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Heirloom Tomatoes

Red heirloom tomato on the vine.

When talking about heirloom tomatoes, West Virginians cannot help but mention the Mortgage Lifter – one of the favorites in the state.

The plant grows large, meaty, 1- to 3-pound red and pink fruits and will keep producing until the frost. This tomato variety reaches maturity approximately 80 to 85 days from transplanting. With West Virginia’s short growing season, it would be beneficial to start these plants six to eight weeks before Mother’s Day. That way, you can have a strong healthy seedling earlier in the season. 

Suckers also can be used to propagate Mortgage Lifter tomatoes. The sucker is the sprout that emerges between the main branches of the tomato. Suckers can be removed by pinching or cutting them from the plant, preferably when they are shorter than 4 inches. Once these are cut away, they can be placed into damp soil and will form roots to create new tomato plants.

The story of the Radiator Charlie Mortgage Lifter began in West Virginia with Marshall Cletis Byles, who was known to his friends and community as Radiator Charlie. After planting his roots in Logan, West Virginia, he found his calling fixing radiators, which is how he got his nickname.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Charlie put his mind to developing a better breed of tomato. His unusual method of plant breeding paid off in a big way. He started with three varieties of tomatoes, beefsteak, an unknown English variety and an unknown Italian variety, and planted them in a circle with a fourth variety, German Johnson, in the center. He saved the seeds each year from the best tomatoes, and after several years, he was satisfied that he had produced a stable tomato variety. 

He went on to sell seedlings from this new variety for $1 per plant. He used the money from the plant sales to pay off his home mortgage. So, Charlie’s story lends itself to the household name of the Mortgage Lifter variety. Like Charlie’s tomatoes, seed from the West Virginia Mortgage Lifter can be saved for next year’s garden.

By John David Johnson, Former WVU Extension Agent – Jackson County