusual blossoms, and by many other kinds of heirloom fruits and vegetables, with their rich and complex flavors. They’ve heard of Russian Mammoth sunflowers, which can grow twelve feet tall; lemon cucumbers, the size and color of their namesake; and Moon and Stars watermelons, whose rinds look like the nighttime sky.
Luckily, the characteristics that make heirloom tomatoes less than ideal for large-scale commercial farms—thin skins that are easily damaged in transport, a short shelf life, irregular shapes that make them difficult to pack in boxes—are not a factor for the home gardener. And, thanks to the increased interest in heirloom gardening and the scores of sourcing options provided by the Internet, it’s become much easier for today’s horticulturist to find high-quality heirloom seeds (see “Where to Buy”).
The popularity of heirloom gardening is based on much more than nostalgia. It goes hand in hand with the extraordinary growth in organic foods and the widespread rejection of genetically altered foods (as reported by the Rutgers Food Policy Institute). Moreover, some of our state’s chefs—Jim Weaver of Princeton’s Tre Piani restaurant is prominent among them—have taken a strong interest in using locally grown ingredients, because they’re fresher and don’t require long-distance trucking.
The movement is also part of a growing interest in preserving our past. In 1975, Kent and Diane Ott Whealy of Decorah, Iowa, became leaders in the seed-saver movement after Diane’s elderly grandfather gave her Morning Glory and German Pink tomato seeds that his parents had brought all the way from Bavaria to Iowa in the 1870s. That gift spurred the Whealys to found the Seed Savers Exchange. Since its inception, the nonprofit group has “passed on” approximately one million seeds, sold through their catalog and website (seedsavers.org). The Garden State Heirloom Seed Society and its founder, Joe Cavanaugh of Delaware, New Jersey, continue the work locally, saving and conserving seeds and, for a nominal fee, offering their collection to gardeners, farmers, and historical farms and museums throughout the state.
Don’t overlook native plants as an addition to your heirloom garden—in a sense, they are the ultimate heirlooms. Some of these plants have grown in the wild since before the arrival of Europeans in America. They are typically hearty plants that thrive in a particular environment; for instance, Blue False Indigo or Beard Tongue grow well in New Jersey. You can purchase a wide variety of these at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, 1635 River Road, New Hope, Pennsylvania (2.5 miles south of the town center), 215-862-2924. The largest plant selection is available at Bowman’s May and September sales. This year the dates are May 11 (members only), May 12–20, from 10 am to 4 pm, and September 8–16, also from 10 am to 4 pm.
Before you spend time and energy on your garden, test your soil so you can optimize growing conditions for your plants. Testing through the Rutgers University Soil Test Lab is easy. For $15, the lab will provide an analysis of your garden or lawn’s soil—looking at its pH levels (most flowers and vegetables grow well in soil with a pH level of 6.0 to 6.5) as well as its mix of potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. The lab will also offer suggestions on how to improve the soil, if needed. Consult rcre.rutgers.edu/soiltestinglab or call 732-932-5000 for more information.