What is an heirloom tomato and why are they growing in popularity? An Heirloom tomato is a tomato whose DNA has been around for more than 50 years. Wikipedia describes it as: “an open-pollinated, non-hybrid heirloom cultivar of tomato. They are sweeter and lack a genetic mutation that gives tomatoes a uniform red colour at the cost of the fruit's taste.” Heirlooms are the original tomato vines that go back as far as the Mayans and have been growing all over the world, Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sicily and South America. They are vines by natural DNA , and not hybrid bushes.
Planting the tomato seedling
There are books and books on tomatoes, growing them, maintaining them and the pests and diseases that affect them. So I am not going to try and cover everything but I will try to mention the highlights and give some helpful hints and list my resources below.
Before planting your tomato seedlings, they need to be hardened off which just means that your seedlings have to acclimatize to their new surroundings and weather conditions.
Even if the nursery says they have been hardened off, they will still need a few days on your property with your wind and sun/shade mixture. Don’t rush your plants in the ground. It is extremely tempting to plant them early but resist the temptation. And I am speaking from personal experience here. The soil needs to be warm for their roots.Transplant shock can set tomato seedlings back 2 weeks. So waiting a week really gains you a week.
Hellyer Organic seedlings are in “Cow-Poo” pots made from dried cow manure, so the pots do not need to be removed from the seedling. You can plant them with their pots. Squeeze the pot lightly until the pot breaks. The roots will not have to struggle to break through and it minimizes transplant shock. These pots will also fertilize the young plant.
Plant the seedling 45-60 cm (18-24”) apart and plant the seedling deep. Burying your tomato plants deep into the soil helps them grow better because tomatoes form roots all along any buried portion of the stem—if you look closely you will see tiny bumps, which are the roots before they develop. This allows the plant to access more water and nutrients during the growing season.. The grown plants need air circulation and their roots shouldn’t be compromised for food and water.
Mulching is another MUST! It prevents water from evaporating from the soil. It prevents weeds from growing too close to the tomatoes’ roots, taking food and water away from it. It provides fertilizer from leaching when the plant is watered. It prevents splash up of dirt and bacteria when it rains, particularly early and late blight which can decimate the plant.
After I plant, I use a shovelful of mushroom compost and then lay straw around the plant.
Growing the tomato plant
Tomatoes are sun-loving plants. They thrive in a nice sunny spot. Almost all heirloom tomato plants are vines and will need to be staked, caged or grown up strings. The amount of discussion on this never ends and it’s probably because it is physical property specific, and personal choice specific. Allowing them to sprawl out makes it difficult to harvest the tomatoes as they always seem to grow their fruit under the leaves, It encourages cutworms to eat the fruit on the ground and early and late blight have easy access to the leaves. When they sprawl on the ground, they also don’t receive the air circulation needed for their health.
Tomatoes do not like their roots sitting in water. When watering, wait for the soil to have dried out and then water thoroughly and deeply. This encourages deep root growth and reduces the risk of their roots being waterlogged.
There is a condition, it is not a disease, called blossom end rot. The bottom end of the fruit (the blossom end) becomes brown and scabby looking. It doesn’t affect the fruit untouched but often affects most of the fruit. Uneven watering is the cause of this condition as it affects the tomatoes ability to uptake an even supply of Calcium.
The most notorious pest is the dreaded Tomato hornworm. Full grown it is scary to even look at and the damage it causes is extreme. It can eat a voracious amount. They obviously start out very small and are beautifully camouflaged so often the first signs you see are a decimated plant. Another sign, as you get used to looking for it, are the droppings. The larger the droppings, the larger the hornworm.
I have not yet found any natural substances that work. Hot pepper juice, diatomaceous earth, even organic soaps don’t seem to deter these beasts. Organic soaps will kill tiny hornworms but you need to spray before you know the hornworms have arrived and the concentration can’t be too strong as it will hurt the tender growing ends of the tomato plants. I haven’t been able to control them but I deal with them by planting a sacrificial row of tomatoes on the outskirts of my garden. The tomato hornworm moths, better known as Night Hawk moths or Sphinx Moths, are attracted to the first row they smell, and lay the majority of their eggs there. My second line of defence is to go out in the morning with my cup of tea and walk the rows slowly and pick them off, dropping them into a bucket of soapy water and walk in the evenings with my favourite beverage and pick them off. In the summer of 2021, I tried a black light flashlight. It worked AMAZINGLY WELL!!!!.I would go out after dark and shine my black light flashlight and the hornworms would glow fluorescent green! So easy to see them, even the very young ones. I could see them 2 or 3 rows away. I could then pick them off (with gloves on) and toss them into a bucket for the chickens to eat the next morning. Alternatively, if you know of someone raising geckos, bearded dragons or chameleons, you can offer up bucketfuls of them as feed, as those lizards LOVE them. I’m still working on a plan to overwinter these critters and let them loose in my garden come spring. :-) Probably won’t happen here in Picton.
Early blight is a common tomato disease caused by the fungus Alternaria solani. It can affect almost all parts of the tomato plants, including the leaves, stems, and fruits. The plants may not die, but they will be weakened and will set fewer tomatoes than normal. Stressed plants or plants in poor health are especially susceptible.
Early blight fungus can come from many sources. It can be in the soil, it can over-winter in the diseased debris of your tomato plants and it can persist in the soil or debris for at least one year. Although early blight can occur in any type of weather, it favours damp conditions, like frequent rain or even heavy dews.
Management of Early Blight
Air Circulation: Provide plenty of space for the plants. Good airflow will help keep the plants dry.
Garden Sanitation: Since early blight can over-winter on plant debris and in the soil, sanitation is essential. Many tomato diseases can come into your garden this way so it's very important to clean up all plant residue at the end of the season.
Late blight is a disease caused by the fungus Phytophthora that can impact both tomatoes and potatoes. While it typically occurs late in the season (as the name implies), it can actually strike your garden at any time. Not only does the pathogen destroy the fruits of the plant it infects, but it can also spread very quickly and widely, wreaking havoc in your garden if not dealt with promptly and properly. The worst part: Late blight can overwinter, meaning that, even after a cold frost, it can return the following year if the plants and soil containing the pathogen are not removed.Late blight first presents itself as a soggy or water-soaked appearance on the older leaves or stems of a plant, eventually spreading into white and dark spots that cover the entire infected plant and its crop. Because it's carried by spores, late blight can travel long distances, often blowing nearby infections to your garden or spreading between your plants.blight thrives in a humid, wet environment.
Management of Late Blight
Start by tending to the infected plants, taking care to remove any diseased leaves, stems, or fruit. Be sure to dispose of the scraps—composting may only further spread the infection throughout your garden. Once you've removed all visual signs of the infection, apply a copper-based fungicide to the plants weekly in an attempt to dissuade the late blight from spreading or returning. At the end of your harvest, completely remove the plants, their scraps, and the surrounding soil from your garden. Start anew with fresh seeds and soil the following year to guarantee the health of your next crop.
Water your plants early on in the day so they have time to dry out in the warm sun more quickly. Take care to help your tomato plants grow off the ground by using stakes or cages, and, if possible, choose a spot in your garden for the plants that are sheltered from the wind, which can help protect them from blight spores that have blown from neighbouring gardens.