Three Workhorse Heirloom Tomatoes

Every year I grow new heirloom tomatoes in the search for the best varieties for growing in Northern Indiana. Once in awhile, I come across a variety that has no flavor, or cracks so badly that I refuse to ever grow it again. Most of the hundreds of heirloom tomatoes I have trialed would be worth growing for the home gardener interested in experiencing new flavors, texture, shapes, colors and uses. When I start my plants in the spring, I try to bring back the best choices from previous years, as well as include 20 or so new, interesting selections. It is always a tough decision to figure out who should stay for that season’s offerings and who should go. Invariably, I always have a customer who’s looking for that one tomato variety that I decided to give a break from growing for a season or two.  In May, I usually have about 80 heirloom tomato choices for people to purchase as plants from our farm stand in Bristol, Indiana.

Heirloom tomatoes ready to go to the roadside stand.

Heirloom tomatoes ready to go to the roadside stand.

In addition to selling heirloom tomato plants, I also raise a few hundred plants in order to have fresh tomatoes for sale later in the season. I generally grow around 40 distinct heirloom tomato varieties. This coming season, 2014, I am cutting the number of field tomatoes way back in order to spend more energy and time on developing the seed portion of my business.  (I may not have any fresh tomatoes for sale this summer, but I say that every year and I always change my mind by spring.)

Of the many heirloom tomatoes I grow as plants for sale in the spring, or as fresh tomatoes in the summer, there are three superb varieties that I grow every year. They have proven themselves to be very productive, reliable, disease-resistant, fairly easy to grow, and, above all, are very delicious. As heirloom tomatoes go, these three stand a cut above all the rest. Of course judging what is the best heirloom tomato is a very subjective thing, but my experience has shown that the following three are, at least, among the best. I refer to these 3 as workhorse tomatoes.

My first choice is the Stupice (“stoo-pich”) tomato. I have trialed probably close to 50 varieties over the years, looking for one tomato that I could start very early and get a good, flavorful crop. I found plenty that could take the cold, but none of them had very good flavor. Others were flavorful but not productive. Then I came across this Czechoslovakian gem.

Stupice,  a Czechoslovakian Heirloom

Stupice, a Czechoslovakian Heirloom

I have started Stupice indoors in late January, potted them into 5 gallon pots, and moved them into an unheated greenhouse by late March. At the end of April, my wife and I were enjoying the first fresh tomatoes of the season. Stupice will continue to produce until frost if kept picked. They are not huge, but much larger than a cherry tomato, approx. 2″ by 2″. Dark red and oblate in shape, Stupice provide a flavor that is both sweet and tangy.  They are excellent fresh or cooked.

The next variety, of which I cannot say too many good things about, is the Italian Heirloom tomato. I don’t know much about its history but I think the name pretty well addresses its origins. I have been growing this variety for at least ten years and it has always produced a bountiful crop. It is probably one of the largest main-season tomatoes I grow (1 lb. average),  and it is usually the first to produce. I set out 5-week old transplants the last week of May and I always pick my first tomato around July 16th. They continue to produce until the middle of September. They are very productive and resist cracking. The plants are indeterminate but easy to control. The plants look unable to support the giant-sized fruit. The flavor is excellent for fresh eating and the slices will hang over the side of your burger’s bun. Can it get any better than this?

Italian Heirloom

Italian Heirloom

Italian Heirlooms were most likely bred in Italy for processing into sauce. They remind me of a giant paste tomato but are more juicy, The skins are removed easily for processing. They do tend to have a core which needs to be removed. Italian Heirloom makes an excellent rich tomato sauce and is perfectly suitable for salsa. Unlike Roma tomatoes, which I find to be hard and bland, Italian Heirlooms are best picked totally ripe. They will still be firm but packed with juicy flavor.

The third workhorse I want to mention is probably my top pick for flavor of any tomato I have ever eaten in my life. It is the Cosmoanut Volkov. This is a Soviet-era, Russian tomato, and was named in honor of a famous Russian cosmonaut who was killed during the reentry of his Soyuz capsule. Communist Russia should not just be remembered for its contributions to the world like hydrogen bombs and the blueprints for a brutal dictatorial regime, they also had one heck of a plant breeding program. All kidding aside, many of the most flavorful heirloom tomatoes, like Black Krim and Paul Robeson were bred in this geographical region in the 1950s and 60s.

Cosmonaut Volkov

Cosmonaut Volkov

The Cosmonaut Volkov is a slightly oblate, vibrant red, medium-sized slicer. The plants, like the Italian Heirloom, are indeterminate yet manageable, reaching about 5′ in height. They begin to produce just a week or so after the Italian Heirloom, around the first of August. They are very productive (15 -20 lbs. per plant) and resist cracking. I have had some minor disease issues with them in wet seasons (early blight), but their vigorousness tends to out grow disease. I cannot really tell you why I think this tomato tastes the very best, but this is not my opinion alone. It is rich, sweet, and acidy. It works well as a canner and for making sauce. Cosmonaut Volkov is definitely worth growing!

There you have it. Three excellent options for heirloom tomatoes here in Northern Indiana. One of my goals as a grower is to convince gardeners to not just grow heirlooms for fun or as a novelty, but to grow them as reliable staple crops.  If you eat lots of fresh tomatoes in the summer, make salsa or process canners  in the fall, I suggest giving these three tomatoes a place as workhorses in your garden.




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2 Responses to Three Workhorse Heirloom Tomatoes

  1. Pat Carney says:

    I attended the February 8th discussion at the Oakwood Resort, “Gardening in the face of Climate Change” and got your business card at the end. I’m definitely a newbie when it comes to gardening and want to learn as much as I can. I want to do it environmentally friendly and sustainable.

    • John Sherck says:

      Hello Pat,

      There is a new project at Southgate Crossing in Elkhart called Bushelcraft Farm. They are developing a lot of sustainable minded programs and
      teaching events related to many aspects of farming/gardening. My friend Jon Zirkle is very involved in this operation.

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