What is an heirloom vegetable? The definition of a family heirloom vegetable doesn’t seem to be concrete. I’m not about to jump into the debate of whether the variety has to be 100 or 50 years old. My personal opinion is if something has been handed down from generation to generation it must be worthwhile.
However, it is a fact that heirloom vegetables are always open-pollinated (non-hybrid) varieties. That means their seeds can be saved every year and the plants grown from that seed will show the traits of the original seed. So the seeds that were passed on down from your Great Uncle Henry will have the same shaped leaves and fruit as his did.
Of course, there is no comparison to growing your own tomato versus one from a big box food chain. Everyone is searching for those special varieties that burst with flavour. That is only one of the reasons people are growing heirloom tomatoes. There are other reasons for supporting heirloom varieties such as conserving the biodiversity of food crops, but that is a topic unto its own.
One of the favourite heirloom tomatoes to grow is ‘Brandywine’. The Burpee seed company reports carrying it in their catalogue as early as 1886. It was first introduced to the gardening public through the Seed Savers Exchange in 1882 and can be traced back to Dorris Sudduth-Hill who claims to have grown it in her family for 80 years prior to that.
This must be some delicious tomato to be still kicking around after all those years. It is legendary for its exceptional rich, succulent, sweet tomato flavour. It is a beefsteak shape with pinkish flesh and even when fully ripe has green shoulders near the stem.
Brandywine reportedly bears fruit up to 9 oz. and requires 80 to 100 days to mature, so get your seeds started early, or even better, let us grow them for you. It does grow very tall, so I would suggest staking it as soon as you plant it out.
Remember tomatoes need to be evenly watered, otherwise cracking of the fruit occurs. Check your tomatoes daily as it is amazing how much water they can soak up. Water the soil and not the foliage. Tomatoes are also heavy feeders so don’t fall back on the fertilizer regime. Whether you feed organically or not is a personal decision. Garden centre staff should be able to guide you in either direction.
These tomatoes are self-pollinating so collecting the seed is easy. Cut the fruit in half and scoop out seeds into a glass jar. Fill jar half full with water, shaking from time to time and allow to sit for about four days until the seeds sink to the bottom.
Rinse seeds until clean and dry on a glass plate or screen. Store in a cool dry location.
Pass them on down your own family line.
Jean Atkinson is a horticulurist with Richbar Golf and Gardens.