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Heirloom Tomatoes: Why They're Better
By Thomas Stone

I was listening to NPR the other week when I heard an interesting interview, by
an author named Barry Esterbrook who’d written a book called
Tomato Land.

Esterbrook enumerated all of the reasons why genetically modified tomatoes
shipped from Florida are sadly flavorless, and lacking in nutritional value.  He
detailed the process by which our non-organic grocery store tomatoes are
shipped green from Florida, and turned red by exposure to ethylene gas.  

These were facts that I was already well-acquainted with but what I found more
fascinating were his reasons why "real" tomatoes taste so good!

Here is a section of the interview where Esterbrook is explaining why it is so
hard for agriciultural scientists to replicate the taste of a "real tomato":

    "
Well, there's several things at play. The sort of -- the foundation, you first have to  
build is getting the right balance of acids, citric acid and malic acid, and malic acid is the
acid that gives apples their tartness. You have to get those in balance with sugar, and
that's the foundation. But then on top of that foundation you have to lay down, they don't
know exactly but there's probably 15 or 20 chemicals called aromatic chemicals, which
means chemicals that you can smell -- and, you know, taste and smell are one in the same
thing -- that go into a tomato to give you that signature tomato flavor … You compare that
to a banana. There's really one chemical that goes into a banana that gives you a flavor
that you would instantly recognize as banana. Tomatoes have these 15 or 20 and none of
them smell or taste anything like a tomato in and of themselves. I smelt one, it smelled to
me just like a nice rose. I smelt another and it smelled like Juicy Fruit gum. I smelt another
and it smelled to me like a freshly-mown lawn and so on. But together in the right
quantities they deliver this taste. But so breeders have to be juggling all these in the right
proportions to get a good tasting tomato
."

I found this so fascinating!  What a rich palette of flavors nature brings together
to give us tomatoes!  And of course, it will be difficult for scientists to catch up.  
In the meanwhile, those of us who grow food in our gardens or visit local
farmers' market can bypass the whole issue altogether -- by growing or buying
heirloom tomatoes.

In the past few years that I’ve been growing heirloom tomatoes, I’ve personally
relished the whole experience from start to finish -- especially the tail-end:
harvesting, cooking and eating.

Gardening is a rewarding, often relaxing experience; it can even be a form of
family leisure. Younger children love digging around in a garden, planting
seedlings, tearing up weeds or picking fresh fruits and vegetables.

Older children can learn valuable lessons and gain great satisfaction from
growing their own food. What could be more rewarding than sitting on the patio
with one's family, eating a meal full of veggies planted, cared for and harvested
together?

Heirloom tomatoes have become increasingly popular in recent years, making
them a perfect choice for a family garden. They are, in several ways, superior to
hybrid tomatoes, but they take some special care that hybrids do not. Here are
five ways heirloom tomatoes are superior to hybrids and five tips on growing
them.

Heirloom Superiority

1. Heirloom tomatoes require less water than hybrid tomatoes.
While hybrid
tomato plants will usually die if they aren't watered regularly, heirloom
tomatoes only need to be watered about once a week and only if the soil is dry.

2. There are more varieties of heirloom tomatoes. This means that there will be
a variety of heirloom tomato that will work splendidly in any dish. They vary in
color, taste, size and shape.

3. Heirloom tomatoes have a wider range of taste and mostly are more
enjoyable than hybrids.
Hybrid tomatoes have been bred for size, color and
hardiness, not taste, whereas heirloom tomatoes were bred almost exclusively
for taste.

4. Seeds from heirloom tomatoes can be saved and planted next year. Unlike
hybrid tomato plants' seeds, heirloom tomato seeds will produce plants
identical to parents.

5. Heirloom tomatoes have more nutrients than hybrids. Again, hybrids were
bred for size, color and hardiness, not nutritional value. Though they still
possess some health benefits, heirloom tomatoes are superior.

Growing Tips

1. Gardeners should pick the variety of heirloom tomato best suited to their
region.
Different varieties have different growing periods and require different
temperatures for optimum growth.

2. Growers should start their seeds indoors, about four weeks before the
average final frost.

3. Several varieties, with different maturation rates, should be planted.
This
will allow for continuous harvests throughout the growing season. Also,
heirlooms have lower yields than hybrids, which means that more plants are
required to obtain the same amount of tomatoes.

4. Mulching the area where the tomatoes will be planted will help keep
moisture conditions consistent from year to year, which will greatly simplify
the task of growing the plants.
Planting the sprouts 2/3 of the way into the
ground gives them a head start on building a root system.

5. Some varieties can grow to around six feet tall and require sturdy support,
like strong wire fencing anchored to the ground.
Researching the structural
needs of the tomato plant and providing a good framework is key when
growing multiple varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

Growing vegetables, especially heirloom tomatoes, at home is a great way to
involve the family in a healthy, fun activity. After harvesting, the family starts to
enjoy some of the real health benefits, including more nutrients and a wider
variety of vegetables.


About the author: Thomas Stone, a gardener and freelance writer, is contributing author
at Cooks and Travel Books.