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updated: 8/5/2014 2:41 PM

Heirloom Tomato Weekend celebrates a new generation of growers

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  • Gardeners and would-be gardeners can discover the best tomatoes to grow and learn ways to enjoy the bounty of the harvest at the Chicago Botanic Garden Heirloom Tomato Weekend.

    Gardeners and would-be gardeners can discover the best tomatoes to grow and learn ways to enjoy the bounty of the harvest at the Chicago Botanic Garden Heirloom Tomato Weekend.
    Courtesy of the Chicago Botanic Garden

Adriana Reyneri

Heirloom Tomato Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden celebrates a rich gardening heritage and salutes a new generation of growers from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 23 and 24, at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

"Heirloom vegetables have colorful histories going back 50 years or more, but we're seeing a whole new generation of growers embrace and improve heirlooms," says Lisa Hilgenberg, Fruit & Vegetable Garden horticulturist. "At the garden, we're growing seeds from places like Wild Boar Farms in the California wine country and the Hudson Valley Seed Library in upstate New York. They're headed by young farmers who are dedicated to preserving the diverse colors, flavors, and textures of heirloom varieties and, in some cases, developing an even broader tomato palette."

Heirlooms are open-pollinated plants, a characteristic enabling them to be reliably reproduced from seed. These seeds can be saved and passed from one gardener to another over the growing seasons. Visitors to the Fruit & Vegetable Garden can see such beautiful examples as Cherokee Purple tomatoes growing in the Victory Garden bed. The story of the smoky-flavored Solanum lycopersicum 'Cherokee Purple' traces back more than 100 years ago to members of the Cherokee tribe who shared seeds with gardeners in Tennessee. Cherokee Purple seeds eventually landed in the hands of a member of the nonprofit Seed Saver's Exchange, and the once-obscure variety is now cultivated by gardeners across the country.

Heirloom Tomato Weekend will showcase more than 50 types of tomatoes in every size, shape and hue imaginable, and from countries across the globe. Visitors will discover tomatoes of gold, emerald, olive, tangerine, scarlet, berry, mahogany and black. Names such as 'Yellow Vernissage' and 'Black Sea Man' reflect histories as colorful as the fruit. The 'Black Sea Man' is one of many tomatoes growing at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden that have roots in Russia. You'll also find 'Yellow Vernissage', a rarely seen tomato developed by a young breeder from Ukraine. (The name refers to a French word describing the day before an art opening to allow artists their finishing touches and celebrate the completion of a piece of art.)

Expert staff and volunteers will be on hand to discuss unusual varieties, and the best tomatoes for salads, slicing, juicing, drying and making sauces, salsas, soups and other dishes. A number of cultivation methods, including grafted tomatoes, will be on display, and visitors will have the opportunity to observe tomatoes growing in hanging baskets and containers, and up trellises and cages. Inspiration can also be found in clever planting combinations such as the Vegetable Soup and Victory Garden beds, where tomatoes are companion planted with peppers, basil and other plants.

"We have a tomato variety -- as well as a growing and processing method -- that should work for every gardener and aspiring gardener," Hilgenberg says. "We can help visitors learn about the nuances in taste and the nutritional benefits of diverse tomatoes. We can also help match up gardeners with tomatoes that best meet their needs. Plants with compact growing habits are more suitable for containers and smaller spaces, while rangier varieties suit gardeners with more room. Gardeners blessed with an abundance of tomatoes can get practical tips for processing the fruit so they can enjoy local produce year-round."

Heirloom Tomato Weekend Highlights include the following:

• Garden Chef Series cooking demonstrations at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m.

• Saturday, Aug. 23: David DiGregorio, of Osteria Via Stato

• Sunday, Aug. 24: Laura Piper, One North Kitchen & Bar

Tomato Tour with Lisa Hilgenberg at 1 and 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Take a guided walk with our resident tomato expert and learn more about the colorful and delicious tomatoes you can grow in your own home.

Heirloom tomato seed saving demonstrations at 11:30 a.m., and 12:30, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Ongoing activities from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. include:

• Family Drop-In Activities. Fun includes a tomato toss, "Rainbows of Tomatoes" search, mixing herbs to flavor sauce and art activities.

• Tomato Talk. Expert volunteers and staff will be on hand to mentor your growing skills and to troubleshoot your tomato problems.

• Tomato Discovery Carts. Learn more about the different types of tomatoes available to home gardeners and trace the history of tomatoes as a food across the globe.

• Tomato Shopping. Purchase a variety of tomato products from such vendors as Windy City Harvest, Wild Tree, Bigfat's Hot Sauce, Prohibition Spice Co. and Sunkissed Organics.

The August plant giveaway, sage, will also be taking place as long as supplies last.