Heirloom Tomatoes - Generations of flavour!
In these unusual times it can be hard to get customers through the door, especially when the weather is against us. The buying public is being bombarded every day with sales, specials, clearances, interest free terms and any other catch retailers can come up with. However people need to buy food and they want it to be fresh and healthy. We sell plants that make food so we have a natural plus. Our problem is we haven’t been telling our customers that. At least not as often or as loud as we should.
Over the past decade or two I have seen a few national promotions of gardening. Most have been average at best and a flop at worst. The recent plant life balance had some good sentiments but didn’t really draw people in to the nurseries. The new promotion by the Victorian nurseries – The Garden Party is promoting the great benefits of the garden in a theme that most Australians love – a party. This is a refreshing new approach to marketing our industry and should work well.
Another draw card is food plants. People need to eat and many want to grow their own. Cost saving is one reason but taste and range are the main reasons people like to grow their own. Tomatoes are a classic case. Basically they are fairly easy to grow, produce plenty of fruit and really taste nice. In the supermarket there are usually two types of tomato – gourmet and roma (plus a few cherry forms). There is the odd green grocer that may have three or four varieties.
The nursery however, has 10 to 30 varieties. Tomatoes that are good for baking, good for sauces, for stuffing, for sandwiches and for taste. At Renaissance we decided in July to up grade our Tomato range to over 30 different cultivars with at least 50% being heirloom cultivars. This started me on a search for what is a an heirloom tomato and what are the best ones. It was fascinating and I spent a weekend surfing the net and reading through the books on herbs and vegetables. Then another day discussing with some members of our group who have been growing bedding plants and seedlings for several generations.
It was very interesting learning how the whole idea of heirloom food has become a movement. It is not just a group of old varieties grown by a few fanatics. It is a passion and for many it is their hobby, their sport or their religion. For many collectors and growers of heirloom plants it is critical to the ongoing health of all of us. Although I am not as committed as these folk I can certainly see the benefit of what they are doing.
So what is an heirloom tomato? Heirloom refers to the source of the seed from which the variety is grown. It is not confined to tomatoes or even edibles. There is some debate about how old a plant has to be to be an heirloom but there is no debate that it must be open pollinated. This means that the seed is collected from plants that have allowed nature to do the pollination. The pollen is transferred by means of insect, wind, bird or whatever is the normal method for that plant. This can be controlled by selecting the varieties that are grown in proximity to each other. It is not closed pollination where the pollen is manually transferred or strictly controlled. The problem or beauty (depending on your outlook) is that there can be significant variation in the morphology of the plant and products from that plant.
The other key criteria for an heirloom plant is that it was first released by the seed companies or breeders prior to 1945. This is the end of World War 11 when hybridised plants first became common place. Some say it is 1950, some say the plant needs to be 100 or 50 years old but most accept the 1945 cut off date. IN this world of ‘new’ varieties and ‘new releases’ it is amazing how many tomatoes there are in the system from pre 1945. One Tomato that we will have is Tomato Red Fig. This was first cultivated in the 1700s and in the 1800s was used as a substitute for figs in preserving.
It is also surprising at the variation in size, shape, flavour, color of the fruit and the plant. Most of them have managed to keep their desired traits over the decades and centuries they have been grown. It is the stunning palette of colors and flavours that explains why heirloom vegetables are so desirable. The growing and eating of heirloom vegetables has become quite popular around the world. Indeed there are even restaurants that specialise in just using them. I am looking forward to harvesting a few myself this summer. Next month I will give some detailed information on some of the heirloom tomatoes you will be seeing this spring. Until then keep an eye out for those plants labelled as Heirloom Tomatoes and give some a try. You will be pleasantly surprised.