Thursday, April 22, 2010

West Virginia: Land of Tomatoes?

It's getting to be that time of year again. Time to be getting your tomato plants out into your garden. It seems that everyone I know has a few varieties that they swear by and plant year after year. Many people prefer to buy their plants every year from local greenhouses, since that is often the most convenient way for them to do it, however, many "tomato purists" prefer to grow their own plants from seed, especially if they have their own tomato secrets.

The flavor of a tomato will vary greatly based on variety and soil. So if you grow an Old German tomato in Cabell County, WV, it will likely taste somewhat different than one grown in Pendleton County, WV. Not better or worse, just different.

With all of the recent interest and popularity of heirloom tomatoes, I thought I'd do a little research on West Virginia Heirloom tomatoes. I was aware of a few varieties of West Virginia Heirloom tomatoes before starting this research, after all, my family has long sworn by the merits of West Virginia Centennial tomatoes because of their resistance to blight, and for flavor, nothing can even begin to come close to the Old German. Regardless of the variety you choose for your garden, remember, heirloom varieties are usually more flavorful and unique than hybrid varieties commonly found in greenhouses of the region.

I recall that my granddad always grew Early Girl tomatoes (a hybrid) because they ripened the earliest in the season, but he would always back up his Early Girl's with a more flavorful variety, usually Old German's. It was always sight (and sometimes a smell) to behold when visiting his house in the late summer heat. Nobody I knew had air conditioning then, so we would all gather on the front porch. Incidentally, this was also the location where Granddad would store all of his ripe tomatoes. He had a huge shelf at the end of the porch, right beside of the porch swing, where he would place nearly ripened tomatoes. In the late afternoon, the yellow jackets would be attracted to the sweet smell of the ripe tomatoes, and it seems we were always swatting them away. Nobody ever did anything about removing the tomatoes from the front porch, so I suppose dealing with the yellow jackets was all part of the experience of tomato time at granddad's house.

I asked my granddad one time, why did he pick the tomatoes when they were nearly ripe and sit them up to ripen, when he could just as easily let them ripen on the vine. Chickens, he said. Chickens will peck a ripe tomato faster than a flea will jump on a dog's back. So to protect his tomatoes, he would always pick them, and sit them on the porch shelf to complete the ripening process. Fencing the garden to keep out the chickens was unheard of, this was just how things were done. Then you had personal preferences coming into play, some of the family liked firm, tart tomatoes, so they would choose from the bounty, the newest specimens, as they were still not quite fully ripe. These tended to be firmer. Other family members preferred "mooshy 'maters", those were the quite often, over-ripened individuals that were almost ready for the slop bucket. Many days, i'd see my mother make herself a mooshy 'mater sandwich and watch the juice drip from her elbows. The tomatoes would be that juicy and ripe. When the tomatoes became over ripe, even past the "mooshy 'mater" stage, they would end up in one of the slop buckets around the corner of the house. Every morning and evening, my granddad would inspect his bounty and pick out the worst of the lot, and off they'd go to the hogs. I should also mention that the tomatoes on the porch were also home canned and put up for winter, but as anyone who grows tomatoes will know, when you are blessed with a bounty of tomatoes, they will cover you up.

No matter where you live, and whether you prefer hard, meaty tomatoes or mooshy 'maters, I urge you to consider planting a couple of varieties of West Virginia Heirloom tomatoes in your garden this year. I'll think you'll be happy you did.

Below is a list that I have compiled of West Virginia Heirloom Tomato Varieties, it is not a complete list, and if you know of others, please let me know. To obtain any of these varieties, a simple google search will locate a retailer who will be happy to hook you up, and remember, if you save a few of your West Virginia Heirloom tomato seeds after this growing season, you can plant them again next year. Who knows, perhaps someday, you will have developed an heirloom variety of your own.

West Virginia Heirloom Tomato Varieties:


Akers WV



Big Sandy



Cindy's West Virginia



Dr. Suds Capon Bridge

Germaid Red

Gallo Plum

Giant Syrian

Golden Ponderosa


Homer Fike's Yellow Oxheart

Irish Pink

Kellogg’s Breakfast (there is some dissent on whether this is actually a WV Heirloom, but we’ll claim it as one of our own).

Mortgage Lifter

Mountaineer Mystery

Mountain Princess

Old German

Paw Paw

Striped German

Tappy’s Finest



Watermelon Pink

West Virginia

West Virginia 63

West Virginia Centennial

West Virginia Penitentiary

West Virginia Straw

West Virginia Yellow

Yellow Cookie

So which West Virginia Heirloom varieties would you like to try this year? Have you tried any of them in the past? What were your experiences with them?

I'd better end this post quickly, suddlenly i'm feeling the need for a great big "mooshy 'mater" sandwich fresh from granddad's front porch.


Janet, said...

Well, we don't grow heirloom tomatoes, usually Better Boy. Our neighbor saves his seeds every year and grows his tomatoes. I don't know what kind they are, but they are the tomatoes they grew when he was little. That's the only kind they plant, the plants get very tall and the tomatoes are huge. Sometimes they will give us a few of the plants to grow in our garden. I love fresh tomatoes from the garden. I like tomato, cucumber and mayo sandwiches in the summer.

Nance said...

I would love some heirloom tomato seeds or plants. I do encourage any "volunteer" tomato plants that come up in the garden as they are usually sturdier and hardier than the others.

Granny Sue said...

I had no idea there were so many WV varieties, Matthew. I grow some of them: Hillbilly, Mortgage Lifter, occasionally one of the others. I like to mix hybrid and heirloom so that I get a good crop but also have many flavorful varieties. Larry alwas picks before they ripen and I hated it--until I learned that this prevents the blight from rotting the tomatoes as they ripen on the vine. Now I'm all for picking them on the green side.

Angela said...

I had no idea there were that many varieties of tomotoes in West Virginia! That is truly interesting. I am going to have to try to get a few of them to plant in our garden this year. I have heard of the mortgage lifters. John Marra talks about those all the time.

Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

I am looking forward to trying the Akers WV tomato. My mother-in-law is planting them for me. The Akers WV was developed by my family generations ago. I am glad Matthew happened upon this fact so that we can try them. The Old Germans really are the best ones that I have ever eaten. It truly spoils you, and you are not satisfied with greenhouse tomatoes after eating some of the heirloom varieties. Yum! Glad to celebrate West Virginia's farming roots.

Tina said...

Every year, I say the same thing to my garden: Please Grow.

So far it hasn't really listened much.

I'll be lucky if I get one tomato next year to show up on a plant, and then if that happens, the animals will probably grab it and run off with it. Haha.

Tammy said...

I have been trying to figure out what seeds to order. By the way, i am also in WV. Can you recommend your top 3 varieities to choose? We love juicy sweet, tomatoey tasting tomatoes. My father in law always grew better boy and early girl.

Matthew Burns said...


Great to hear from you. If I were to compile a list of my top three favorite varieties, on that list would be:

1) Old German (or variant German Johnson)

2) Akers WV

3) WV Hillbilly

Honorable Mention: Mortgage Lifter

Regardless of the varieties you choose, I think you will be pleased with any of the heirloom varieties found in this post. Keep in mind that these varieties will take a few weeks longer than the early girls and some of the other hybrids, but they are worth the wait. You just can't beat the flavor.

BroM said...

Digging up an old post - very informative.

Where can I order there varieties of seeds online - any ideas?

I'm a transplanted West Virginian trying to bring some West Virginia awesomeness north of the border.