Are you a fan of heirloom tomatoes?
If so, you can, at least in part, thank Kent Whealy, who in 1975 founded the Seed Savers Exchange.
“Seed Savers was a farmer mechanism of trading seeds,” said Craig LeHoullier, a noted gardener, speaker and blogger with a specialty in heirloom tomato-growing. “Whealy helped to keep many of the heirloom types from going extinct.”
In conjunction with Penn State Extension and the Washington County master gardeners, LeHoullier recently presented a webinar on the history and background of growing heirloom tomatoes. He also gave advice on growing this favorite summer-garden crop.
The heirloom tomato expert is a former Chester County, Pennsylvania, resident who worked in the chemistry and pharmaceutical industries. He now resides in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
In the webinar, LeHoullier recounted some of the early history of domestic tomato culture, noting that tomatoes were once believed to be poisonous and inedible. He is a collector of old seed catalogs and found only a single tomato variety offered in a seed listing of 1840; it included no description whatsoever of the expected fruit.
“In the mid-1800s, catalogs listed lots of varieties of peas. In the 1900s, it was melons, and then later there were lots of beans. By 1860, there were 10 tomato varieties offered,” LeHoullier said.
Due to the incredible popularity of home-grown tomatoes in more recent times, LeHoullier was able to tally up a combined 105 named varieties offered from multiple catalogs in 2019.
“Now is the best time ever,” he said, citing the wide variety of tomato selections, from hybrids to open-pollinated types to the increasingly popular heirlooms, many of which have been resurrected and made commercially available.
“One needs to understand the words of tomato description,” LeHoullier said. “With hybrids, you don’t know the plant parents, the prices are higher, and seed saved from them won’t produce the same plant. Open-pollinated seeds will reproduce true. And heirlooms are generally open-pollinated types with a history and a story.”
As part of his own interest in breeding and growing almost-lost heirlooms, LeHoullier was instrumental in helping to save and develop the now-popular Cherokee Purple tomato, a variety that traces back to native Americans. LeHoullier acquired some of the seeds after a descendant of the Cherokee tribe shared some of the seeds with a friend. He grew them in his garden a number of years ago, while still living in Berwyn, Chester County, Pennsylvania.
LeHouiller sent some of the seeds from Cherokee Purple yields to the Seed Savers Exchange, where it was offered through their catalog. Since then, he has spent many years crossing and recrossing numerous heirloom tomatoes and developing a number of Cherokee Purple offspring varieties.
“In open-pollinated tomatoes, you may sometimes find seedlings that are different,” he said. For example, in 1995, a seedling from his Cherokee Purple trials produced mahogany-colored fruit, with a skin-color mutation. From that unique seedling, the heirloom variety Cherokee Chocolate came to be.
A later seedling developed fruit that appeared to never ripen, but remained green. From it, the Cherokee Green variety was developed, what LeHoullier suggests might be a “future heirloom.”
“Color and flavor have no correlation,” he emphasized, advising that blind taste testing is one of the best ways to actually determine tomato flavor, without the visual influence based on coloration or appearance.
Tomato “all-stars” in LeHoullier’s recent backyard trials include the popular heirloom, Brandywine. He concedes that the Brandywine variety can be a challenge to grow, but is worth it for the “well-rounded flavor.”
“You have to be really careful about your seed sources,” LeHoullier said. “If the variety turns out not to be as it was promoted, the seller may have had a mix-up or the description in the catalog may not be true.”
Even after starting with the best available seeds or seedlings, the end product still is heavily reliant on culture and growing conditions.
“Size of the tomato does matter,” LeHoullier believes, echoing the feelings of many growers and consumers of the hefty tomato types. “To get real large tomatoes, you need at least eight hours of sunshine. With only three hours of sunshine, you might still be able to grow cherry tomatoes.”
He said that stretches of 90-degree-plus weather can affect the pollen conditions and large tomatoes may not produce.
