Consider growing heirloom tomatoes

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Tomatoes purchased at the store never taste as good as homegrown tomatoes. In addition, store-bought tomatoes are rarely as fragrant as homegrown tomatoes. With little flavor or scent, why buy tomatoes from the store when you can grow your own? Once you decide to grow your own, think about planting heirloom varieties.

An heirloom vegetable is at least 40 to 50 years old, and the seeds may be unavailable in the commercial seed trade. The seeds are often saved and handed down by gardeners from generation to generation.

What makes these old varieties so special? First, their flavor is outstanding. In addition, their skins are tender because they are propagated for eating rather than for shipping. They also come in a rainbow of colors, including traditional red, green, orange, yellow and black. Many have stripes and are oddly shaped, adding visual interest to salads.

With a staggered ripening process, these tomatoes ripen throughout the season rather than all at once, another benefit. Heirlooms are also open-pollinated, so seeds can be saved from year to year and still produce the same variety, unless they accidentally get cross-pollinated.

Finally, buying heirlooms ensures the continuation of plant varieties that might otherwise go extinct, supporting biodiversity. Biodiversity is important in maintaining disease resistance and a supply of vegetables for future generations.

Some popular heirloom tomatoes with shorter growing seasons are: 'Siberian' (57 days from setting the plants out to maturity), 'First Pick' (60 days), 'Black Krim' (70 days), 'Broad Ripple Yellow Currant' (75 days), 'Tasty Evergreen' (75 days), 'Black Sea Man Tomato' (75 days), 'Green Zebra' (78 days), 'Red Brandywine' (80 days), 'Aunt Ruby's German Green' (80 days) and 'Cherokee Purple' (82 days).

Nurseries sometimes carry heirloom seeds or transplants, but for a larger selection, you may want to check out the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization of gardeners who save and share heirloom seeds to form a living legacy ( You also might be able to find small plants at local farmers' markets. Another source is the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Master Gardener's Annual Plant Faire Extravaganza, 7 - 11:30 a.m., May 17, at the Cliff Fouts Demonstration Garden, 5305 Mill St., Reno. But, arrive early, or the heirlooms may already be gone. There are also many online retail suppliers.

In your vegetable garden, try heirloom varieties. For the tastiest peas, beans, corn, peppers, beets, carrots, greens, eggplant, watermelons, pumpkins, cucumbers, broccoli and more, plant a piece of history, and preserve varieties for generations to come. Plant some heirlooms!

For more information on gardening, contact me, 887-2252 or, or your local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office. Check out many useful horticulture publications at "Ask a Master Gardener" by e-mailing

• JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City / Storey County Extension Educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.


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