CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — At last year’s plant sale Ralph, from Hagerstown, bought several pots of two varieties of heirloom tomato plants. He said every year he buys one or two different heirloom tomatoes and saves the seeds to share with friends and family.
Heirloom varieties are open pollinated which means, not like hybrids, seeds you collect from one year will produce the same plants the next year. Home gardeners, unlike commercial growers, have the luxury to choose what they grow. Many choose these for taste, shape, hardiness, and color not found in hybrid selections. And, like heirloom peppers, some heirloom tomatoes we are offering at our May 20 plant sale this year come with interesting stories.
In the 1930s, “Radiator Charlie” Byles was a radiator repairman in West Virginia and an amateur tomato breeder. He wanted to breed a large and meaty tomato that could feed families. He worked for six years, crossing and selecting the biggest and strongest plants he could find. The result was his dream tomato, meaty and weighing about four pounds. People drove hundreds of miles for his tomatoes. By selling his seedlings for $1 (a rather hefty sum back then), he was able to pay off his $6,000 mortgage. “Mortgage Lifter” tomatoes show up as #6 on the °BRIX scale of sweetness.
The first seeds of the San Marzano tomato came to Campania, Italy, in 1770, as a gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples. It was planted near the community of San Marzano. It is the most important industrial tomato of the 20th century providing commercial canneries with a sturdy and tasty fruit. It is the preferred variety of local restaurants and excellent for canning.
The Brandywine was the first heirloom to achieve “cult status.” It’s a pink, Amish variety from the 1880’s. Burpee® listed a Brandywine in their 1886 catalog and Johnson and Stokes listed a variety called Brandywine in 1889. There are many stories of origin, and one is documented that brought them to the Seed Savers Exchange. Brandywine seeds from Dorris Sudduth Hill in Tennessee, who said they were in her family for 80 years, were given to tomato farmer Ben Quisenberry in Ohio. In 1982, Ben gave some to the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.
Master Gardeners are also offering dwarf tomatoes from the Victory Seeds Dwarf Tomato Project. This project used strategic crosses with results of new hybrids grown. Then seeds were shared to produce new varieties, followed by several generations to reach a stable new non-hybrid variety with the desired characteristics. Seeds from these plants would produce the same plants.
We are offering Dwarf Eagle Smiley, a golden yellow cherry, Dwarf Sneaky Sauce, red and about 4-6 oz. and meaty, plus Dwarf Hannah’s Prize, at 6-12 oz. These are from the Victory Seeds Dwarf Tomato project, and you are welcome to save and share.
SAVE THE DATE. May 20 Plant Sale 9-1. 425 Franklin Farm Lane, Chambersburg
–Penn State Extension