Heirloom Tomatoes

A Living Legacy

By Deena C. Bouknight

Jeff Amberg

Living history is found in many forms: cities, re-enactments, museums, and even gardens. Throughout South Carolina is a historical record of our nation’s 

history — that evidence springs to life each summer in the form of tomatoes. 

The term “heirloom” often connotes interior home furnishings: Grandmother’s rocker, a great-aunt’s emerald ring, or Papa’s clock. However, it also applies to fruits and vegetables — and the practice of cultivating heirloom varieties is increasingly of interest with amateur and seasoned gardeners alike. 

Clemson University’s Horticulture Extension Service classifies heirlooms as either grown for a “certain length of time” or “passed down by a family or group that has preserved them.” However, one hard-fast criteria for heirlooms is this: the seeds must be gathered from an open-pollinated plant; hybrid seeds do not count as they are helped along by humans. 

Many vegetable growers have made growing heirlooms their business or hobby simply because of taste. “Anyone who has ever tasted an heirloom tomato will never buy a store tomato again,” says Rodger Winn of Rodger’s Heirlooms in Little Mountain. “The whole purpose of growing them is the flavor. It’s about going back to what is the intention of a tomato –– to taste good.”

Joey McQuade, of Sylvan Farms in Saluda, says, “My kids just grab them off the vine and eat them like an apple.” 


First Fruits

Although it is difficult to understand, tomatoes are scientifically categorized as fruits and not vegetables. Society continually lumps tomatoes in with other veggies, probably because even though some tomato varieties exude a subtle sweetness, they are not as sweet as most fruits. Regardless of labels, tomatoes have been a staple in the United States since its early history. Rodger, in fact, owns seeds that originated from a 1700s variety, the Yellow Pear, which is considered one of the oldest. 

Tomatoes did not truly catch on with American consumers until the 1800s when large groups of Spanish, Greek, and Italian immigrants began arriving and bringing with them seeds that have been passed down to this day. 

Rodger explains that some heirlooms are as recent as the 1960s and 1970s, but he and others find the older varieties more interesting. He points to Seed Savers Exchange as providing true heirloom aficionados with fascinating information about heirlooms. He also attends local and national seed swaps to gather stories and seeds that he can pass down. The largest seed swap he revisits is in Berea, Kentucky. “I’ve been going to that one for at least 20 years. In economically depressed areas such as the Blue Ridge Mountains, families save seeds out of necessity so they do not have to purchase them, so there are so many old varieties.” 

Rodger enjoys experimenting with various seeds as much as he loves meeting the seed owners and hearing stories about seeds’ origins. One variety came from a pastor whose parents obtained the seeds from Amish families who had been growing the tomatoes since the 1800s. Another heirloom variety he grows on his 15-acre farm, where at least three acres are dedicated to cultivating vegetables, is called “Sease.” It was originally brought from Germany by the Sease family, who settled in Newberry in the 1800s. Other old variety seeds have been given to Rodger by his wife, Karen, through her family, who has saved heirloom seeds for generations. 

Growing Obsession

“Erin, my wife, thinks I have a problem,” quips Joey. He became serious about growing heirloom tomatoes on his 100-acre farm after he and Erin moved back to the area five years ago to be near family. They had been away for 10 years living in California and New Mexico. While in more desert climates, they experimented with growing heirlooms in their backyard. Currently, Joey owns at least 300 varieties of seeds. He sells tomatoes to 14 Carrot, Wingard’s Nursery, Rosewood Market, and the Farmers Market in Lexington. He also supplies tomatoes to such Lexington restaurants as Keg Cowboy Bar and The Root Cellar. 

He says his favorite way to enjoy the fruits of his labor is to slice different varieties and arrange them on a plate to make a Caprese salad, which includes mozzarella, basil, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and a dash of salt and pepper. “The fewer the ingredients with the tomatoes, the better,” says Joey.

Rodger is likely to eat tomatoes up to three times daily during peak season. He relishes fresh, warm-from-the-garden tomato sandwiches, tomato pie, and a family favorite: tomato gravy –– which is made just like milk gravy, but with tomatoes added, as well as a little cream. 

Both Joey and Rodger prefer the black varieties, such as Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, and Paul Robeson. “They have a deep, bold, earthy flavor that cannot be beat,” shares Joey. “Yellow and orange varieties tend to be more citrus-like. We grow many so people can discover their own favorites.”

