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Heirloom tomatoes burst in rainbow of colors, flavors

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published March 9, 2016

 Middle to late March is a good time to start tomato seeds indoors.

Middle to late March is a good time to start tomato seeds indoors.

METRO DETROIT — For some, it’s all about heritage and what their family has grown for generations. For others, it’s about taste and an abundant natural variety. 

With names like “Brandywine,” “Cherokee Purple,” “Cosmonaut Volkov” and “Green Zebra,” it’s easy to understand the buzz among gardeners about heirloom tomatoes. And with a seemingly endless rainbow of colors and flavors to choose from, options abound for curious growers looking to experiment in the greenhouse and the garden. 

Cindy Roback — whose family owns and operates Young’s Garden Mart & Christmas Fantasy on Ryan, north of 11 Mile Road, in Warren — said heirloom tomatoes are broadly defined as non-hybrid tomato cultivars. 

They are open-pollinated, bred naturally and maintain desirable genetic characteristics. Seeds from heirloom plants are often preserved and passed down season after season, generation to generation.

“Heirloom tomatoes have been around for many years,” Roback said. “Some people like them because their parents and grandparents grew them. Some people like them for their different name. Over the last five years, we’ve sold a lot more heirloom tomatoes.”

Roback said she typically starts tomato seeds, including heirloom varieties, in the greenhouse around March 25. Most growers wait until late May, usually around Memorial Day weekend, to put the plants in the ground, after the risk of a late frost has passed.  

Hundreds of different tomato varieties, including heirlooms, will be available at Young’s starting in early May. 

Mary Gerstenberger, a consumer horticulture coordinator with the Michigan State University Extension in Macomb County, said home gardeners looking to start seeds indoors should keep several things in mind.

“Anyone starting seeds indoors should remember the importance of adequate light intensity, as well as temperature and water requirements,” Gerstenberger said. “Also, to help strengthen the stems, it doesn’t hurt to set a fan to blow a soft breeze across the plants or simply brush them lightly with your hand on occasion.”

With respect to heirlooms, she said there is much for growers to like and some things they need to be aware of.

“Heirlooms can have a better flavor and come in a lot of varieties, but they tend to be less resistant to disease and often don’t produce as large a crop as newer varieties and hybrids,” Gerstenberger said. “Their skin tends to be thinner, and that means they may crack more readily as well.”

Gerstenberger said heirlooms offer a beautiful variety for gardeners looking to add color to their garden or flavor to their meals. Heirlooms also come in various shapes and sizes, both in terms of plants and their resulting fruit, so growers should know what they’re getting into when they’re planting.

Roback and Gerstenberger said those looking for more of a sure thing in terms of tomato taste, size, yield or disease resistance may opt to go with proven newer varieties or hybrids.

Much more information about growing tomatoes is available through the MSU Extension, including a fact sheet for growers at