When to Sow
“Know your last frost date; go backwards about eight weeks from that for sowing seed,” LeHoullier said. He said that sowing seed thickly is fine, since seedlings will be transplanted. Using quality seed-starting soil and having it moistened well, before planting, is critical. About a month after germination, his seedlings are usually ready for transplanting, and about one month later most should be ready for setting outside, weather permitting.
LeHoullier’s seedlings go under ordinary shop lights to spur growth. He usually set them outdoors to begin “hardening” as quickly as possible, starting just an hour a day and lengthening the time each successive day. When transplanting, he said not to wet the soil into which the seedlings will be transplanted, since the dry soil will settle in around the newly moved roots more easily.
“Plant the stems in as far as possible when transplanting, because they’ll develop roots all along the stems,” he said.
After watering the transplants, they should be set in a sheltered place for a few days, then moved outside to harden ahead of final planting. And, since fungal diseases cause most tomato problems, he said a good-quality, biodegradable mulch is recommended once plants are in their final desired location. The mulch cover will prevent soil from splashing up onto the tomato plant’s lower leaves during watering or rain events.
Alternative Planting Options
Tomatoes, like many plants, don’t necessarily need to be planted directly into the ground. They do well under alternative settings such as containers and straw bales. For both methods, regular watering is a must, and an irrigation system of some type is helpful in maintaining necessary moisture levels.
Containers for tomatoes can be a wide variety of shapes, as long as they hold adequate soil for root and plant growth. The “significant success factor,” according to LeHoullier, is in the quality of planting soil used. He has found that container soil mixes can be re-used, as long as the tomato plants have not had any serious disease or pest infestations.
One advantage of container gardening is that the tomato containers can be moved around to the most optimum locations. Containers also facilitate growing tomato varieties that might not otherwise thrive in garden settings that are limited by hours of sunshine or too much shade.
LeHoullier has also been an enthusiastic innovator in the straw-bale-gardening movement.
“Straw bales are a compost waiting to happen,” he said, emphasizing that a key to their success is having access to good-quality bales.
After spacing out the straw bales to be used, he recommends that, prior to planting the tomato seedlings, the grower “hit the bales heavy with nitrogen and water them every day for a week.” That should be followed with an application to each bale of a balanced fertilizer mix, and a second week of everyday watering.
Suckering, or removing the side-shoots on tomatoes, will help prevent the stalks from becoming overgrown, excessively top heavy, and more prone to diseases. Another benefit is that suckered side-shoots also root quickly and can be a source of additional “clone” plants, rooting in about a week’s time.
“Don’t spray tomatoes,” LeHoullier said. “Pick off any bugs and remove any diseased leaves with your fingers, and discard the material. Fusarium wilt is a soil-borne disease which will quickly kill tomato plants. If fusarium wilt is found, remove the plant promptly. In future seasons, relocate where the tomatoes are grown, or grow a fusarium-resistant variety.”
For anyone wishing to try their hand at saving tomato seeds for a future crop, LeHoullier notes that the seeds must go through a fermenting stage in order to be viable and develop into a seedling. He advises squeezing the tomato contents into a cup, covering the cupful of pulp and seeds, and leaving it in a warm spot for a few days to develop fermentation. To separate the seeds, add water, stir to dislodge the seeds from the pulp and run the mixture through a sieve to remove the seeds. Dry them on a paper plate and store them until needed in a closed container, preferably kept in a refrigerator or a freezer. LeHoullier said that, if kept frozen, tomato seeds can last for up to 50 years if properly kept.
LeHoullier’s favorite tomatoes for flavor these days are: Cherokee Purple, Lucky Cross, Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, Green Giant, Earl, Polish, Nepal, Cherokee Green, Cherokee Chocolate, Bing, Sun Gold, Brandywine, Giant Syrian and Yellow Brandywine.
To read more about LeHoullier’s work saving heirloom tomatoes, go to www.craiglehoullier.com.