Year's end is when we gardeners contemplate our greatest successes and the most dismal failures of the previous growing season. Here in the desert, we have a great deal of trouble with tomatoes. They grow and ripen just fine, but the high UV or heat causes them to skin crack horribly. Most of the time a cracked tomato is still edible and delicious if I catch it early enough, but it has lost most of its natural beauty.
This year I scoured the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog for potential candidates for my desert garden. In picking through the descriptions of where each variety originated, I was amazed to find so many from northern Europe. This was probably due to the problem of cool northern climates making it difficult for this heat-loving fruit to ripen properly.
We see similar problems on California's foggy north coast where Mark Twain once said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Because tomatoes are such a no-brainer in warm summer climates, naturally a lot of the varietal development would occur among farmers who live in the more difficult cooler regions.
I passed over all these varieties looking for arid points of origin. I discovered that the Middle East had been growing tomatoes far longer than parts of Europe. These desert nations had to deal with the same problems I do, which are prolonged extreme heat, desiccating dry winds and sandy fast-draining soils. Finding landrace seeds from this part of the world isn't easy, so it takes research that's perfect for long winter evenings.
Among my final selections was Abu Rawan, a tomato that originates in Iraq. I grew seedlings in the greenhouse, then planted them outside in May on the sunniest side of my garden. As a control group I picked up some other varieties from the Bonnie Plants display to go in at the same time.
The desert tomatoes were a bit slow to start and lanky, but when temperatures began to soar they held their own, refusing to wilt even in hot winds. As fruit formed on all plants, it wasn't until the ripening began that I learned just how different they are. Not a single Abu Rawan tomato cracked while every one of the other heirlooms were riddled with them. They also thrived with less water than the leafier controls. This wasn't a scientific experiment, but for home gardeners, it's a good example of how to use heirlooms to best advantage.
If you live in a problem climate, there are probably heirlooms that will make gardening easier and more productive for you. Don't be swayed by the photos and glowing descriptions in catalogs. Instead give special attention to each variety's point of origin. Knowing this tells you what the original farmer was after with that variety, and if he had similar weather, soil or disease condition as yours. Not all heirloom catalogs have extensive backgrounders for each variety, so those that do should be your first choice for seed source research.
Page 2 of 2 - Whether you're trying to overcome this past year's failures or are just getting started with food gardening come spring, heirlooms add incredible diversity to our home garden selections.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.