Dethroning the Heirloom Tomato

headerI was putting together my seed order this morning after suffering another disastrous year with late blight in which the majority of my tomatoes, mostly heirlooms, were dead by early August along with most of the harvest, and I came across this interesting article on the Johnny’s Select Seeds site entitled 10 Tips for Growing Heirloom Tomatoes. The tips, are, in order: Learn How to Graft; Protect and Support; Prune Correctly; Space Generously; Grow on Mulch; Lay Drip Lines; Prevent Disease; Choose with Care; Water Judiciously; and finally Review Best Practices.


Now granted, these guidelines are for the professional grower, but really… Even a very brief perusal of these tips reveals that growing heirloom tomatoes is no longer a simple matter (as it once was) of getting a few plants in the ground and sitting back with salad fork in hand. There was a reason that many of these tomato varieties were retired in the first place: they failed easily and spectacularly. And now, in a round of sentimental wishful-thinking that I must admit to have promoted in the past, we’ve popularized these varieties once again — lionized might be the better word — and along with this new-found ubiquity have come many diseases that were formerly, if not entirely banished, certainly minimized. When the box stores starts selling heirloom tomatoes,  you know you’re in trouble.

Where then does all this leave the heirloom tomato grower besieged by late blight as we have been for the last three years? In the proverbial manure pile, I’m afraid. Now granted, while none of the techniques outlined in the article above are particularly difficult, they are particularly costly. By the time you add up all that mulch and drip line and horticultural miscellany, the proverbial 64-dollar tomato is not far off. Tomatoes are by far my favorite product of the vegetable garden, but this is getting just too crazy, even for me. Add to this that none of these tips guarantee you a harvest. Do them all, and you may still fail. Last year I watched 5′ tall, bushy plants loaded with fruit collapse into a rotting pile of mush just a few weeks short of harvest — despite spraying. Of the little I was able to salvage, almost all came from a few of the more disease resistance modern cultivars. “Brandywine’, ‘Rose’, ‘Abraham Lincoln’ — heirlooms all, withered away before my very eyes.

Just to be clear: as a garden historian and lover of all things old, I adore heirlooms plants, and I certainly understand full well the need to protect our horticultural heritage.

But, and this is a big but, in certain cases we’ve got to dismiss romance and face up to reality.

And growing tomatoes in the home garden, at least here in New England, is one of those cases. At least since late blight arrived a few years back and seems set to stay with a vengeance.

So here’s what I am planning to do, and I urge you to do the same if you’ve encountered major disease problems in the last few years: First of all, I am going to ditch the worst performing heirlooms. These include most of the large potato-leaved varieties like my beloved ‘Brandywine’ that seem to summon late blight from the skies. I know, I know, the flavor is not going to be the same, but better a decent good-tasting crop than no great-tasting crop at all. I plan to select varieties with the best disease resistance I can find. This is particularly important if you garden near others, say in a community plot. Late blight is spread by the wind and can travel many miles in a day, so if your neighbor is growing susceptible varieties, you’re pretty much cooked.  Secondly, I’m going to adopt plastic mulch and soaker hoses in a much less amply planted  tomato garden, following the article’s advice. Most people have a number of soakers hanging about the shed doing nothing except tripping the unwary. Now’s the time to put them to good use. Thirdly, I’m going to try, if I have time, this grafting business, and report back on my success. (Though it sounds scarily complicated, grafting is actually quite easy if you pay close attention to details. The Johnny’s article links to a very good piece from the University of North Carolina, which takes you step by step through the process.)

And finally, I am going to send up a fervent prayer to the tomato gods…

You think I’m kidding about this last one, don’t you?

I’m not.


Dethroning the Heirloom Tomato — 2 Comments

  1. Sounds like a good approach. Older is not always better in the heirloom garden, unfortunately. I’m very interested in the grafting and might give that a try.

  2. Heirlooms are generally considered to be tomato varieties that (
    1) have been around for over 50 years, and (
    2) can be grown from seed saved from the same variety plants grown the prior year.
    In addition, breeders who cross breed heirloom varieties call the resulting variety an “heirloom” once it grows true from seed for 7-8 generations.

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