Heirloom Tomato Hit & Miss

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Virgil Evetts

With the summer food garden now on the downward slide towards autumn, I’m starting to assess my hits and misses in the tomato patch.

On the whole it’s been a good growing season. Lots of sun, lots of heat and not too much rain (lately). I planted four varieties of tomatoes – all ‘heirlooms‘(‘’ because I didn’t inherit them): Garden Peach, Bloody Butcher, Ox heart, and Black Krim. All but the latter performed well and have been keeping us in toms for some weeks already, with no immediate end in sight. My favourite of the lot is Garden Peach (pictured), a beautifully sweet yellow truss tomato with a velveteen-fuzz skin.  Such a charmer of a fruit and tough as old nails in my neck of the woods.

But that’s just the trouble with so called ‘heirlooms’. Sure, they often look and taste great, but you can never be sure that a particular variety will perform where you live, until you try. They’re so nerve wrackingly hit and miss. Some thrive for me here in maritime Auckland while others – like Black Krim – sulk like teenagers scorned until winter finishes them off, or sooner if one of the local bovver-boy blights catches up with them.

The reason for the fickle temperaments is very simple, but rarely expanded upon by seed merchants. Heirloom tomatoes are mostly varieties that were developed over time to suit the conditions of very specific locales.  Black Krim originated near the Crimean peninsula, and like nothing better than growing in a spot that reminds them an awful lot of the Crimean peninsula.

But because most of us cut our tomato growing teeth years ago with (mostly) fuss-free varieties like Beefsteak, Roma and Grosse Lise, we expect the same versatility from  heirlooms. Take comfort though in knowing, if your heirlooms failed it wasn’t your fault. The variety just wasn’t suited to where you planted them. Oh, you could probably squeeze a few fruit out of them if you doused the garden in various toxic sprays all summer, but that’s rather like keeping a person on life support when they’re brain dead.

It would be great if we could slowly build up a database of heirloom tomato growers’ experiences New Zealand-wide, but I doubt enough of us actually care about the issue. Thing is, I’m greedy – not just for volume, but for flavour and variety too. I want to grow as many different tomatoes as I can, but only if I know I’ll have something to eat at the end of my toil.

Let us know what you grew this summer. What worked? What failed? What slowly fizzled?

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8 thoughts on “Heirloom Tomato Hit & Miss

  1. Totally jealous you have brandywine tomatoes growing so successfully Lynley. We have been trying to grow brandywines for the last 3 years since it says they are the best tasting tomato ever! We have yet to get any fruit. The plants grow really tall and spindly but never flower so no fruit :( I so desperately want to try the best tasting tomato ever.

  2. Our black krim are doing okay but I prefer the cherokee purple
    that we kept from seed last year. German green was the one that
    was very poor this year and I have removed them to free up room in
    our tunnel house for other plants. black cherry are doing well but our oxheart are not this year,whereas they were great producers last year. perhaps I will get new plants next time instead of keeping their seeds. large orange and large yellow have both produced well being ready first at xmas time and still going strong.

  3. Bloody butcher is my all time top performer here in Canterbury (grown under plastic). Always the first to flower, fruit and ripen. For flavour, I like tigerella, but I’m still waiting for mine to ripen (transplanted in mid to late December). For cherries, I have planted ladybird from Kings seeds, which have lots of flowers and bunches at the moment, but only two are ripening so far.

    I have grown brandywine in the past and loved the flavour and interesting shapes, but I found them to suffer from blossom end rot and splitting when other varieties didn’t under the same conditions. Romas are easy to grow, but I prefer the succulence of tigerellas and bloody butchers.

    I also like the brown cherry I got from Kings seeds, a few years ago, but they stopped selling them. They are largish for a cherry tom and oblong, dark red with a darker band at the top, and very, very tasty. I still have the odd plant self-seeding in the tunnel house (have at least one this year), so I will have to save some seeds for next year.

  4. I was given some Cayman Island seeds…not sure if it’s an heirloom or just one that somebody had “found” somewhere. It hasn’t been brilliant, but satisfactory…big, ugly fruit with taste and few seeds. Like Virgil my Black Krim was hopeless but latecoming Baxter’s something-or-other (from King’s catalogue) looks like being best of all – and I’ll miss them as I’m going away! Liked the Yellow Peach, too, and yellow bells have done well. Also had Mayan – quite heavy cropping and tasty oval fruit. All grown in buckets in a mix of horse poo, mulch and tomato mix. No sprays. Roma always good.

  5. I planted 4 different toms this year – black krim, italian girl (well I was given these plants so don’t quote me), a cherry which I grew upside down, brandywines and a few of what I refer to as compost surprise – seedlings growing out of discarded tomatoes from years gone by.

    My black krim did ok – had about 1/2 a dozen huge fruit in total – absolutely delicious and full of flavour and flesh, I only planted one – and it did fine – not fabulous – but good enough. The italaian girls seemed to attract the stink (by name and nature!)bugs – even though I planted marigolds nearby to ward them off (the bugs not the italian girls) – these are quite a lovely tomato – the are shaped and taste like a roma but grow in a cascading bunch (like the tomatoes marketing as “vine” that cost a fortune and are presented on a black tray). The cherry (can’t remember which variety )has been producing since the word go – and still is – I planted basil in the top of the pot – and the fact that it is upsidedown meant that it wasn’t bothered by bugs – hmmmm – not sure if it was worth the effort – it required more watering – but the excess which poured out the bottom hole however, by strategically planting one of my compost surprise tomatoes underneath – was not wasted. (Quite important here on Waiheke with our rain water supply – as a side note all my garden is watered with grey water from the washing machine – it’s magic – although as the barrels quickly fill – I have to water my garden everytime I do a load of washing – rain hail or shine – which can make you look rather mad at in the rain – or at night!).

    The compost surprise tomatoes ended up all being quite ordinary looking tomatoes – but very hardy – some of the places they sprouted amazed me – like in a tub that had no homemade compost in it whatsoever, and another one cascaded out of my raised garden and managed to grow and ripen in a south side (read dark)corner – so go figure that one out Jonathan Spade!)

    The star of the show round here tomato wise for me are certainly the brandywines I grew – they were my main crop (and still are) they are ginormous bulboous beauties that remind me of gurning old men in tweed caps. They are ripening on the plant – with lots of string and old pantyhose for support – they need it! Each one probably weighs about half a kilo – I should probably have aimed for an AMP show vege parade or something – they are full of flesh – which I adore – dense, sweet, pungent and pinkish – they are a real stayer in my garden. I must remember to save some seeds!

    Most of my tomatoes are in the freezer waiting for a relish or some sauce to be made – as I have exhausted my desire for tomato on toast – one of my all time favourite quick meals – these tomatoes are larger than a slice of vogels – I have to trim them or cut a slice in half – it’s almost like being in the land of the giants. Love it. Love me tomatoes.

    One of my earliest gardening memories is helping my dad in his little greenhouse full of tomato plants. The smell of tomato plants transports me in time. I was very young and once picked his whole crop when it was green and put them in a rain barrel – not too popular – luckily my mother made green tomato relish and all was forgiven.