Tag Archives: heirloom tomatoes

Breeding Peppers and Tomatoes

Continuing our summer road trip adventures!   We visited two individuals doing exciting vegetable breeding work.  While lots of universities and other institutions do great work with agricultural research and breeding, valuable information and great new varieties can also come from individual farmers and backyard gardeners.  If you’re thinking about doing your own breeding, you might be interested in our books Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Deppe or Breeding Organic Vegetables: A Step-by-Step Guide for Growers by Rowen White and Bryan Connolly.

Craig LeHoullier is well known to tomato fans.  Starting in the ‘90s, he introduced many heirloom tomatoes through SESE, including Cherokee Purple.  A more recent project that Craig and tomato breeders from all over the world have been involved with is the Dwarf Tomato Project – using great-tasting heirlooms in breeding new, shorter tomatoes (2-4 feet tall) that are easier to trellis and to grow in containers.

We stopped by Craig’s house in Raleigh, NC to see Craig’s garden.  This year Craig is growing out all 36 dwarf tomatoes that have been released so far.  Craig cautioned us before we visited that with the heat and rain and all, his tomatoes were starting to get some diseases, but we thought that was great – a nice chance to see how the different varieties handle disease!  We already carry one of the dwarf varieties, Rosella Purple, and as we tasted our way through the dwarf tomatoes, we were taking notes for our wish list of more dwarfs to grow for seed crops.

Craig grew these plants in straw bales in his driveway!  A great gardening technique is to add some compost to the top of a straw bale and plant into the compost; as the plants grow, they’ll reach their roots into the straw, and since straw bales hold a lot of moisture, the plants won’t need much watering in between rains.  It’s a great way of growing tomatoes in containers without actual containers – Craig’s writing a book about it, look for it sometime this next year!

Craig’s book Epic Tomatoes came out last December, and he’s been busy giving talks and doing book signings for it.  He’ll be at this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, giving a special pre-festival talk on Thursday, September 9th as well as giving talks on Friday and Saturday.  Many of the tomatoes featured in Craig’s book will be featured in this year’s tomato tasting at the festival, so expect to see Craig hanging out there as well!

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Pittsboro, NC farmer Doug Jones is an passionate about pepper breeding.  If you’ve ever been to the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference, you’ve probably seen him at the Seed Swap table, sorting through his peppers, checking each for taste before he takes the seed out to save.

The photo below shows pepper seed from different fruits spread out for drying.  Doug bred Sweet Jemison, a long yellow pepper, which we now carry; he’s a big fan of long Italian bell peppers!

Doug farmed for many years at Piedmont Biofarm in Pittsboro.  Here’s a photo from November 2011 of Irena with 10 foot tall peppers in their high tunnel!

This year Doug is dividing his time between The Farm at Penny Lane and Paz Farm, where he’s also doing pepper trials for Johnny’s Selected Seeds and continuing his pepper breeding work.  Hot, wet weather had him going along the rows to prune off infected pepper leaves to keep Bacterial Leaf Spot at bay; as Doug himself described it, wet weather had him despairing that the disease would get out of hand, while a few days letter dry weather had him optimistic that the peppers would pull through…

Seeking input: what are your top five heirloom tomatoes?

Overwhelmed by heirlooms? We sell seeds for over 100 tomato varieties, and we feel that all those varieties have special value to be preserved. So we understand that choosing which to grow in your home garden can be daunting, especially if you’re limited to just a few plants.

Here’s my personal top five list. My experience growing and eating these tomatoes over the years is why they’re my favorites. We’d love to hear from you about your favorite tomato varieties, and why.

granny cantrell tomato1. Granny Cantrell’s

Granny Cantrell’s is my absolute favorite VERY LARGE heirloom. These red-pink beauties are similar in size to the Brandywines and Cherokee Purple, but I think the flavor of Granny Cantrell’s is even better. I also find the plants to be hardier and the fruits keep better off the vine, even when picked fully ripe.

