I’m in the middle of a small war right now with the neighborhood stray cat. He has decided that the best place to hang out while stalking rabbits is in the middle of my tomato plants. This is an issue for me because a) I like to see bunnies on my lawn and I don’t particularly want them killed and b) the cat does a little more than just sit in the garden, if you know what I mean. And while I’m all about homegrown food and organic gardening, finding cat droppings in the middle of my tomato patch is a little TOO organic for me.

My mother has always been an avid gardener. I’ll never forget the year she planted–in a fit of misguided enthusiasm–not one, not two, but SIX hills of zucchini. I believe our backyard accounted for about 5% of the world’s production of zucchini that year. But once I left home I lost whatever skills I might have gleaned. I lived in a series of run-down and dark apartments and tended to be more concerned with finding the money for dinner than trying to actually grow it. My thumb never got any greener than a few pots of herbs on a kitchen windowsill.

This changed when I moved south. Suddenly I was living in houses, not apartments, and living in a climate with a 286-day growing season, not a 120-day one. I became what you might call a “Darwinian” gardener–the plants in my garden must survive in a climate of benign neglect, with rare attempts at weeding or pruning, and only infrequent watering. Lettuce is allowed to bolt and re-seed. Compost is left to its own devices. I currently have a rather vigorous pumpkin vine growing where last year’s jack-o-lantern fell from the porch and was allowed to return to the earth unhindered. But there is one type of plant that is exempt from my general mistreatment–the tomato.

I still remember the first time I ever tasted southern Sweet 100s cherry tomatoes as one of the defining foodie moments of my life. Tomatoes that you could eat like candy! I was beyond shocked, and immediately went looking at farmer supply stores for plants. In an unconscious imitation of my mother’s earlier enthusiasm, I bought six. I think I was responsible for about 5% of the world’s production of cherry tomatoes that year. Since that time, I have always had tomatoes in my southern garden–in a full vegetable bed if I had the space and time, or in large pots on the porch if I didn’t. I grew Sweet 100’s for their taste and Better Boys because that is what the neighbors grew. And then one day I saw a picture of a Costoluto Genovese in a seed catalog. It was a princess of a tomato, an heirloom with a lovely lobed shape so that when sliced, each slice had beautifully scalloped edges. It was supposed to be an excellent slicing tomato, and an excellent sauce tomato, but not a tomato with a long shelf life. This last caveat did not phase me because I lived, at the time, in a tiny house with no air conditioning. So in the summertime nothing had a shelf life longer than about six hours.

For the first time in my life, I fell in love with a food–with a specific kind of food. With a specific variety of a specific kind of food. It was the mere sight of the Costoluto Genovese tomato that made me decide to try growing tomatoes from seed. I started combing seed catalogs for other heirlooms. Suddenly tomatoes were not those mushy, watery, tasteless things you slid off your burgers. They were fun and exciting and pretty and–oh yeah–tasted good. I tried a rainbow of cultivars from Yellow Pears to Brandywine Pinks to Cherokee Purples (which get my vote as the ugliest tomato ever). I grew San Marzanos and Principe Borgheses with the idea that I’d do a lot of canning (I never got around to it). I grew a few yellow and orange tomato varieties and ended up with the most lovely tomato salads. I toyed with the idea of growing “Green Zebras” and “Russian Blacks” but lost my nerve.

It isn’t always clear what the term “heirloom” means. In general, the term implies that the cultivar has been around for more than fifty years. It also implies that the plants are open-pollinated (you know, by bees and things). But this isn’t always the case–some hybrids (which require controlled pollination) like yellow pears are considered heirlooms, possibly because they are simply so pretty. Open pollination comes with its own set of considerations. Heirloom tomatoes can’t be bred for disease resistance, for example. Their yield is more unpredictable since they depend on a supply of willing and happy pollinators. Heirloom varieties also must be picked before they become fully ripe, since they are not bred for long shelf lives and once ripe, must be eaten almost immediately.

There are an astonishing number of “heirloom” tomato varieties available–some of them with stories as colorful as their skins. My favorite is the “Mortgage Lifter”, aka “Radiator Charlie.” It sounds like a thug from a Chicago mob but it was so named, apocryphally, by a man named MC Byles, who sold the cultivar for a dollar a plant to pay off his house when his radiator business went under during the Depression. Alas, Mortgage Lifters and Brandywine Pinks–the two heirlooms that may be responsible for the current craze in heirloom varieties–defied my gardening skills. They are “beefteak” tomatoes–the kind with very large fruit that is very solid and meaty, with small seed cavities. I learned after several frustrating years that I did not have the mentality to grow goliath-sized beefsteak tomatoes–I invariably lost them to the bugs, worms, moths and caterpillars that flourish in the south as easily as do the plants. I also found, through trial and error, that cultivars that tend towards odd shapes–the pointed San Marzanos, for example, and even my lovely lobed Costoluto Genovese–often developed cracks and spots if, as often happened, I was not too diligent about watering.

