Heirlooms, not your salad bar tomatoes
Nothing says summer quite like a perfectly ripe tomato fresh off the vine. Bright, juicy and acidic, this messenger of long days and humid nights needs no decoration— perhaps just a quick dash of salt and a grind of pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and a basil leaf if you’re feeling fancy.
Take a drooling, fleshy bite out of a conventional fruit. Now try it again with an heirloom variety. Taste the difference? Heirloom plants (open-pollinated cultivars not used in modern large-scale agriculture) have been nurtured and handed down from farmer to farmer with legacies that enrich each slice with the richest possible flavor.
But you probably know that. In fact, chances are that if you’re reading this publication, you are already buying heirloom tomatoes over conventional when given the choice. You know that a tried-and-true, crater-laced Brandywine will dole out more nutrition than its flawless distant cousins. And as far as flavor goes, you know that bite after bite an heirloom variety packs significantly more wallop. But did you know that tomatoes, from seed to sauce, are some of the easiest edibles to grow, no matter your acreage or experience level?
Here at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, we start our heirloom seeds in mid-April, watching the seedlings’ every arching move until Memorial Day, when we know they will be safe from frost in their raised-bed plots. If you missed seed-starting season, you can still catch up. Local nurseries like Country Caretakers in Canaan, New York, and Taft Farms in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, sell heirloom tomato plants through the summer.
At any good nursery, it’s easy to get carried away by the range of colors and narratives. Before you do, consider the variables: How much space do I really have? How many tomatoes can I actually eat or preserve? What kind of time commitment am I willing to make? If your porch can support just a few containers, opt for cherry and plum varieties like Mirabells and Sweeties. Go bigger if you have a large backyard plot, with an Aunt Ruby’s German Green or Georgia Steak. And of course, don’t be afraid to ask the experts.
Once you’re ready to plant, it’s time for another important decision: to stake or not to stake. Without a support, tomato plants will sprawl freely all over the ground. Unrestricted in this way, each plant will produce a bountiful harvest, but being in contact with the ground will increase the risk of mold or disease. Staking is more work, but results in the potential for more plants in any given space. A staked plant will ripen sooner, but will be stressed. Our preferred method is a happy medium: wire cages, gently holding up each plant. A small investment at any gardening supply will keep you supported for years to come.
Like most vegetables, tomatoes like full sun. Bury your plants deep so that the soil reaches about a third of the way up the stalk to insure that the youngsters will develop a strong root structure. If you have the room, give each plant some breathing space and add a three- to four-inch layer of mulch to insulate the roots and inhibit weed growth. Water often and at the root; your plants will droop if they are thirsty.
By mid-July, you’ll be ready for the main event! Pick your heirlooms before they are fully ripe—if you pluck them just as they begin to change colors, they will ripen quickly on your kitchen counter. Pick in the morning when the fruit is at its firmest and juiciest. You know the rest: eat, eat and eat! Chop, slice, grill, fry, pickle. Add to salads, chop into salsa, cook into jams and jellies, purée into a Bloody Mary. The possibilities are endless, if you don’t gobble them up before you’ve made it out of the garden.
Now you’ve caught the bug, so start early next year. Heirloom seed sources are plentiful in and around the Berkshires but if you’re looking for a project later this summer, gathering seeds is a cinch. Choose your best-looking specimen and remove the seeds—easily done if you cut the tomato horizontally, stem on one end, blossom on the other. Place the seeds in a Mason jar along with a cup of water, cover with cheesecloth and set aside. After a few days you’ll see a layer of mold on top of the water, bubbles gently rising from the liquid. Carefully pour off the mold and add a little more water, then shake vigorously to rinse and watch the good seeds sink to the bottom. Lay them on a paper plate in a warm, dry spot and lightly shake each day until they’ve dried. When the seeds are ready, wrap them in an airtight container and set aside in a dark, cool area.
Those seeds will be ready for planting come next April. And it’s well worth the wait!
For beginner, intermediate and master classes on food preservation, container gardening, seasonal maintenance and more, visit the botanical garden’s website: BerkshireBotanical.org.
BERKSHIRE BOTANICAL GARDEN’S Horticulture Staff is comprised of eight tireless gardeners and dozens of indefatigable volunteers, whose efforts and expertise sustain 15 acres of diverse display beds. Staff : Dorthe Hviid, Christine Caccamo. Seasonal gardeners: Richard Demick, Bill Cummings, Margo Sharp. Horticultural interns: Kate Everitt, Zoe Madden, Jessica Newman.