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Garden Tips: Gardeners have taste for heirloom tomatoes

New garden catalogs are arriving daily, telling me that it is time to start planning this year’s garden. Spring must be around the corner!

Of course tomatoes are at the top on my list of vegetables to grow. There is nothing like a homegrown tomato fresh from the garden. If you plan to grow your own veggie transplants, now is when you ought to be ordering seeds and getting ready to plant. Tomato seeds should be planted about six weeks before the anticipated date of planting outdoors.

When perusing seed catalogs, notice modern hybrid varieties, such as Burpee’s Better Boy or Big Boy, are not as popular as they once were. Today’s gardeners are clamoring for heirloom varieties because of their full flavor and attractive fruit of various colors and shapes. Specialty mail-order seed companies and even mainstream companies are offering an expanding list of heirloom tomatoes.

Modern hybrid tomato varieties were bred primarily for commercial field production. Breeders sought firm, uniform, deep red fruit and resistance to soil pathogens. They did not focus on flavor. As a result, some of the flavor we desire in a fresh tomato was lost during their development.

Heirloom tomatoes are older varieties that have been passed from one generation to another. Unlike modern hybrid tomatoes, heirlooms are open pollinated. The prime reason for the “growing” interest in heirlooms is their flavor. Many folks feel that heirlooms have more of the robust tomato taste.

Specialty mail-order seed companies that specialize in tomatoes are a good place to look for tomato varieties to grow. Totally Tomatoes ( is offering a new series of tomatoes called the “Wild Boar Series” that are new introductions from a small organic farmer and breeder. The series is the result of crosses the farmer made from his favorites among hundreds of heirlooms and hybrids, and selecting the resulting crosses for their extreme flavor, interesting appearance and coloring.

Tomato Growers Supply ( offers more than 500 varieties of heirloom and hybrid tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Tomato Fest ( only offers organically grown heirloom tomatoes with a list of a 600 varieties including paste, dwarf, determinant, heart-shaped and, of course red, orange, yellow, green, striped, brown, purple and even blue varieties.

Many seed companies, even the big-name seed catalogs (like Burpee), are offering grafted tomatoes. A grafted tomato is one that has been fused together via the propagation method of grafting. This involves placing a desirable variety (scion) on top the roots of a different variety (rootstock). The scion grows into the upper part of the plant and produces fruit of the desirable variety. The rootstock grows into the root system and imparts that variety’s characteristics to the roots.

While heirlooms may have better tasting fruit, the plants lack resistance to certain soil pathogens bred into most modern hybrids. Grafted tomatoes allow tomato growers to grow tasty heirloom tomatoes on rootstock that is resistant to certain soil diseases. Many of these rootstocks also improve plant vigor and productivity.

So do not procrastinate, decide what to you want to grow and order your seed or grafted plants now.

— Marianne C. Ophardt is a horjticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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