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Plant the Rainbow!

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With growing up in an old gardening family, one would think that heirloom tomatoes would have been the norm. But honestly, I don’t remember seeing them in my grandmother’s garden or my dad’s. Back then, it was all about the canning tomato, and that staple just happened to be Ace, which is about as far as one can get from a true, old-fashioned heirloom. Of course, they planted Beefsteaks for slicing and sandwiches, and red and yellow pear for sauce and paste, but purple, black and green-striped tomatoes were not given valuable space. And these were serious gardeners. Somehow, I could not picture my grandmother oohing and aahing over a black, behemoth-sized, scar-ridden tomato.

As for my own gardening history, I must admit that I was perfectly content to stick to my own staple of Early Girls, Romas, an anonymous, indigenous cherry and my one claim to heirloom fame, Rutgers. I sliced, sauced, canned, froze and ate them warm from the sun, blissfully ignorant of that starburst of tomatoes that apparently was retaking the gardening scene by storm. Until I found Instagram. At first, I became mildly curious, as I scrolled past post after post of fat, lumpy, scalloped, heart-shaped tomatoes of nearly every color and size. And flavor: “Garden Peach: peachy sweet with a downy, peach-like skin.” Or Pineapple: “Actually tastes like pineapple–not even kidding.” It was like a Skittles® commercial screaming, “Plant the rainbow!”

I began to look upon my own paltry tomato crop as lackluster and limited. Boring, actually. The more tomato fireworks I scrolled through, the more I wondered how I had missed the boat. I’d been gardening my whole life. How did this new wave of old tomatoes slip past me? My gardening self-esteem was in the outhouse. I tried to pull it off by turning up my nose at the whole fad, claiming that real gardeners stuck to the tried and true and didn’t need to prove themselves by planting every trend that came along. It was like the cyclical resurgence of bell-bottoms and tie-dye–everything old is new again.

But those social media demons are strong, and it wasn’t long before my eyes began to spin like Mowgli’s under the spell of Kaa. I pictured myself posting baskets bursting with color, tomatoes of every shape and size, with hashtags of catchy proportions such as #heirloomsforever, #tomatorainbow and #tigerellabythetail. But where to start? Instagram and Facebook are only good for little bits of information, so I needed to do some serious research if I was going to take this trowel by the horns and come off like I knew what I was talking about. I began to peruse the web, gleaning tidbits from my favorite gardening websites until I had a pretty good, albeit basic, knowledge of heirlooms. Okay, so I went first to Wikipedia. “An heirloom tomato is an open-pollinated (non-hybrid) heirloom cultivar of tomato. Heirloom tomatoes have become increasingly popular and more readily available in recent years.” Well, there you have it. I was not hiding under a rock; I was just taking my own sweet time.

But I was soon to find that the biggest issue with planting heirlooms was trying to decide to which parts of the color wheel and flavor palate I wanted to give over some of my precious gardening space. So, again, I researched colors and flavors, trying to pick and choose this one over that, based on a plethora of tomatoes. It was a daunting task and I just ended up where I started, not having a clue. But as luck would have it, my local seed store happened to have a beginner’s variety pack of twenty of the all-time favorites. It was labeled Heirloom Rainbow Variety. I was so excited; I could hardly wait for January to start those babies in my sunny window. The coolest thing was that each of the varieties was named on the package so that I could research and then recognize them when they fruited. I even made a list on my Mac and dragged photos next to them, so that I had entries such as “Silvery Fir Tree–58 days; determinate; skinny foliage; small, flat, round fruit.” Not only was it a most exhilarating way to spend the dreary months of winter, but when that first true leaf appeared, I knew I had a Silvery Fir Tree.

In hindsight, Silvery Fir Tree did not become one of my all-time favorites, but it was great fun to document, watch and learn from this new experience. Of course, I saved the seed from my faves, which now include Cherokee Purple, Brandywine Pink, Garden Peach, Pink Oxheart, Banana Legs, Pineapple and Black Cherry. And, of course, my old tried and true, Rutgers, which, by the way, I hadn’t previously known was an heirloom. They say you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, but they also say that old gardeners never die, they just turn to dirt (actually, I just made that up, I think). Whatever the case, I’m pretty positive I’ll be broadening my gardening horizons until that last shovelful. ■

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