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Grow Your Own Food: Planting Heirloom Tomatoes

March 4th, 2011 · 12 Comments

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’

Tom Peeling

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.

Behemoth Cherokee Purple, 1 pound, 5 ounces

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.

Fertilizer schedule

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.


Tags: Gardens: Grow Your Own Food

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Charlie // Mar 8, 2011 at 7:49 am

    Hi Jan,

    Can you tell me what kind of pots Tom uses? And how does he support the plants as they get large? I’d definitely like to try this next summer & fall. Sounds like you have to start the seeds in August and then presumably transfer to large pots in late Sept or early Oct.

  • 2 Tom Peeling // Mar 8, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Charlie: I use any pots I can find. Some are just black plastic nursery pots from other plants I have planted. I drilled holes in the bottom of some 5 gallon buckets and use them, too. I even grow broccoli and string beans in planter boxes. Be imaginative. However, make sure the drainage is good and the pots have to be at least 5 gallons each, preferably 7 gallons.

  • 3 Tom Peeling // Mar 8, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Oops, Charlie, forgot to tell you that to support the plants, i use either bamboo stakes that I get at Uncle Bim’s Garden Center on Belvedere in WPB, or wooden stakes that you can get at the Home Depot garden center. Either work, but the wooden stakes are better support. 6-8 feet tall are what you need.

  • 4 Jan Norris // Mar 8, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Also, Charlie: I took the Mounts “Farm Your Backyard” course and they really touted the “grow bags.”
    These are a black mesh material that come in a variety of sizes – fill them with dirt and they aren’t prone to bacteria or nematodes as plastic buckets can sometimes be. I was quite keen on them. Am not sure you’re local, but Uncle Bim’s was carrying the bags and there’s a place in Boynton, I believe, where you can get them wholesale. I’ll research it and get back to you.
    Read about another couple (a former Palm Beach Post person, too) successful at container gardening in SoFla here:

  • 5 Charlie // Mar 8, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Thanks Jan and Tom. Thanks to your advice, I can start preparing for next season well in advance. I am in Northeast Delray. I have limited space with full sun – so I’ll look into all these options and see what I can plan for the summer/fall. Thanks again.

  • 6 Charlie // Mar 29, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Is it too early to buy seeds I’m not going to plant for several months? For example, this site has a special deal right now. Or I can wait…

  • 7 Tom Peeling // Mar 29, 2011 at 7:58 am

    Charlie: It’s not too early to buy seeds. Seeds generally last for years, although it’s best to plant them within a year or so for best germination rates. I already have my fall seeds. You might want to wait until closer to fall because most places are trying to get rid of seeds then because they only grow tomatoes in the summer.

  • 8 Jan Norris // Mar 29, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Take care to store them in a cool, dry place. I freeze some of my flower bulbs, but that will ruin vegetable seeds for sure.

  • 9 CharlieDelray // Nov 30, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Hi Tom, If you are out there… The holes in the bottom of 5 gallon buckets – can you tell me appx how many, and the size? Bottom only or also sides? AND – Do you put some coarse gravel or rocks down there to help drainage (and I suppose add some weight too)? Thanks!

  • 10 Tom // Nov 30, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Charlie: Take the largest drill bit you have and drill about 6-8 holes in the bottom. You can put four in the sides at the very bottom too, if you want. No need for any gravel if you do that.

  • 11 Paul // Dec 30, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Jan, I am growing tomatoes that I believe wer developed by IFAS. The name is Solar Set. I planted them about 4 to 6 weeks ago and transplanted them to black plastic nursery pots after they were up about 4 to 6 inches. They are loaded with green tomatoes about 3 inches across and still growing. These set fruit when the night temps were stil in the 70’s. I have NEVER had any luck setting fruit at these temp’s before. Hopefully the tomatoes will be good when they ripen, look great so far.

  • 12 Carolyn Milita // Oct 24, 2016 at 9:32 am

    Thanks for letting us know where we can buy heirloom tomato plants. I have been wanting to try to grow these for several years.

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