“The blacks have an intense tomato taste, a richer flavor,” says Rodger. He points out that reds are typically a little on the acidic side, while pinks are generally a tad sweeter. “My favorite to grow,” adds Rodger, “is Super Choice, a large red that, when sliced, practically covers a piece of bread.” He found that variety in a seed swap in Berea as well. 

Rodger spent 20 years in the Navy and always gardened no matter where he was stationed. He landed in Little Mountain and, even though he works full time, has counted heirloom farming as a full-time hobby and side-business since 2004. 

“It has been a lifelong process of seed saving and planting,” he says. “I didn’t really document history too much at first, but I’ve gotten into collecting and learning the history.” 

Rodger runs a greenhouse business, sells heirloom tomatoes, seeds, and other heirloom vegetables from his farm –– and he also hosts seed swaps (there was one in the spring at the historic Seibel’s House). He also organizes SPLAT (South Carolina Piedmont Lycopersicon Annual Tasting), which is July 22 this year. Part of his acreage is also designated for just growing plants that can be harvested for seeds sold under contract to specialty seed companies. 


Cultivating Happy Heirlooms

Prior to World War II, most tomatoes were open pollinated. However, with the Baby Boom along with so many soldiers returning home and trying to prosper after four years of misery abroad, food producers looked for ways to produce plenty cheaply. Plus, consumers wanted uniformity after so much chaos. Thus, the world of large, hybrid crops became the norm. What shoppers gained in affordable price and pleasant appearance, they lost in taste. Then came a return to a farm-to-table focus. 

In Columbia, heirlooms are such a big deal that the Palmetto Tasty Tomato Festival is held each year and is set for Aug. 5 at City Roots Urban Farm. A highlight of the event that celebrates locally grown foods is an Heirloom Tomato Tasting as well as a Tasty Tomato Contest. Local restaurants serve food with a tomato theme. 

Rodger says that heirlooms are not suited for mass production, but for smaller farmers and backyard gardeners. Through experimenting, he has learned that some varieties thrive in South Carolina’s warm-to-hot, humid climate and long growing season, while others are better suited for higher, cooler elevations. Heirlooms might not have the super-long shelf life that hybrids do, but they make up in taste for that one drawback. 

Rodger has great success growing heirlooms using a simple technique: allow two main stalks to grow, stake the plant, break off any other stems and suckers, allow for adequate air circulation around the plant, mulch around the plant with straw to keep the weeds down and the moisture in the soil, and watch the plants grow huge. These are not wimpy plants, he warns. They can overtake a garden due to their robust health. Growing this way makes the plants thrive, and they are less susceptible to diseases, maintains Rodger. 

Annually, each plant can produce from 15 to 30 pounds of heirlooms. “All the energy of the plant goes into fruit production, not in plant production.” He fertilizes at planting with 1/4 cup bone meal and 1/4 cup blood meal, plus a tablespoon of Epsom salt for each plant. Every four weeks he applies 1 pint per plant of a concoction made with a tablespoon of fish emulsion per gallon of water. He and Karen are able to can up to 140 quarts of tomatoes annually.

Joey adds to the soil a balanced organic bioactive fertilizer that includes Mycorrhiza and natural minerals, such as Azomite. He also adds ground oyster shells. “A few inches of properly made compost should be added to the top of the soil surrounding the tomato to reduce weed pressure and the chance of any disease in the soil splashing onto foliage during a rain or watering. A couple weeks after they are planted, I water in high nitrogen fish emulsion to really get them growing –– but I can’t overdo the nitrogen or there will be too much vegetative growth and chance of disease.” 

If Joey has horn or fruit worms, he releases parasitic wasps or sprays an organic Dipel, which affects the pests but does not harm pollinators. 

Rodger says he is addicted to growing heirlooms for a number of reasons; however, a main gratification is receiving an email from someone who has purchased his plants and is reaping the benefits. “That’s rewarding,” he says. And, although much of Rodger’s focus is on tomatoes, he says preserving heirlooms of all types of vegetables is his mission.

He is also trying to pass the seed heritage down to his children and grandchildren and hopes that they will carry on the living legacy of heirlooms. 

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