Maybe you've heard people mention heirloom tomatoes before, and it left you wondering what Grandmother's silver had to do with what you're growing in your garden. Heirlooms have a few characteristics and growing requirements that distinguish them from your regular, err, garden-variety tomato. Heirloom tomatoes provide lots of benefits as well, including antioxidants and a range of vitamins. So just how do you get these wonderful plants to grow…

Believe it or not, these tomatoes are not actually the "freaks" of the vegetable world, the "normal" tomatoes are. Photo: Istock

How They're Different

Heirlooms tend to come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. We all know what a standard tomato looks like: it's an orangey-red, round, and smooth. Heirloom tomatoes can be pink, white, green, yellow, dark red, standard tomato-red, orange, and a mix of any of these colors. It depends on the variety. They also might feature skin that's sort of pinched-looking, more like a squash or a pumpkin, with "longitude" lines running up and down. Heirloom tomatoes can get quite big, sometimes a pound or more per fruit.

Typically, the term refers to tomato varieties that have been around for a long time and haven't been genetically modified or hybridized. All heirlooms are open-pollinated, which means that pollination happens by a natural mechanism, like wind or bees. (Not all open-pollinated tomatos are heirlooms, though.) Heirlooms don't have the long shelf life of store-bought victims of genetic tinkering, so they need to be eaten within a few days of picking. As you may have guessed, these more natural tomatoes have some extra nutritional value that got phased out during the course of making tomatoes more like Twinkies (you know, indestructible).

Planting Tomatoes from Seed
If you like to play God and bring things to life from the start, then you’re likely going to be growing tomatoes from seed. You may also prefer this route if you have your own heirloom seeds from years past (or perhaps passed down by a relative -- a true heirloom!), or enjoy the challenge. No matter the reason, it’s important to remember the following points if you want to have success when growing heirloom tomatoes from seed:

1) Start the seeds growing in your house before moving them to the garden. (Six to 8 weeks before the last anticipated frost is ideal, so plan on moving them outside toward the end of April.) Carla, a Master Gardener, recommends using a heat mat to keep those seedlings sufficiently toasty.

2) Remember to walk through the hardening-off process for seeds. Hardening off means adjusting seeds/plants to being outside in the new temperature environment.

a. Start by moving them to shady spots for increasing time amounts several days in a row (cover/bring inside if the temperature is going to drop).

b. Slowly increase time out and sun exposure until they look ready to move.

3) Before transplanting, make sure you have diagnosed your soil type. Heavy clay or sandy soils should have organic materials (such as compost) mixed into the soil. This will help protect against tomato diseases, add nutrients, and support good soil drainage.

4) Water your seeds well and transplant during cool parts of the day. Water after the transplant is complete as well.

5) When the time has come, place the plants in full sun spots, making sure to avoid other plants such as peppers, potatoes, or eggplants, which are also members of the Solanaceae family (a.k.a. Nightshade). Avoid sites where tomatoes were grown within the last two to three years.

6) Plant the new tomato plants 18 to 24 inches apart (or more) and make sure they are deep in the ground (just keeping first leaf set above the soil).

Unlike the somewhat more reliable nature of hybrid varieties, heirlooms are a bit persnickety about their growing conditions. On the whole, maintenance is like "normal" tomatoes, but if you're growing the same varities every year, you might find it to be beneficial to keep notes about what each variety likes and doesn't like as far as watering, sunlight, fertilizer types, temperature and other needs.

Sometimes heirlooms produce well one year and not so well the following year. Something like a slight climate change might be responsible, which is the sort of variable you might be able to isolate with some careful notes. If you're going for heirlooms, plant a lot. They don't tend to be the prolific producers of hybrid tomato plants. With careful observation and a little experimenting, you'll be able to figure out what varieties are well suited for your area.

You also might find this article on general tomato growing helpful.

If you're taking on heirlooms, take a look at the video below for some tips on growing heirlooms (be patient, it has good info).

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