What is Real Heirloom Gardening?

Tomato Rocky, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom gardening

In the last decades the term “heirloom” has become very popular in gardening circles. I’ve even seen seed catalogs which claim only to sell “heirloom vegetable seeds.” “Heirloom,” in many quarters, has become a rather ambiguous term, which many assume to be nearly synonymous with super good eating quality. I would submit to you that not all heirlooms are super good. Some are downright terrible, at least when grown in my conditions. Frankly, I would like to see the term used a lot less, and “open pollinated,” or “standard” used in its place. Still, there is a good and important facet of gardening which is truly captured by the term “heirloom gardening.”  I’d like to take several posts to deal with this facet of gardening, as it is quite important to me. I’ll use some real life examples of heirlooms to flesh things out.

Tomato Rocky is the one and only heirloom I've received from my own immediate family.
Tomato Rocky is the one and only heirloom I’ve received from my own immediate family.

The term “heirloom” implies that one has received the variety from someone close or significant to you.

My father (also named George McLaughlin) received seed for Tomato Rocky from a very close family friend named Rocky Mastro. Rocky, Marge and their family were early members of the same church where my entire family came to know the Lord. This was during a time that my father was experiencing some real health challenges, and the Mastros essentially adopted us. To this day, in the McLaughlin clan, we love to tell stories about special times we have had with our friends the Mastros.

Rocky Mastro gave this seed to my father when I was a boy.

Rocky was Italian/American. He loved all things Italian and American. He had a great sense of humor and was not above telling “Italian jokes.” One of Rocky’s Italian friends, living in Northern New Jersey, made a trip back to the motherland to visit relatives. I assume this was in the 60s or very early 70s. While in Italy, he was given seeds to this tomato. He carried it back to NJ and grew it in his garden. (It seemed that all Italians, of that generation, had a garden.) He told Rocky about this Italian tomato he was growing, and one day, Rocky drove about an hour to go see his friend and see this tomato. When he arrived, he found that his friend was not home. So, as Rocky told the story: he, being a good Italian, stole a tomato from his friends garden. Actually the tomato was a spoiled fruit, laying on the ground under the plants. But Rocky loved to say that he stole it. So, Rocky saved seed and started growing this Italian tomato. In 1973, which was within a year of us meeting him, Rocky gave my father some of his seed.

My father grew this tomato all during my teen years.

Tomato Rocky, Rocky tomato, heirloom gardening
McLaughlins have been growing this tomato since 1973.

It was a very flavorful tomato, in fact, perhaps the strongest “tomatoey flavored” tomato I have tasted. It also has very few seeds, which my grandmother (mother’s mother) loved. Grandma Abbot lived with my parents in her later years. My dad felt that “Italian tomato” was too general for a good name. He dubbed it “Tomato Rocky,” in honor of Rocky Mastro.

Blog Post: How to Start Tomatoes from Seed

Sometime during my college years, my father stopped growing Tomato Rocky. The variety is susceptible to late blight, and we had it in our garden. It became difficult to get a crop. I went to college, met my wife and married, and headed off to seminary. The first year I was in seminary I started hearing about seed saving. I read about it in Gardens For All a national gardening magazine, which I greatly enjoyed. Through Gardens for All  I heard of the The Seed Savers Exchange. I joined the Seed Savers Exchange in 1984, and Tomato Rocky was one of the first seeds I offered, thus spreading the seed all over the place. 

Here’s a link where you can watch a video about the history of Tomato Rocky. Click on the first image and it will play.

Seed Savers Exchange: Legacy Donors/Tomato Rocky

It was through members of the Seed Savers Exchange, really, that Tomato Rocky was preserved until my family and I returned from nearly 14 years of missionary service in Mexico, where, for the life of me, I could hardly get a tomato to produce.  We picked up growing it again, when we returned to the USA.

In 2003 Rocky Mastro passed away, after months of difficult complications from a stroke. I  was honored to officiate at his memorial service. Marge Mastro had one special request of me in 2004, that I plant a patch of Tomato Rocky on the grounds of the Lincroft Bible Church, which was where we first met, and where Rocky was a member till his dying day.

So what’s a real heirloom variety? A real heirloom vegetable or fruit variety has a history, a history which means something to someone. The relationship behind it is important. The memories attached are important. These things give one a sense of place and time when growing such varieties.

Tomato Rocky doesn’t like Oklahoma’s blazing hot summers. It has produced marginally for me here. It does much better in the upper Midwest. But over the years I have learned some tricks to help it along. I still have hopes of a bumper crop… next year. I will always grow it because of the relationships and history which come piggybacked with this variety.

So, what if you were to receive seed to an heirloom like this. Those memories probably won’t be your memories. That history won’t be your family history. Still, you can appreciate those facets of the variety’s background and… you can remember from whom you received it and how, etc.

Consider gardening for more than just food. Garden to be better in touch with culture, history, family and friends.

Green Country Seed Savers thread on Tomato Rocky


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