Neither too hot nor too cold for America's most popular homegrown vegetable, Northwest Kansas falls into USDA plant hardiness zone 5b, which is good news for heirloom tomato lovers. Gardeners in zone 5, "have the best selection of heirlooms that will grow well," writes New York biologist and professor Carolyn J. Male in "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden." Heirlooms predate the switch after World War II to vegetable hybrids well-suited for trucking longer distances; however, thanks to their superior flavor, they are making a comeback today.
Red Brandywine, which matures in 78 days, produces fruits with a deep pink skin and red flesh. Individual fruits weight up to 1 lb. Red Brandywine has a reputation for hardiness and flavor, with a mix of sweetness and acidity.
This top performer in "almost all climatic conditions," according to Male, should do well in Northwest Kansas. The tomato, which matures in about 80 days, purportedly was originally grown by Cherokee Indians. Its tomatoes appear a dusty deep pink with a purplish tint and green shoulders, weighing about 6 to 12 oz. The taste is rich, smoky and sweet.
Eva Purple Ball
Like Cherokee Purple, Eva Purple Ball seems to be an adaptable heirloom, known for its ability to produce reliable, uniform globes regardless of weather. Its seeds came over in the late 1800s with immigrants from the Black Forest region of Germany, according to "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden," which calls the flavor of this tomato "absolutely delicious." It matures 75 to 80 days after transplanting.
A Bulgarian heirloom with a name that means friendship, Druzba is recommended for beginning heirloom growers by Male. It matures in 75 to 90 days producing a red tomato with pinkish shoulders that's 4 inches across.
Aunt Ginny's Purple
This heirloom gets mentioned in the same breath as Pink Brandywine as being of exceptional flavor. Male notes that the plants grow to a considerable size and resists most foliage diseases, producing a hefty 1 lb. fruit throughout the growing season. The "purple" in its name actually refers more to a deep pink skin color.
Lillian's Yellow Heirloom
This beefsteak heirloom yields 10 to 16 oz. orange-yellow fruits after 95 days. Its mildly sweet, citrusy flavor works well with salads, and its visual appeal makes it a strong choice for farmer's markets, according to Gary Ibsen's TomatoFest.
This cross incorporates Black Cherry, Brandywine and Cherokee Purple in an effort to create a more flavorful large cherry tomato, with fruits about 2 to 3 oz. Plants bear fruit 68 days after transplanting. Purple Haze was created by Keith Mueller, a graduate of Kansas State University.