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LIFE GARDEN heirloom tomatoes seed savers exchange
heirloom tomatoes seed savers exchange

Taking a Bite Out of History

by Sonya Oppenheimer

Mouth already watering as you anticipate the tangy lettuce, flavorful tomatoes, sweeter-than-candy carrots and melt–in–your–mouth corn you'll soon be harvesting from your garden? Or are you apprehensive that, once again, your lovingly tended crops won't taste as good as your expectations? Your problem could be that you're not growing heirlooms!

Why heirlooms? "Taste. And variety," says Rich Sisti, owner with wife, Sue, of Catalpa Ridge Farm, Wantage, NJ. "Incredible taste," says Harriet Buckner of Alstede Farms in Chester, NJ. "Simple. Taste!" says Kimberly Schultz, avid home gardener. "And, knowing that a hundred years ago my grandfather could have been growing the same thing."

Heirloom seeds are open–pollinated. Unlike hybrid seeds, which are not able to reproduce plants with exactly the same traits, heirlooms can be counted on to reproduce plants that exactly resemble each other year after year.

"Something in the land of this region grows particularly good tasting tomatoes,"

Remember when New Jersey owned up to its sobriquet of the Garden State? Every mile or two brought you to a farm stand. In that not–so–long–ago time, competition prompted each farm to preserve its best of harvest for seed and offer varieties different from its neighbor. A short drive and you could pick and choose starter plants from a truly varied selection. Or, the host of small seed companies provided still more genetic diversity.

Then, big business took a bite out of diversity. Mega-farms were established and distribution changed from local to regional to national and international.

Soon, it made economic sense to grow large quantities of a single variety that shipped well; was consistent in size, shape and color; ripened at one time; stood up to pesticides and looked tempting on the self.

As seed companies created hybridized seeds to meet these requirements, they opted for appearance over flavor. "If it tasted good, that was nice," but it wasn't the main objective according to Alstede's Buckner.

At the same time, merger and acquisition saw small seed companies gobbled up. With the bottom line always in mind and mega–farms providing the bulk of business, each passing year has meant the dropping of more traditional seed varieties.

Loss of taste is not the only problem. Without genetic diversity — the Mayan word gene means spiral of life — we could face a catastrophe like the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. Reliance on a single potato variety saw a blight destroy the entire Irish crop, leading to the death of over a million people.

All has not been lost thanks to the grass–roots seed saver movement. Kent and Diane Whealy of Iowa are the movement's heroes. When they became heirs to Diane's family seeds brought from Bavaria four generations earlier, they decided to search for more heirlooms. Discovering a cornucopia passed on within other families, they founded the Seed Savers Exchange. Since 1975, this nonprofit has been dedicated to conserving genetic diversity and encouraging others to join in preserving the tastes of the past.

Rich and Sue Sisti were among those who heard the call. In 1984, fulfilling a dream that dated back to Rich's high school agricultural classes, they purchased Catalpa Ridge Farm, joined the Seed Savers and NOFA NJ (Northeast Organic Farmers Association), co-founded Garden State Garlic Group and have been helping us take a bite out of history ever since.

Some of those bites are quite exotic. Oriental grains from seeds Rich receives from Japan and China are a specialty. You can find Catalpa Ridge heirloom transplants at Whole Foods Market in Montclair.

In addition, the Sistis coordinate special events with other local farmers and Garden State Garlic Group, offering tomato transplants, spring garlic greens plus tastings and recipes.

Alstede Farms is another heirloom resource, offering eight different transplant varieties at their farm stand.

ave you discovered golden pear tomatoes, those cherry–sized, sugar sweet heirlooms? They're subject to late season blight but their fabulous taste and hefty harvest before that time makes growing them worthwhile, according to Kimberly Schultz. She also recommends Howard German heirloom tomatoes for home canners. "They're my paste tomato of choice," she notes, "larger than Romas — and most importantly, wonderfully flavorful."

"Something in the land of this region grows particularly good tasting tomatoes," Buckner notes. That's probably why they are the choice crop for home gardeners.

Heirloom tomatoes not only present specialized taste but a variety of colors from red through pink, yellow, golden, dark purple, black, green, white, even horizontal or vertical stripes and rainbow.

Buckner suggests that you also grow basil in varied colors — heirloom of course! Then, along with red tomato accented with green basil you might slice a plateful of golden tomatoes accented with red basil.

Of all the heirloom tomatoes, Brandywine has become today's most popular variety. They were developed by Amish farmers in the late 1800s. The Amish, along with the Mennonites, are a particularly rich source for heirloom vegetable, herb and flower seeds.

To preserve this treasure trove, the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, PA, established the Heirloom Seed Project in the mid 1980s. Today, the museum is another home–gardener's source for heirloom seeds and transplants.

With the choice of literally thousands of varieties of heirlooms, how do you decide what to grow? You might look at the varieties at one of Catalpa Ridge Farm's Tomato Tasting Festivals in New Jersey. And because gardeners are rediscovering the joys of heirloom vegetables, many local nurseries now carry plants and seeds.

Fun Stuff with Heirlooms

Catalpa Ridge Farm, Wantage, NJ
Email at

Alstede Farms, Chester, NJ
Phone 908-879-7189

Landis Valley Museum, Lancaster, PA
Phone 717-569-0401

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published June 01, 2003

Photos to enlarge

Speckled Lettuce

Sisti holds "Chuck's yellow" beefsteak tomato

Tomatoes heirloom

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