When most people think of heirloom vegetables, the tomato comes to mind. Here in Maryland, we love our tomatoes, and no vegetable garden is complete without an heirloom tomato plant. Many common tomato plants can be found for purchase in early May, but availability and variety are limited.
Growing tomatoes from seed allows gardeners to experiment with an endless variety of heirlooms. Whether growing paste tomatoes for canning, or showy fruits in hues of purple or gold, starting tomatoes from seed is the surest way to grow tomatoes that suit your taste and needs.
Photos By Rebecca Anne Cole
When to Start Tomato Seeds
Most planting guides suggest starting tomatoes indoors according to the last frost date for the planting zone. Since tomatoes are warm weather annuals that are susceptible to cold snaps, I like to start my seeds six to eight weeks before transplanting to the garden. Once temperatures are consistently above 65-70 degrees F, the seedlings are ready to go out. I look to transplant my tomato plants in mid to late May.
Plant seeds in moist starter soil, about 1/8” deep in a warm location. Light will help the germination process, which usually takes a few days. I set my tomato seed trays on a table in front of a large window.
When sprouts start to emerge, move the plants under grow lights for 8-10 hours a day, watering regularly. If I have more tomato trays than lights available, I rotate the trays; one day shift, one night shift. The plants will adjust to natural daylight times when transplanted to the garden.
Heirloom Varieties to Try
One of my favorite heirloom tomato varieties is Black Krim. I received a packet of these seeds as a free gift with a seed order, and I have grown them ever since. This Russian heirloom is sweet and rich, and has a beautiful deep red hue. I use them in salads, or blend with Amish Paste tomatoes when making sauces.
Another one of my favorite tomato heirlooms, Gold Medal develops beautiful orange fruits that complement any fresh preparation. I like to slice them for sandwiches, or eat them right from the garden with a sprinkle of salt.
Similar in size to cocktail tomatoes, Green Zebra grows fun fruits that develop bright green and orange stripes when ripe. Green Zebra is a good choice to introduce tomatoes to finicky eaters; my kids love the look and name of these little guys.
For cooking and canning, Amish Paste is my go to tomato variety. The size and color are similar to that of a Roma tomato. The thick skins come off easily when dipped in hot water, and the flavor is enhanced when cooked. I use them alone with herbs, or blend with other heirloom varieties when making tomato sauces.
If your goal is to grow a bumper tomato crop, look no further than Tappy’s Heritage. When I planted a row of these beauties, my plants were so weighted down with fruits I had to harvest daily and add extra support. Tappy’s Heritage make delicious slicing tomatoes. They also freeze well when blanched, peeled, and placed in air tight containers. During the winter months I pop a couple of frozen tomatoes in soups and stews.