Heirloom Tomatoes? Be Still, My Heart ...


Cindy BarloweAh, Summer. The season when Mother Nature throws her doors open with abandon and encourages gardens to thrive and produce. In my Western North Carolina area, harvesters race to claim every ripe fruit and vegetable before Autumn ushers in cooler temperatures, slows plant productivity and reminds us of cold days to come. By mid-September, vines are withering, leaves yellowing and blossoms disappearing. The last of Summer’s fresh foods are as precious as those early season treats and, while eggplants, okra, beans and squash are missed, no fruit or vegetable passing is mourned as much as the heirloom tomato.

Aptly dubbed “love apples,” heirloom tomatoes, with their colorful skins, juicy flesh and incredible flavors, inspire a Summer flood of Instagram photographs and sandwich competitions, complete with the venerable Duke’s vs Hellman’s mayonnaise debate. Even when space and time limit gardeners, it is rare to find a home without at least one tomato plant growing in a sunny spot or a large container. Natural acidity makes tomatoes easy to can and home cooks employ a variety of other preservation techniques, in hopes of extending that fresh tomato flavor to another season.


My love affair with heirloom tomatoes began after a 2008 blight wiped out an entire crop of hybrid tomato plants. Witnessing tall, healthy vines, heavy with large green fruit, wither and die within a couple of days, was a devastating experience. In an attempt to prevent future such loss, I decided to try heirloom tomatoes and, eight years later, these vigorous plants consistently impress with abundant yield and incomparable flavor. After growing over one hundred varieties, Heart & Sole Gardens annually hosts about twenty varieties and each is a family favorite.

An unexpected bonus to growing heirloom tomatoes was discovering how 2009’s harvest pulled special memories from my childhood. As my grandmother’s garden helper, I lugged baskets of her beautiful tomatoes from a large garden to her backyard picnic table, where we filled huge metal tubs with fresh well water and washed each orb before carrying the harvest to Granny’s kitchen for processing. I remember how our hands touched under the cold water as we scrubbed knobby pink slicing tomatoes, baseball sized yellows, tiny red cherries and many other varieties. In the intervening years, I forgot how beautiful and delicious Granny’s tomatoes were, but when some of those same plants produced in my own garden, they opened portals to special memories and when yellow pear cherry tomatoes ripened, I recalled how Granny joked they were “little jugs.”


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