Nothing beats the flavour of a fresh picked tomato. Fresh heirloom tomatoes are so good, I am no longer tempted by any grocery store offerings—at any time of the year. Savour the flavour of the tomato while they’re in season. Out of season, the best way to enjoy tomatoes is in your own homemade sauces, either frozen or canned. These are welcome memories of summer in the middle of winter!
With so many varieties of tomatoes, how can you choose? For best flavour look for heirloom seed varieties. You will not end up with the perfect, unblemished, round, tasteless tomato that grocery marketing has presented for years. What you sacrifice in looks you make up in flavour.
What is an heirloom? An heirloom is pollinated naturally, and its seeds come up true unless cross-pollinated by bees. Some types, with names like Violet Jasper, Mortgage Lifter, Black Krim and San Marzano, have been passed down through generations. The diverse selection now available is exciting. Just a few years ago many of these varieties were almost forgotten.
If you want to experience these tempting fruits at their best, you can grow them yourself. Each type offers a unique, delicious flavour profile. You can save your own tomato seeds for next year. Like peppers and eggplants, tomatoes are self-pollinating. But to avoid cross-pollination you will need to plant them with at least 50 feet between varieties—if you have the space.
Colour is another variable. There are beautiful reds, dark reds that are almost black, yellows, oranges and even green striped. There are different nutrients in each colour so the best choice is to eat them all! A colour mix also adds beauty to your food. Remember, we eat with our eyes, too!
There are four main categories of tomatoes: beefsteak, mid-size, paste and cherry. Choose beefsteaks for the perfect bacon and tomato sandwich (just add mayo). Mid-size are a great salad size, paste offers the best texture for sauces, and cherries are ideal for braising, salads and snacking.
For a continued supply of tomatoes look at maturity dates. Some varieties ripen earlier than others. Stagger maturity dates so they don’t all show up at once! This will also extend your tomato harvest season. If you find tomatoes labeled “determinate”, they are a bush variety. Determinates are also good for growing in containers. When you see “indeterminate” the plants grow more like vines and will need support. Indeterminates will produce fruit until frost brings them down.
The Tomato Needs…
Tomatoes like full sun, 6 to 8 hours a day. They require good soil; whatever soil you have, add compost and composted manure to ensure a well-drained, rich, open soil. Give them space to grow. Two feet apart is ideal.
If your space is limited, consider container gardening. Use a large deep pot and a container soil mix with added composted manure. To finish the container, underplant your tomato with salad greens, Swiss chard or beautiful edible nasturtiums.
What to start soon:
If you want to grow tomatoes, peppers, melons, onions or eggplants from seed they are best sown indoors from late February early March. To start seeds indoors you need to create an environment suited for seedlings to grow. Light, temperature and humidity are variables that are important to manage for best results. A south-facing window offers good light, but for these sun-loving plants and for good healthy growth, invest in a grow light.
If you want just a few plants, they are available from retailers mid-May, but don’t plant them outside until after the last chance of frost, usually May 24th. Heirloom varieties can be found at farmers’ markets.
Fresh picked truly means growing your own, and it’s worth it! Whether you grow your own from seed or purchase a quality heirloom plant, the value is incredible. And did I mention the flavour?
Rick Weingarden and Allan Watts own Anything Grows SEED Co. They can be found at the Western Fair Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market on Saturdays, and at various gardening and seed events around the region.