How-to Grow Heirloom Tomatoes from Seed
What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?
Heirloom vegetables of all sorts are enjoying a surge in popularity. With an increased interest in growing your own food, eating locally, and organics, people are asking for the heirlooms varieties that their great-grandparents loved.
There are many varieties of heirloom tomatoes. In some cases they do not produce as much fruit as the hybrid varieties, or don't transport well, which is why they fell out of favor in the first place. However, in almost every case the heirloom plants are unique in flavor and look, and have qualities that make them desirable to grow on the homestead.
Because they are not hybrids, they can be grown from saved seed. This means that once you establish a tomato bed one year and have a successful crop, you can continue to grow those tomatoes for free by saving your own seed year after year. You will no longer be dependent on the seed company, the mailman, or anyone else.
One ounce of seed produces close to 2,000 plants, a but much for most of us. An average packet of seed will usually produce anywhere from 25-75 heirloom plants, depending on alot of factors including the variety of tomato, the experience of the gardener, and the company the tomato seed comes from. Some companies are more generous than others in filling their seed packets.
Tomato seed, good tomato seed, is viable (will produce a plant) for up to five years if stored properly so leftover seeds should be saved.
About 10 weeks before it is time to plant tomatoes in your area create a window box that will fit in a sunny, southern facing window. Fill with your preferred planting mix. A good mix is 2 parts of pasteurized soil, 1 part of pasteurized organic compost, and one part of vermiculite.
Tomato seeds germinate best at 70F. The seed should be evenly spaced and planted two inches apart and 1/2 inch deep. Keep warm, moist, and dark until the seedlings appear.
Young plants will begin to appear in about ten days. As soon as the first leaves open up, set the plant in sunlight or under a special grow light. For the next two weeks they should be watered from the bottom, the top soil kept as dry as possible to prevent damping- off. Some people swear by using chamomile tea to water the seedlings with as a damping-off preventive.
Turn the flat, or box, daily so that the tomatoes will grow tall and straight and not lean toward the sun. Feed weekly with manure tea.
When the seedlings have two true leaves, they should be transplanted into individual containers or peat pots that contain a richer soil.
- Cut back on the soil in the mix by half and increase the compost that much.
- Begin to feed twice a week with the manure tea.
- Increase the spacing to three inches between plants.
- Make sure the soil does not dry out.
- Continue rotating the flat.
When two more leaves have developed, the tomatoes are ready to be hardened off. Withhold some water for a week. Rather than keeping moist, allow to dry out a little. Place the young plants in a cold frame, and gradually expose them to the outside until they are acclimated to outdoor temperatures. This process takes two weeks. Seedlings should not be transplanted until all danger of frost is past.
Hardening Off-Introducing seedlings to new growing conditions:
- Begin to about a week before transplant date
- Keep plants in a cold frame during the day, bringing in at night
- Begin in a shady spot and expose to more sun gradually over a week
- Transplant seedlings into the garden on a cloudy day if possible
Manure tea- (1/3 well rotted manure with 2/3 water poured over. Steep for three days or so. Strain off the water and dilute until it is the color of weak tea. Use it as fertilizer once a week.)
Pasteurizing Soil- place about 3 inches deep in an old roasting pan and moisten it thoroughly. Place a meat thermometer and bake until it reaches an internal temperature of 180F. You can do this in the summer by setting up a solar oven. Keep track of the temperature. 180F kills insects and bad microorganisms in the soil but any higher and beneficial microorganisms are killed off.
In the Garden
Tomatoes need a loose, well drained soil in a sunny location. If you will be growing several different types of heirloom tomatoes, and if you are planning on saving the seeds, keep the varieties seperated by several feet so that there is no cross pollination.
The best way to plant the tomatoes in the garden is to plant them slightly on their sides so they send out extra roots. Cover the plant nearly up to the bottom two sets of leaves. Drive a five foot stake into the ground next to the lant and tie the plant to it with soft yarn, or strips from an old sheet. Pinch off all side shoots and allow the plant to produce only two main shoots. Be sure to tie both of these gently to the stake.
Once the soil has warmed, the tomatoes should get a thick mulch. Keep them watered in dry weather. Each tomato plant will need about 3-5 gallons of water per week.
Continue to water a few times a week with a rich, manure tea. Stake or cage the tomatoes to help support the bountiful harvest that you wil surely get.
The tomatoes will reach peak production during the middle of summer in most areas. Keep the tomatoes picked to encourage more production.
My dad spent part of each early morning in the garden hand pollinating the tomatoes "just to help the bees." He had huge crops of gorgeous fruit. If you are not getting the yields you would like, you may want to try hand pollinating.
Tomatoes are best harvested in the early morning. Take a basket out and pick the ripe fruit. Most of the time, tomatoes that are really ripe will almost fall from the stem at your touch. If birds, pecking the tomatoes, are a problem place a net over the plants.
Tomatoes are very easy to preserve by canning, or freezing. In fact, to freeze them, you can just stem the fruit and place the whole thing in a freezer bag in the freezer.
Making Money with Heirloom Tomatoes
Many local grocers, health food stores, and upscale restaurants, value not only heirloom vegetables but being able to say that they use local, organically grown produce. Take some samples of your tomatoes to the manager with a homemade business card. Price your items competitively, but keep in mind that you probably need to charge a little more than the big grocery store to make a profit. People expect to pay a little more for artisan items.
Growing heirloom tomatoes can be, not only a fascinating hobby, but a wonderful opportunity to feed your family, and make a little egg and butter money, just as your great grandmother did.