Friend and former colleague at The Palm Beach Post, Tom Peeling, tells his story about venturing into the world of heirloom tomato gardening. Tom lives in Lantana, Fla., with his spouse, Becky.
Heirloom tomatoes something ‘truly special’
By Tom Peeling
After tasting Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes I had bought at the Lake Worth and West Palm Beach green markets the past two seasons, I knew this past fall I would have to grow some myself. But where to find the plants?
Scouting the Internet this past summer, I found TomatoBob.com, a site dedicated to heirloom vegetable seeds – including hundreds of kinds of tomatoes of all sizes, shapes and colors. I ordered a packet of Cherokee Purple seeds, eagerly awaiting their arrival.
A late start
Since I usually just put plants in the ground that I buy at a local retail outlet, I wasn’t prepared for the extra time it would take for seeds to germinate and get large enough to plant in large pots in my backyard garden.
I like to put out my tomato plants about the first of October, so that when it’s time to bloom it will be cool enough for the fruit to set. Too hot at night and the flowers drop off. But I planted my seeds in mid-September, and should have started at least a month earlier. Because of this, we didn’t get our first tomatoes until after the new year.
That said, the Cherokee Purple tomatoes turned out to be something truly special.
Off a half dozen plants, we’ve picked at least 30 pounds of tomatoes and they are still producing two months after the first fruit. We have several more plants from seeds I planted in November, and they are just starting to set fruit – so when the first crop is done, the second will be coming on.
I have only grown Better Boy, Beefsteak and the usual suspects from the local garden store, and the past two seasons have had major problems with late blight that started killing the plants about the time they started producing fruit.
No pesticides – just a heater
Despite planting the Cherokee Purples in the same soil in the same pots as last year, I have had no disease problems. Other than a few tomato worms I picked off, the plants have been bug- and disease-free all year. We haven’t used any pesticides.
During the cold weather of December, we pulled all of our tomato plants onto our covered porch, covered them with sheets and ran a small electric heater nearby. We saved them all, with just a little leaf burn.
I believe part of our secret of success for lots of fruit was using liquid fertilizer every couple weeks, along with Osmocote pellets a couple times during the year. I also fertilized every couple weeks with bone meal once they were large enough to fruit. Bone meal pushes out blooms. I cut back on the liquid food at that point so the plants wouldn’t keep growing so fast – all plant and no blooms is no good.
The highlight of the season came last week when our largest Cherokee Purple tomato started to ripen. We picked it just as color started to show so we wouldn’t have to fight the birds for it. We put it on the kitchen scale and it weighed in at 1 pound 5 ounces, and easily covered my wife’s entire outstretched hand.
We sliced it, added fresh mozzarella and some basil from our garden, then dressed it in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Wonderful.
We can’t wait until next fall to grow a couple more varieties of heirlooms. A friend up north who produces heirloom seeds for sale told me about a variety he developed – Chocolate Stripes, a lot like Cherokee Purple. He’s sending seeds, and we’ll be growing it next October. I’ll report back.