Very large tomatoes like Granny Cantrell’s may not be the best choice for beginners: they need even moisture, a long frost-free season, and soil high in organic content.

dr. carolyn tomato2. Dr. Carolyn

Dr. Carolyn tastes sweet and complex, more like one of the larger heirlooms than a cherry tomato. This variety is a strain selected from the yellow-gold Siberian heirloom Galinas, but the two cannot be confused: Dr. Carolyn tomatoes are such a pale yellow, they’re almost translucent. Unique and very beautiful.

stupice tomato3. Stupice

As early as the most popular early hybrids, these classic orange-red globes blow me away every year: how can an early tomato taste so good? And by choosing an open-pollinated variety, you can save your own seed and select for your micro-climate.

black prince tomato4. Black Prince

I grew Black Prince the first year I had my own large garden, and their flavor was so fruity, they were unlike anything I’d ever tasted. A Siberian heirloom with a chocolatey-red appearance, Black Prince produces well for me even those years when I don’t give my plants optimal fertility or watering. Plus they’re early and tolerant of cool springs.

white wonder tomato5. White Wonder

Take care to mark the location of your White Wonder plants well, or you may have a few dropping off the vine over-ripe before you stop waiting for the fruits to turn red. White tomatoes are fun in the kitchen, for white tomato sauces or pale ketchup. But my favorite way to eat these is to bite into them like an apple, straight off the vine (perhaps it’s not surprising then that these would be derived from the heirloom White Apple!). (Ira Wallace comments that White Wonder’s flavor can be a less flavorful years when the weather is very wet — but this tomato still makes my top 5 list, I’ll keep growing it and hoping that the weather cooperates.)

Tomato Varieties: Finding the Right Heirloom Tomato Seeds

A tomato rainbow- cherry tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, brandywine tomatoes, paste tomatoes.

Tomatoes are a great place to start when it comes to planning your garden.  Since there are so many great varieties of tomatoes it can be hard to figure out where to start.  You might be tempted to plant tomato seeds for each of them!  But, if you are limited by garden space, time, and tummies for them all to go, then it is probably a good idea to think about what you want to use them for and which flavors suit you best.

Heirloom tomatoes have gained some popularity in the past few years.  It seems like: once you go heirloom you never go back.  For the most part this is true – most varieties developed before 1940 were bred for great flavor.  Some heirloom tomatoes were also developed for growing conditions – such as short summers or resistance to plant diseases like the dreaded late blight.  So, it is important to note, that just because a tomato variety is an heirloom doesn’t guarantee that it will be delicious (although it’s a good indication).

Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato- sometimes called a black tomato

Cherokee Purple is a beefsteak, heirloom tomato variety.  These tomatoes hold a rare distinction of actually having a purple color.  Most ‘purple’ tomatoes are more pink than purple.  The Cherokee Purple tomato also has a distinctive interior.  The flesh has a rich dark color while the  locule (the cavity where the tomatoes’ seeds are contained) filling has a deep  green color.  The tomato’s flavor is rich and juicy.

Heirloom -Yellow Brandywine Tomatoes

The Yellow Brandywine tomato has all the delicious flavor of a traditional Red Brandywine tomato.  The fruits are a rich yellow orange color,and have a smooth texture.  Yellow Brandywine fruits often have some ribbing and generally weigh 1-2lbs, definitely a beefsteak tomato. If the tomato plants experiences drastic shifts in temperature fruit shapes can become irregular.

Eva Purple Ball Heirloom Tomato

The Eva Purple Ball heirloom tomato plants take about 78 days before harvest.  Fruits are great all around tomatoes they can be sliced and  for sandwiches, cooked down into tomato sauce, and even dehydrated.  Eva Purple Balls produce uniform sized fruits that are resistant to cracking and rarely have blemishes.

Green Zebra - tomato

The Green Zebra tomato retains its green color after it ripens. It has a good earthy flavor and is popular with tomato aficionados.  Although this tomato was developed in 1985, it can certainly hold its own in a garden with heirloom tomatoes.

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato

This cherry tomato wins taste test after taste test with its sweet flavor.  The tomato plants produce high yields of tiny currant sized fruits.  If you are going to plant this tomato in your garden you will certainly need to either place a cage around it or steak it.  Matt’s Wild Cherry tomato plant tends to sprawl.

Roma VFN Paste Tomato

The Roma VFN tomato is a great example  of a tomato that has not only been selected for flavor but for disease resistance as well. While no plant can ever be 100% safe in the garden the growing tomatoes should not suffer from Veritcillium Wilt, Alternaria stem cranker, or Fusarium wilt- race 1.  This open pollinated tomato variety is widely adapted to grow in a wide range of climates and growing conditions.