Victory gardens are starting to make a comeback. In times of uncertainty, we often turn back to growing food at home. Whether you’ve been gardening for years or are just starting out, thinking about gardeners before us can be comforting. We can even grow some of the same varieties that fed our grandparents through the Great Depression, WWII, and many other hard times.
I decided to do a little searching around for some of the best old tomato varieties that very well could have been grown in WWII victory gardens. Surprisingly (or maybe not), I found it hard to pin down a lot of solid information in just my internet searches. There is no shortage of tomato varieties, but I did find it difficult to research their histories. So, I’ve stuck to some famous, old reliables. I also wanted to make sure the varieties I’m sharing are still available in seed form or are likely to be found as plants at most garden centers.
I of course, always grow a few varieties of tomatoes that my Grandma Pete swore by. The last summer I got see Grandma, she sent me off with a little bit of cash and orders to use it for veggies for my garden. She insisted I get Jet Star or Celebrity tomatoes. I got Jet Star that year. And I still have the little plant stake that came with it. It’s a strange memento, but it’s a lasting reminder of Grandma’s influence on my love of gardening. I grow Jet Star every year in her honor, but I also grow Celebrity here and there too. This year I will have both. She was right they are reliable, versatile, and delicious. They are among the few hybrids I grow.
Five Heirloom Varieties that will fit perfectly into a modern Victory Garden:
- Mortgage Lifter : This tomato usually tops the chart as far as famous old varieties with a great story. In the 1930’s, radiator salesman, M.C. Byles crossed a handful of the best tomatoes he could find. After a selection process, he introduced his tomato. It is said that he sold this tomato for a $1 each and was able to sell enough over a period of time to pay off his mortgage (no easy feat given the times). This tomato now goes by “Mortgage Lifter” and has been a staple in many gardens since.
photo via Eden Brothers
- Rutgers: Introduced in 1934, this tomato is famous for its connections with Campbell’s Soup! Developed in New Jersey as a cross between JTD an Marglobe, it was so good, it became America’s leading tomato and the key tomato in many of our famous soups and condiments. I’ve never grown Rutgers, but if I find plants this year, I think I’ll have to give it a shot! You can read more about its history here and Rutgers’ updated variety celebrating 250 years of the university.
Breeder of the ‘Rutgers’ tomato Lyman Schermerhorn (left) in a field of tomatoes, circa 1930s. (Photo and caption from What’s in Season from the Garden State: The Historic Rutgers Tomato Gets Re-invented in University’s 250th Anniversary Year, 2016.)
- Nebraska Wedding Tomato: This one might not be as famous, but I have to include it, being Nebraska born and raised. This tomato was registered in 1983, but the story goes it was brought to Nebraska in the 1800’s by pioneers. The seeds were often given as wedding gifts to new brides. I grew it last year for the first time and was happy with both yield and taste, despite such a disappointing summer. I’m growing it again. I also love that it’s orange.
photo via Seed Savers Exchange
- Amish Paste: I tried to pin down a great paste type tomato. There are a lot of classics, but Amish Paste stands out for my because it’s believed to have originated in Wisconsin (my home state now). It’s likely been around since the 1870’s, but it wasn’t registered until 1987. I’ve tried several varieties of paste tomatoes and have yet to latch on to one go-to type. These are going in this year’s garden for another try! Some think Amish Paste fits more into the “Plum” varieties of tomato based on a juicier, seedier flesh. Some, find it to be meaty and almost seedless. I think this must come down to growing conditions?
photo via Burpee
- San Marzano: These Italian heirlooms have a long, long history in Italy’s fertile, volcanic soil. So much so, that there are a lot controversies surrounding what can really be called a San Marzano tomato! I found this article extremely informative. Despite all the hype about it, this tomato has been grown in the US for many years, and with a lot of fan fare. I’ve grown the standard, plus San Marzano Lungo II (an improved version) several times. I’m growing the latter again this year. Perfect for canning or pizza!
photo via Burpee
photo via Baker Creek
Now, That’s where I’m going to end my list, for now. You may ask where some other famous “toms” are, like Abraham Lincoln and Brandywine. I just didn’t include them this time around. Brandywines are also a long day tomato, and I just can’t get them to produce and ripen where I live (Zone 4). It’s heartbreaking, for now. Maybe I’ll find a way some day down the road.
I’ve also not included any cherry tomatoes. Even though cherry and even smaller, currant tomatoes, can be found hundreds of years ago, I couldn’t lock in on a particular variety I wanted to share. If you have a great, old heirloom cherry tomato you swear by, please share! There are a ton out there! I want to find a classic red, cherry type with a history.
I also want to share this lovely article about heirlooms with a history. It has some very interesting varieties included in it. That’s all for now! Just a little ramble about tomatoes!
And a bonus! Grandma Pete in her family’s garden during the mid-1940s, Victory Garden?