Have you ever noticed that some fruits and vegetables don't taste as good as the ones from your childhood? Nothing quite matches the vine-ripened sweetness of a homegrown tomato. The taste is unique: sweet, savory and acidic all at once. There are more than 700 varieties to choose from. Rachel and I prefer heirloom varieties […]

Have you ever noticed that some fruits and vegetables don't taste as good as the ones from your childhood? Nothing quite matches the vine-ripened sweetness of a homegrown tomato. The taste is unique: sweet, savory and acidic all at once. There are more than 700 varieties to choose from. Rachel and I prefer heirloom varieties over hybrids. Heirloom varieties are those that have been passed down for several generations for at least 50 years. These are the old-fashioned tomatoes that we all remember. They come in a wide range of colors: purple, green, orange, yellow, red, even black. Their imperfect shapes and sizes disguise their tangy, rich flavors. Don't let their odd shapes, cracked skins and blemishes fool you. These are the best tomatoes you'll ever eat.What's the difference between an heirloom tomato and a hybrid? Hybridized tomatoes are produced with commercial agriculture in mind. Each plant yields tomatoes that are uniform in size and color. They're more resistant to fungal diseases and produce their crops in a shorter amount of time. Their thicker skins protect them from damage while being handled. These are important advantages, but they come at the expense of flavor. All tomatoes are not created equally.Heirloom tomatoes are fragile. Their thin skins can hardly contain the volatile compounds that give them their fragrance. It is the fragrance that gives them their depth of flavor. Run your hand up and down the stems and leaves. Take in the smell from your fingers. You can almost taste how good these tomatoes are going to be.
Here are a few of our favorite heirloom varieties. Cherokee Purple has a dark burgundy flesh that is perfect for salads or sandwiches. It's a beefsteak-style tomato that weighs nearly a pound. They don't keep well, so eat them fast. We haven't had any trouble growing this variety.Mr. Stripey is a red tomato with yellow-orange stripes. This is another beefsteak-style tomato. The taste is very sweet and slightly acidic. It has a soft, juicy flesh that looks very impressive when served on a platter. This makes for a wonderful hors d'oeuvre.Mortgage Lifter is probably the biggest tomato we've ever grown. These consistently weigh two pounds each. They have a meaty flesh that is perfect for BLTs. Slice them thick and enjoy. Brandywine is another huge tomato with pinkish red flesh. It has that classic tomato flavor that makes it perfect for roasting. Just slice in half and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese and fresh cracked pepper. Roast in a medium oven for 25 minutes.
The growing season in Kansas is too short to sow tomato seeds directly into the ground. Most gardeners purchase transplants from nurseries or garden centers. Heirloom varieties take longer to produce fruit than most hybrids. Plant a few hybrid tomatoes so that you can enjoy them in July. If you plant now, your heirloom tomatoes should be ready for picking by the first of August. Remember that tomatoes have zero tolerance for frost. Be sure to cover your plants if there is a frost warning in the forecast.
Purchasing transplants is easy. Look for smaller plants, 6 to 8 inches or so. These tend to establish themselves more quickly. Look for dark green healthy leaves. Yellow leaves could indicate stress or nutrient deficiency. The stems should be sturdy and covered with tiny hairs. When the plant is buried, each of these hairs will become new roots. You're going to dig a hole deep enough to bury this plant up to three quarters of its length. This will help get your plant off to the best start.Do you want tomatoes for burgers or BLTs? Maybe you want to make salsa. Do you plan on growing your tomatoes on the balcony? Your plant purchases should be driven by what you want to do with your tomatoes, and now is the time to get started.