Grow and Sell Heirloom Tomatoes

Meet Pat Kennedy, aka the ‘Tomato Lady,’ and discover the wide variety of delicious heirloom tomatos she sells in her unique bootstrap business.

| December 2006/January 2007

heirloom tomatoes - Pat Kennedy holding tray of tomato plants

Pat Kennedy, aka the "Tomato Lady," grows and sells unique heirloom tomatoes from her home.

Photo by Walter Chandoha

Pat Kennedy, better known to her customers as the “Tomato Lady,” specializes in growing heirloom tomatoes, which she sells from her front porch. It started simply enough. Like many gardeners, she generously gave seedlings to her gardening friends. But when friends of friends also wanted plants, she was obliged to charge them a nominal fee. As the news of Kennedy’s heirloom tomato plants spread throughout Franklin Township, N.J. (her home at the time), she decided to try to make a business of it.

In 1999, the year she started her tomato business, Kennedy grew 500 tomato plants and sold them all. Five years later, she was growing and selling more than 4,000 per year. In addition to home gardeners, Kennedy also sold to chefs and wholesalers, charging $2 to $5 for each plant depending on its size. Satisfied customers who spread the word were the secret of her success. And as a gardener hooked on heirloom tomatoes herself, Kennedy says it’s immensely satisfying to help preserve the heritage of these varieties by introducing them to others. Recently, she and her family moved from New Jersey to Ohio, where Kennedy has resumed the seedling business, calling it “The Culinary Gardener.” Initially she plans to sell to nurseries and market gardeners.

A Taste for Old-Time Tomatoes

Some of the first people to buy Kennedy’s plants were dinner guests. A number of her signature Italian dishes, such as her homemade garden marinara sauce, are prepared with heirloom tomatoes. Friends not only wanted her recipes, but seedlings of specific varieties as well.

Kennedy fondly describes her heirloom tomatoes, which hold a variety of succulent flavors, such as sweet with overtones of tartness. “They’re juicy yet meaty. Some are tiny clusters like grapes, others are the size of plums, or shaped like pears or hearts, still others are frequent winners in ‘giant tomato’ contests,” she says.

And then there are the colors. Ripe heirloom tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, including white, green, yellow, orange, pink, purple, almost black and “endless shades of red.”

Many home gardeners are as familiar with the famous ‘Brandywine’ heirloom tomato as they are with the popular hybrid ‘Big Boy.’ But not as well-known are other old American tomato varieties, such as ‘Aunt Ginny’s Purple,’ ‘Hillbilly,’ ‘Mortgage Lifter’ and ‘Ernie’s Plump.’ As heirlooms have increased in popularity, growers have introduced many other long-forgotten varieties from different parts of the world, including ‘Oaxacan Jewel’ from Mexico, ‘Thessaloniki’ from Greece, ‘Druzba’ from Bulgaria, ‘Crnkovic Yugoslavian,’ ‘Old Italian,’ ‘Nepal,’ ‘Ukrainian Pear’ and ‘German Red Strawberry.’ Kennedy grows and sells them all.

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