Why I Gave Up on Heirloom Tomatoes After Two Decades of Gardening
Those who know me or have read my book understand my love and pride for beyond-organic gardening. In the last few years, I have doubled the size of my garden to cover a more diverse diet since we buy very little food. Stretching out my garden has also driven me to look at how far I had to stretch my time and energy to manage it all. Every gardener knows there is no chance of recovering a run-away garden if it gets away from you.
Earlier in life, I wouldn't consider or even dabble in the idea of using anything other than pure organic seed if I had to buy seeds, but the times and my needs have changed. I used to believe that all hybrid seed was lab developed or had laboratories reorganize genes which I was vehemently against after surviving cancer. As I continued to grow, I decided to stop assuming and started studying.
Blight and other diseases have been a constant problem in Kansas due to the humidity. I plant my tomatoes with apple trees in mind. Each plant must have plenty of room between plants and good airflow to prevent mold, fungus, and pest colonies. This means keeping branches from overlapping and removing blight at the first signs to prevent further spread.
Each year I would have to plant more and more plants to meet the same yield, and the plants took more time to tend. I have a daily routine of removing limbs and leaves showing signs of early blight and then late blight. These hours add up quickly, and the labor was intensive in the summer heat. It took away from weeding and the time needed to hand-pick pests.
With a bend-sensitive spine due to spine disease, tending tomatoes was ruining me. I was so proud of the idea of heirlooms that I was killing myself. Spending an hour or two on my knees every other day and lugging buckets of cut stems and leaves out of the garden to be composted for dirt use outside the garden wasn't working out.
After a long hot day in the garden, I sat on the porch, sipping tea to have the energy to make dinner, and asked myself a soul-searching question, "Do I want to survive or be a relic?" Part of evolution is health; these tomato plants' health is crud. I needed to evolve to keep growing. As a cancer survivor, I knew I got cancer from a poor environment and that my tomatoes had good soil and water. It wasn't an environmental issue or the care I provided but the tomato plant itself. It became clear that I needed plants that had been bred to have disease resistance.
I didn't want zombie hybrid tomato plants in the garden. I entertained the idea of grafting, but that seemed super zombie, so I researched how they make hybrids naturally. Hybridization is a natural process, and if you grow more than one type of tomato in your garden or if your neighbors have tomatoes and you save seeds, there is likely a high percentage of natural hybridization that has occurred over the years in your saved seed. This is the exact reason I save my seeds from year to year. I usually plant a few varieties just in case weather supersedes a yield. I select the seeds I want to keep from the plants that grow the strongest and produce the nicest fruits. These plants often cross-breed from year to year, and I get incredibly strong "mutts" that need very little care. Most modern-day hybrid plants are made by growing varieties in quarantine and cross-pollinating with another specific quarantined variety to get the desired effect, such as disease resistance. That is the fast way to explain it. If you want to go further, visit this link from a non-affiliate site that explains it really well!
Lastly, a genetically modified seed must be labeled as a "GMO." This means most seed is naturally hybridized by the hand of man that is made in God's image. I find this acceptable and necessary in the evolution of food that can avoid disease, much like how humans survive with the help of the medical "field" when needed. Humans are designed to evolve. I felt it was foolish to continue to keep trying to grow unevolved seeds. Our climate has changed from what it was even 50 years ago. Our food supply needs to evolve for our survival. I choose to keep that evolution as natural as possible in my food.
- What about organic seed?
I used to think that was important, but the reality is that a seed only contains a genetic code of how to grow. I don't think I will poison my organic soil with a spent seed casing. Birds that eat GMO corn and soybeans in the neighboring fields poop in my garden. That is life. The non-organic plant seed will grow in a clean organic environment. That makes the plant and fruit 99.999% organic, which is acceptable in my eyes for survival and affordable sustainability. I see no reason to spend the extra dollar or two for a bag of organic seed that I figure is poorly regulated in some cases anyway. The most important thing to me is flavor, disease, and cracking resistance.
This photo was the last year for my heirlooms. They were hard to process and low in numbers. I could not can them due to the cracks in the surface. I had to process them all for freezing.
What kind of tomatoes do I grow? Well, first off, UNIFORM ones! I do not grow big old honker two-pound tomatoes. The idea is nice, but often they must be babied to keep them from getting so heavy they rip off the plant and land on the ground. They also come with many wrinkles that take a long time to remove the skins if not using a food mill. Time is coveted on the homestead. Spending three minutes peeling water bathed a tomato before dicing wastes time when you have buckets of them to process.
I like to use disease-resistant, smaller varieties, baseball size, that easily fit in my food mill, from a good and proven seed company. Cherry tomatoes are also fun to pick quickly and require no effort to wash (I use an electric bath) and toss 'em into the food mill. They make the sweetest pizza sauce, pasta sauces, and soups that usually require added sugar. Unlike cane sugar, natural sugars in fruit are only mildly refined by the simmering process.
- What kind of tomatoes do I plant specifically?
I have bought seeds from many companies over the years and discovered that there are different types of seed companies. Some companies sell for variety and excitement, and some sell for yield. I used to regularly buy from seed companies with the most beautiful catalog that made me feel the best to paw through, only to get low-yield products that were seeds discovered on some back road in Peru or Taiwan. I can't tell you how many beautiful watermelon and canteloupe varieties I have grown that were tossed to hogs because they were too full of seeds to consume. As a homesteader, I need disease-resistant and solidly productive seed, so I don't have to kill myself tending to extra plants to get enough to last all winter. Finding seed companies that sell to professional produce growers is your first sign of highly productive plants necessary for sustainability.
I got my disease-resistant variety of seeds from Seeds N' Such. Their catalog explains the resistance qualities of each variety of hybrid tomatoes. I was easily able to pick three kinds of tomatoes. A table tomato for hamburgers and sandwiches, a Roma tomato and a midsize for canning salsa, diced tomatoes, and sauce all year to make everything from soup to BBQ.
I grow Mountain-Merit, Defiant, and Plum Regal Roma. It's a one-time investment if you save your seeds from year to year. There is a little natural cross-breeding, but I find that it improves the immunity of the plants.
Totally Tomatoes, Gurney's, and Johnn'ys Selected Seeds also have a disease-resistant section in their catalogs. It only takes a few minutes of studying to save yourself hours of pruning each summer by selectively purchasing disease-resistant seeds.
Fun tip - a mini clothes washer made to wash small garments in the sink is handy for washing vegetables. You can pick one up off Amazon for around $20.00. I also occasionally use a small portable washing machine to speed up the process for large batches of peppers. These items help save water vs. washing each vegetable by hand. You can view this in action HERE on a Facebook post I made.
Homesteading is a transformative and empowering journey that can bring healing and vitality to one's life. After a difficult battle with depression and cancer, I found solace in growing my own food and ensuring its proper care from the field to the table. In my journey, I discovered the true meaning of self-sufficiency and the profound connection to nature that comes with living a country life. My book, 'Growing Back to the Land,' shares my intimate narrative of growth, discovery, and the wonderful experience of living in "God's Country." It is available HERE on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback. The first few chapters are available for free with the "look inside" button on the book cover on Amazon.
My website shares my personal real-life photos for every chapter. growingbacktotheland.com Discover my website, which is completely free of ads and pop-ups, and is dedicated to providing information about my regenerative farming practices and animal-husbandry techniques on open pastures without bag feed. You can sign up to receive email notifications for new blog posts, and I assure you that I do not sell or share any personal information, including email addresses. If you find the information valuable, please consider sharing it with someone else. Keep growing!