There is an avalanche of tomato varieties becoming available to American gardeners. Twenty years ago our choices were much simpler. Tomatoes were basically round, red and available in three sizes -- small, medium or large. There were still a few gold and pink varieties around, but these seemed to be fading into history as the tomato-buying public voted with their wallets: "Give us round and red!"
Even the highest tides are bound to change. Inevitably, people tire of what they once craved and look for something that's new. And when they began looking for new tomatoes, they found a rich assortment of colors and shapes. Marvelously striped bicolors, purples, brick reds, creamy whites and even improbable chocolates and weird greens. There were cherry tomatoes scarcely bigger than peas and huge ribbed things shaped like pumpkins, plus pepper-shaped tomatoes, sausage-shaped tomatoes and monstrous, heart-shaped fruits.
You can find diversity like this in other vegetables: squash, corn, dry beans and peppers certainly. But none of those are so dearly loved by so many American gardeners or as simple to grow. And none are easier to save your own seed from than tomatoes, which tend to be self-pollinated and produce huge amounts of seed in a single fruit.
When the round-and-red-weary first went looking, they found the truly unusual in the backyards of other gardeners who had been saving their own seed for years, even across generations. These varieties became available by mail first through the Seed Savers Exchange and soon afterward from some small seed companies that began to specialize in heirlooms. (An heirloom vegetable is one that is open-pollinated and at least 50 years old.) More varieties appeared when travelers, plant hunters and correspondents began actively collecting varieties from all over the world, especially Europe and countries in the former Soviet bloc.
Today almost any seed catalog will have at least one or two of the best heirlooms. There is even one company -- Tomato Growers Supply -- that offers virtually nothing but tomatoes, though it recently expanded to include peppers.
For most gardeners, heirlooms probably won't be the only tomatoes to grow. If you have a favorite tomato or two of the round-and-red type, you probably won't find an heirloom that will totally replace it; at least not on your first try. But the heirlooms have a great deal to offer, not least of which is the great fun you'll have watching these new shapes and colors emerge from the familiar mass of foliage on our favorite-of-all vegetable plants.
Keeping in mind that there's a tomato out there that will disprove any rule, here are a few things to remember as you begin to shop for some heirlooms to try this season.
Flesh is soft and juicy. This is one of the most appealing traits of many older tomato varieties, and one of the first things to go as breeders develop tomatoes to sell. Heirlooms often have a succulent texture that releases flavors fully. On the downside, some may be more watery or have a shorter shelf life than you like.
Flavors will vary. Some are absolutely delicious. Some are unusual. Some are far nicer to look at than to eat.
Expect fewer perfect fruits. Many of the varieties have large shoulders that don't ripen evenly or are easily blemished. That's a big problem at the farmstand but not for the gardener. The answer is obvious: Cut imperfect parts away and compost them. Some heirloom varieties do not yield heavily.
Most are large plants and indeterminate growers. You'll need to use trellises, stakes and cages for these plants to really do their best.
More regional variation, less disease resistance. Some heirlooms are very prone to disease, while a handful are remarkably disease-resistant. Most fall somewhere between. A lot depends on how well a variety responds to local weather and soil. Many heirlooms are best suited to a narrow range of climatic conditions, though a few are widely adapted. Problems like cracking are especially climate-dependent.
Two newsletters offer in-depth information on tomatoes: Off the Vine (21-2 Latham Village Ln., Latham, NY 12110; $5 for 3 issues) and The Tomato Club (114 E. Main St., Bogota, NJ 07603; $12.95 for 6 issues, $16.95 Canada and Mexico).