There are myriad heirloom tomatoes to choose from these days. And there’s still time to plant seeds, so don’t buy that strapping Big Boy plant that will just atrophy this summer. (istockphoto)
Gardening columnist

I was passing a garden center the other day and saw a banner that read, “Tomatomania, the world’s largest seedling sale.” Well, who could resist that?

When I ventured inside, I found anything but the promised abundance. Instead, I thought I had been transported back 20 years to a dreary time when garden centers offered a few pedestrian varieties in little six-packs. Back then, the only way to get some really interesting tomato varieties was to find specialty seed companies and start your own.

At the garden center, I found such uninspiring varieties as Early Girl, Big Boy and — try to contain yourself — Large Red Cherry. The last was in quotation marks to make it look like it was a storied variety instead of just a generic cherry tomato. I went back to the banner outside to see whether I had misread it.

A part of me rejoiced at this dismal array, because it is now generally much easier to find more unusual varieties of tomato as transplants in garden centers, even at mass merchandisers. Why is this a bad thing? Well, if Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter or Black Krim or Aunt Ginny’s Purple come with their own tear-jerking saga of discovery and dispersal, wouldn’t it be better to begin at the beginning — that is, grow them from seed yourself?

“No,” I hear you shout. “Stop being an old stickler.” All right, but think about this paradox: The current craze for buying knee-high tomatoes was fueled by the popular interest in heirloom varieties, namely Brandywine. Heirlooms are old varieties whose seeds are saved one year to be grown the next — they happily exist outside the loop of commerce and bring with them an extra layer of romance. This is tied up with poignant tales of immigrant struggle and Depression-era survival, and they are given an extra frisson in this age of Big Agriculture by the idea of not having to pay a cent to put food on your table.

But I buy seeds of heirlooms, I don’t save my own, so I can see my own argument evaporating here. There is one practical reason to moan about retailed transplants: They come to market too early for their own good; early to mid-April is way too soon to be seeing tomato plants in four- or six-inch pots. The gardeners’ enthusiasm is repaid with sulking tomato: The nights are too cold (the days aren’t much better) and the soil too clammy.

Last weekend was about the earliest you should plant tomatoes. It is not too late to sow seeds even if the summer harvest is delayed a bit. Seeds sown directly in the garden will soon catch up in the warming soil of May. They will turn out to be happier plants than the frozen pioneers of April. Sow seeds directly in a prepared bed, thin them religiously, and mark them to distinguish them from the volunteer seedlings from past years’ cherry tomatoes.

In a perfectly organized gardening life, you would order seeds early in the year and start them indoors or in a cold frame around April 1.

Mindful of the disservice of selling transplants too early, Francesco DeBaggio, of DeBaggio Herbs in Chantilly, doesn’t offer his greenhouse-grown tomato (or basil) transplants until late April. The wait is worth it. And unlike retailers who rely on wholesale growers to decide what will sell, DeBaggio grows more than 100 varieties himself in various tomato guises — paste, slicing, cherry, beefsteak. Heirlooms abound.

A stroll of his outdoor tomato room (a ring of benches around a central stand) induces a drool. If I had not started my own and also run out of real estate in the veggie garden, I probably would have picked up more than just the handful that I did. A friend commended Japanese Black Trifele, a dark, pear-shaped fruiter, and Prudens Purple, a large pink-fruited, potato-leafed variety. I am kicking myself for not getting Rose, an heirloom with large, smooth and meaty berries.

My enthusiasm was tempered by the fact I had picked up seeds of eight varieties at the Philadelphia Flower Show in early March. Most of them are New York heritage varieties sold by seedsman Ken Greene, who runs Hudson Valley Seed Library in Accord, N.Y.

Two of them are determinate types suited to container cultivation — that is, they grow bushy, fruit all at once and then give up the ghost. This isn’t my normal tomato “thing,” but you only live once. One variety is Tiny Tim, with red fruits the size of a grape. The other is called New Yorker, which should festoon itself with its red orbs at the start of tomato season in July. “This cold tolerant, early season tomato produces some of the first fruits in your garden,” Greene writes in his seed description. Or, as they say in New York, “Hurry up with the tuh-maydahs, already.”

The one I’m really looking forward to, however, is an oxheart tomato — basically a heart-shaped beefsteak — that came from a seed saver in the Hudson Valley. The Upstate Oxheart, according to Greene, produces fruits that “are huge; its flavor is exceptional; its texture is dense and multi-layered.”

In sum, something to evoke a true tomatomania.