The tomatoes the neighborhood cat finds so useful for stalking (among other things) are Tomosas and Sweet 100s; what I think of as my “old reliables.” (A term I adopted from a children’s book called Junket about a city family that buys a farm without knowing anything about farming).  I planted them because it is a new house and a new garden and there was nothing established. They are more forgiving about watering (or the lack thereof) and they are quite forgiving about wildlife. It is a struggle just to keep the beds relatively cat- and rabbit- free without fussing over a tomato that came from a plant someone found in a holler somewhere in the Appalachian mountains.

Heirloom Tomato Patch, June 3, 2009

Heirloom Tomato Patch, June 3, 2009

Although, I believe I have one of those, because this year a good friend dropped off a flat of 16 different heirloom tomato plants–no single one alike.  They were the leftovers from some “combat obesity” drive, if you can believe it, although by the time they got to me they were all looking a little spindly and forlorn in their red plastic beer cups. Here’s a list of the plants:

Black (deep red)

Black from Tula– regular leaf, 8-12oz., purple-black, great flavor, loves heat

Black Cherry– black (deep red), regular leaf, abundant

Bicolor, white, green-when-ripe, yellow, or orange

Big Rainbow– regular leaf, deep gold with red splashes, good flavor, fair yield

Earl of Edgecombe– regular leaf, orange color, big producer, 6-12oz, grows in clusters, heat and humidity tolerant

Super Snow White– ivory, regular leaf, large, ~75days to production

Isis Candy– regular leaf, yellow-gold color, very large, low yield, ~80 days to production


Eva Purple Ball– regular leaf, deep pink, uniform color, disease and bug resistant

Giant Belgium– regular leaf, pink color, high yields

Good for Tomato Paste/Sauce

Rio Grande– regular leaf, red, very productive, great flavor, good for paste

Marianne’s Peace– dark pink, potato leaf, very productive, good for paste

San Marzano– a variety of plum tomato considered by many chefs to be the best sauce tomatoes in the world, gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples in 1770, thinner and pointier than Roma tomatoes, first grown in volcanic soil of Mt.Vesuvius


Red Calabash-regular leaf, fluted, red color, 69-80 days to production

Camp Joy– red, regular leaf, strong vines, ~60 days to production

Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Red-really red, robust, 8oz. globes

Tondo Liscio– smooth, round, Italian eating tomato, red color

Cuor di Bue– red color, also known as the ”Bulls Heart” and ”Giant Ox Heart” tomato. Superb tasting, fleshy,”Ox Heart” beef tomato, so called because of its size and shape, a lovely slicing tomato due to it’s meaty flesh, and few seeds, unbeatable in salads or with slices of fresh Mozzarella and basil, fruits typically 150-180g each in weight, but can get much larger.

Heirloom tomato patch, June 27, 2009

Heirloom tomato patch, June 27, 2009

Honestly. “Clint Eastwood Rowdy Red?” I wanted to grow these just because of the names.  So far, they are looking pretty good.

If you are interested in growing heirloom tomatoes, you are in luck. There are a couple of local nurseries that grow varieties especially at home here in the hot and humid Southeast. Shelton Herb Farm is where I go for my Sweet 100s plants. (Do not buy six plants unless you are trying to feed a small country).

Shelton Herb Farm
340 Goodman Road
Leland, NC 28451
(off Route 17)

The local farmers’ markets, such as the Riverfront market on Saturdays downtown, or the Pender County market on Wednesday mornings at Poplar Grove also have a few local farms who supply heirloom vegetables (I picked up a gorgeous bunch of multicolored carrots at the Riverfront Market last Saturday that were almost too pretty to eat). And while it is long past the time when you could start your tomatoes from seed, there are at least two seed suppliers that are excellent resources for heirloom varieties if you want to plan for next year:

Seed Savers Exchange

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

In the meantime, you can always raid your neighbor’s garden. The tomatoes will still be green for at least another two weeks, but even green tomatoes have their uses:

Fried Green Tomatoes:

2 lb Green tomatoes
4 ea Eggs
1 1/4 c Corn meal
3/4 c Water
1/4 c Minced chives
1 tb Salt
1/4 ts Pepper, fresh ground
1/4 c Butter or margarine

Slice the tomatoes 1/2 inch thick, but do not peel or core. Drain
well between several thicknesses of paper toweling until most of the
moisture of the tomatoes is absorbed. While the tomatoes are
draining, make a batter by beating the eggs until light, then mixing
in the corn meal, water, minced chives, salt and pepper. In a large,
heavy iron skillet, heat the butter or margarine until bubbly. Dip
the tomato slices into batter, and brown quickly on both sides. Serve
at once.

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