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Heirloom Tomatoes

A large heirloom tomato growing on the vine.

The most popular garden crop has always been the tomato. And, heritage tomatoes are ingrained in West Virginia’s history.

The heritage tomato is an open-pollinated cultivar that is grown for a variety of reasons, including food, taste, color, shape, historical interest and saving seeds.

Some of the West Virginia heritage varieties include Brandywine, Hillbilly, Mortgage Lifter, Oxheart, Kellogg’s Breakfast and Striped German to list a few. Many of these have been handed down from generation to generation in the Mountain State.

Seeds should be started indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date. Use a starter soil mix in small cell packs or small pots with a germination temperature of 80 degrees F. After the last frost, transplant into the garden or containers.

Tomatoes need ample room to grow. A good rule of thumb when planting is to allow 36 inches around each plant. The wider spacing will improve air flow, which helps prevent diseases. You should test your soil a month before you start planting to get a baseline and add fertilizer accordingly.

Since the biggest concern with these tomatoes is disease, mulching below the plant is a must. The mulch will keep the rain from splashing soil onto the plants and limit disease. Keep in mind that heritage tomatoes are vigorous growers, so they need to be staked or trellised.

It is important to prune often to allow for more air flow and encourage larger fruit production up the plant. The heritage varieties have thin skin, which makes the fruit prone to splitting on the vine. Overwatering can increase the number of splits, so water intermittently to help reduce splitting and enhance flavor. It is best to avoid overhead watering.

Despite their challenges during the growing season, many gardeners say heritage varieties have a better flavor than most hybrids.

By Brian Sparks, WVU Extension Agent – Nicholas County