It’s easy to get into the habit of thinking that a tomato is a tomato is a tomato. In truth, though, both nature and agricultural ingenuity have offered up a wild variety of tomatoes, as different in flavor as they are in shape and color. One of the best ways to savor that diversity is to grow your own heirloom tomatoes.
Below are three of the most popular varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Talk to the associates at your local Home Depot Garden Center for more suggestions, and take a look at this video tour of Bonnie Farms, where many of our heirloom seeds are harvested.
A big fruit with a beefsteak shape, the brandywine is a tomato with American roots stretching back to at least the mid-1880s. It also has the distinction of growing smoothly rounded leaves, looking more like those of a potato plant than most tomato cultivars.
Pinker than most store-bought varieties, the brandywine produces a sweet fruit with just a hint of acidity. Because they grow large — up to 1 1/2 pounds in some cases — they make a perfect addition to a sandwich. Count on a slightly longer wait for your sliced tomatoes, though. They’re one of the slower maturing varieties — sometimes requiring upward of 100 days — but brandywines are worth the wait.
If pink’s not your thing, try the Rutgers heirloom. Named for Rutgers University, where agricultural scientist Lyman Schermerhorn bred it on behalf of the Campbell’s Soup Company, this variety is an American classic in every regard, right down to its beaming red hue.
Though it is no longer grown commercially, the Rutgers is so beloved as the quintessentially American tomato that it has since been cultivated as an heirloom variety. Once the most ubiquitous tomato in the nation, any childhood memories you may have of home-cooked soups or sauces is bound to be rekindled by the familiar taste. Bred as a superior, all-around alternative to the popular commercial varieties of the 1930s, Rutgers lend equally well to canning, cooking and serving fresh.
Named for its resemblance to the fruit, pear tomatoes are a tiny heirloom variety, perfect for salads or as a light dish with sea salt and a little balsamic. Though red and orange varieties are also grown, the yellow is the most widely valued, no doubt for its cheery color and mild, sweet taste.
Of the three heirlooms listed here, yellow pears have the oldest pedigree, having been known to grow in Europe as far back as the 18th century.
Despite the diminutive stature of the tomatoes themselves, the plant can be sprawling, so be ready to stake and cage. Don’t worry, though, as yellow pear tomatoes will reward diligent care with a wealth of fruit. Preserving is a tasty option if you find yourself with too many tomatoes on hand.