I’ve been gardening for more than 30 years, but I only became serious about tomatoes about 15 years ago.
That’s around the time heirloom tomatoes entered the mainstream. Heirloom varieties have been in families for centuries and are passed down from gardener to gardener. They feature beautiful colors — purple, yellow, green, orange and red — and luscious flavors ranging from sweet to tart.
The difference between a hybrid and an heirloom tomato is the heirloom is true to seed.
In other words, if you collect seeds from a ripe heirloom tomato and plant them, you’ll get the same tomato variety next year.
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With hybrid tomatoes, plant breeders intentionally cross-pollinate two different varieties, aiming to produce offspring that contains the best traits of the parents. That includes varieties that are more resistant to diseases, fungi and parasite worms known as nematodes.
Hybrid tomatoes are great for beginning gardeners or people that do not have a lot of time, since they are more fail-safe. But heirlooms are worth the extra effort because the flavors are sweeter and more complex.
In my never-ending search for tomato knowledge, I recently visited Jack Creek Farms in Templeton and spoke with master grower Becky Sumpter.
Together with her parents, Tim and Joy Barlogio, and sister Mandy Evenson, she runs the u-pick farm and general store.
Jack Creek Farm’s sweet onions will be ready to pick by the end of July.
Throughout the summer, the orchard has blackberries, more than 40 varieties of apples, peaches and plums, and, in the fall, the farm will have more than 100 varieties of pumpkins and squash.
But I came for the tomatoes.
Sumpter has grown more than 300 varieties of tomatoes in the past 20 years. In 2018, she will have more than 80 heirloom varieties and a couple of hybrids.
In the past, Aunt Ruby’s Golden Cherry has been the most popular heirloom tomato in terms of taste, while Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter is the most popular in terms of yield.
Sumpter said that heirlooms are not the easiest varieties to grow, as they are inconsistent in size and shape. But she said each variety has its own personality and flavor, adding that keeping history alive is important to her.
For families with small children, she recommends growing Sweet 100 hybrid cherry tomatoes. They are easy to grow and extremely prolific, and can grow in a container.
These tomatoes are so sweet that children will eat them straight off the vine — as I observed in 2017, when my 3-year-old granddaughter asked to go out to the garden to pick tomatoes.
For home gardeners, Sumpter suggests the heirloom variety Amy Sugar Gem, as it is not prone to cracking or common diseases. Better Boy and Early Girl, both hybrids, are also easy to grow and will ripen early in the season.
Most gardeners are unaware that tomatoes are wind-pollinating and do not need bees or other insects to pollinate. It can sometimes help to have pollinators but occasionally gently shaking your tomato plant flowers will make sure you have a bounty of tasty beauties.
I live in the North County, where, because of the heat, I have found potato-leaf varieties of tomatoes grow the best. Some of my favorites are Pink Brandywine, Stupice and Black Krim.
The best part of growing tomatoes at home is the endless supply of ripe, juicy, flavorful tomatoes. All summer long, I have a bowl of fresh salsa in my fridge.
Tips for better tomatoes
- Consistent watering is the key to avoiding cracking and blossom end rot.
- Water the ground, not the leaves, to inhibit bacterial diseases. Drip systems are best.
- Try a new variety every year.
- To start your season early, cover your plants with floating row cover floating row cover is the name of the product to help with late frosts.
- Rotate your crops annually to help with disease and insect control.
Jack Creek Farms
Jack Creek Farms is located at 5000 Highway 46 West just outside of Templeton. For more information about their farm stand, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Monday, call 805-239-1915 or visit www.facebook.com/JackCreekFarms.