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Heralding the First (Heirloom) Tomato!


My hands smell like summer now that I've just come back from picking the season's first ripe tomatoes. There are eight Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes that look like cartoony light bulbs, 13 little Peacevine cherries, and one very green, very small Marglobe which I accidentally dislodged while ripping out a morning glory vine. Of course my dad had his first ripe tomato a full three weeks before I had these. It's not that he lives in a more tropical climate. Rather, he planted a hybrid tomato -- probably Early Girl -- that's known for rapid maturity even if it doesn't taste quite like, say, a Marglobe.

So just why are mine taking so long to ripen? For starters they're heirloom varieties -- that means they are open-pollinated plants that my grandmother and her grandmother and her grandmother's grandmother could have planted in their gardens. Because heirloom plants can reproduce themselves identically from their own seed -- and each generation of these varieties is pretty much identical -- there's no need to buy seeds year after year. And if I find that one of my plants created extra flavorful tomatoes, I can select for that flavor by saving seeds from that particular plant to sow in next year's garden. My dad certainly can't do that with his new-fangled hybrids. (Ever tried to plant the seed produced by a plant grown from a hybrid seed? It doesn't work very well since the new plants will exhibit traits from the hybrid's parents rather than the hybrids themselves.)

There are other benefits to planting heirlooms. I think it's a "greener" way to garden as our increasing dependence on seed companies' hybrid varieties continually narrows the gene pool for our flower, fruits, and veggies -- making species more vulnerable to insect pests and plant pathogens. (It's a lot like what's going on with the Cavendish banana.) By choosing to plant open-pollinated varieties instead, I help reintroduce genetic diversity -- and maybe help reduce the world's dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the meantime.

So I had to wait a few more weeks for my tomatoes. Truly good things are worth the wait.