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Gardener believes in rich legacy, and taste, of heirloom tomatoes

Christine Ciccone waters some plants she has grown from heirloom seeds.  She is selling plants raise funds for NAMI

Christine Ciccone waters some of the plants she has grown from heirloom seeds. She is selling the plants to raise funds for NAMI DuPage. | Judy Buchenot for Sun-Times Media

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Upcoming plant sales in the area

Ciccone isn’t the only gardener who sells off her surplus plants. Several area garden groups host sales of homegrown and locally grown items. Here is a list of some of these plant-pertunities happening in the next few weeks. People come early and line up at most of these sales so be sure to arrive early for the best selection.

Forest Preserve District of DuPage County Native Plant Sale offering perennials, grasses and shrubs native to the area. Friday, May 10, 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. Saturday, May 11, 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 West 31st Street, Oak Brook.

Naperville Community Gardeners Plant Sale offering annuals, heirloom vegetables, hanging baskets and plants from member gardens. Saturday, May 11, 7:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. at the gravel parking lot for west street garden plots located west of Naperville Central High School and Edward Hospital.

Plain Dirt Gardeners Plant Sale offering native plants, ferns, hostas, grasses and prairie plants. Saturday, May 11, 8 a.m. until noon, Bethany Lutheran Church, 8 S. Lincoln St., Batavia.

Hilltop Gardeners Club Plant Sale offering herbs, hostas, heirloom tomatoes and other plants. Saturday, May 11, 9 a.m. until noon, Little White School, Jackson and Polk streets, Oswego.

Rosary Sports Boosters Annual Plant Sale offering plants, planters, bedding plants and baskets. All sales to benefit Rosary High School athletics. Saturday, May 11 7:30 a.m. until sold out, 901 N. Edgelawn Dr., Aurora.

West Chicago Garden Club Plant Sale offering perennials, native plants and more. Saturday, May 18, 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., Main and Galena Streets, West Chicago.

Fox Valley Garden Club Plant Sale offering plants and gardening supplies. Saturday, May 18, a.m. until noon, Aurora Transportation Center, 233 N. Broadway St., Aurora.

Updated: June 10, 2013 1:03PM

Christine Ciccone grows tomatoes that aren’t perfectly round and smooth. Some of them aren’t even red.

However, Ciccone says her tomatoes are delicious because she uses heirloom seeds like a growing number of home gardeners.

“The yield may not be as great and the tomatoes might not be as red, but the flavor is superb,” the Naperville gardener claimed. About four years ago Ciccone decided to share her heirloom tomatoes with others by having a sale. She sells the plants grown with love in her sunny home and hardened off on her driveway for $1 each and donates all of the proceeds to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, DuPage County.

Heirloom tomatoes have become popular for their remarkable flavor, said Richard Hentschel, horticulture extension educator. He explained that when scientists started hybridizing tomatoes, they were focusing on getting high yield, disease resistance, intense color, uniform size and ease of transportation. In the process of creating a marketable tomato, “some of the flavor got lost,” explained Hentschel.

“Heirloom tomatoes are the open pollinated, original tomatoes. Their genetics have existed so long and are so strong; they are true-to-type,” he said. The heirloom tomato seeds that have been handed down through the generations have such dominate genes that they grow the same as they did decades ago.

“The very things that make heirloom tomatoes desirable today, like the thin tender skin, are the very things that years ago were bred away,” he explained.

He reminded gardeners that heirloom tomatoes may not have the same yield, are less disease resistant and are more delicate than modern varieties. But gardeners like Ciccone are willing to care for the plants to have the richer flavor, tender skin and meatier texture of heirloom varieties.

One of the first heirloom tomatoes which Ciccone grew was the Black Krim tomato. Like most heirloom varieties, the seeds come with a story. The Black Krim tomato originated on the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea off the coast of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. It is a dark purple reddish color that is uneven and blotchy but according to Ciccone, “it has a superb flavor.”

Some of her other favorites are the Gold Medal Tomato, a yellow tomato with streaks of red that comes from New York.

“You haven’t tasted a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich until you taste one made with a Gold Medal tomato,” Ciccone said.

She also grows a Paul Robeson tomato that originated in Russia and is named after the opera singer. “It has a smoky, earthy flavor and a rich dark color,” said Ciccone.

Each year after harvesting tomatoes, Ciccone saves seeds from her favorite plants. “It is a pretty low-tech process,” she admitted. “I take some seeds, smear them on a paper towel, write the name on the paper towel, and let it dry out of sunlight. I store the seeds in an envelop until the next spring. I have 100 percent germination.”

Each year in February, she starts seeds in potting soil spread in recycled plastic pans that have been perforated on the bottom. Ciccone moistens the soil, covers the container with plastic wrap and waits for germination. Then the plastic comes off and the seedlings grow in sunny windows in her home.

When the second leaf emerges, she transplants the seedlings into peat pots marked with popsicle sticks. As the weather improves, she gradually introduces the plants to outdoor conditions a few hours at a time until they are garden ready.

Ciccone plants her tomatoes horizontally. “I dig a shallow trench and lay the plant in the trench up to the top crown leaves. I bury the entire plant except for those top leaves. This way, roots grow all along the stem for a great root system. I mark the trench with a stick so when I stake the plants, I don’t damage the root ball,” she explained.

Ciccone currently has more than 400 plants started for her annual sale. In addition to tomatoes, she has some heirloom peppers, eggplants and herbs in the mix.

“I decided to raise funds for NAMI because I believe people struggling with mental illness show such courage. It is like an invisible disease and hard to explain to other people,” she said. “I am so impressed with the educational programs at NAMI DuPage. They are really trying to help others understand mental illness. My philosophy is to share my love of gardening with others and support NAMI in the process.”

Ciccone’s sale will be on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 12 from 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. at her home at 634 Willow Road in Naperville.

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