Tomato season is finally here in full force. No longer do we need to satisfy ourselves with the greenhouse-grown tomatoes that have been available from some roadside stands, as good as those are. Now the ones kissed by the sun are here! And now that many local farmers are growing heirloom varieties as well as some standard hybrids, what a selection there is.
Hybrid tomatoes are what we generally think about when we think about tomatoes: Early Girl, Big Beef, Better Boy, Roma, Super Sweet 100. These varieties are dependably sized and shape-specific. They can be early maturing, provide a very good yield and may have good disease resistance. They have been bred specifically to deliver these qualities. Some tomatoes have been bred for more commercial qualities—like those we buy in the grocery store—best avoided—or those grown for use in processed food products like ketchup and tomato sauce.
Hybrid tomatoes can be grown from seeds out of a packet, but if you save seeds from hybrid tomatoes and plant them, the resulting tomatoes will not match the ones you grew initially. This is because hybrids are developed by crossing one or more tomato varieties.
I plant some hybrids, though. They are favorites, and those big healthy plants with big beefsteak tomatoes please clients (and me!). But if you want a different tomato experience, you must try some heirlooms.
An heirloom tomato variety must be traceable to before 1940 or be at least 50 years old. They are self-pollinating, so when the seeds are saved from one crop, the new plants are like their parents. Over generations, the seeds from the best tomatoes in each crop—biggest, most favorable, most disease-resistant, etc.—are saved and then planted the next year, creating a slow, natural progression of adaptability to a region and, over time, reflecting the preferences of the family growing them. They might also cross pollinate with another variety growing close by and perhaps produce another type to add to the mix.
Heirloom tomato plants produce more distinctive tomatoes than hybrids do. There are tiny to huge, white, green striped, red, pink orange and even black. And each variety has its own flavor. They are almost without exception indeterminate so they require support if you want to keep the fruit from rotting while resting on wet soil, and also keep it away from insects and less exposed to fungus. I grow tomatoes on stakes allowing only one or two vines per stake for just these reasons—also, they look really attractive grown this way. This method also allows the tomatoes to see the sun and enjoy the breeze, which are both good for them. And, since the vine can grow only a limited amount of fruit, the fruits are better and bigger. This method also allows for more plants to be planted in an area because you can plant one every 18”. Lots of chances to experiment!
Heirlooms do have limitations. They are notoriously thin-skinned—hence their absence from grocery stores and their potential priciness in farmers markets. They must be handled very carefully. Their shapes can be quite odd. Sometimes they remain green on the top. They can crack easily, especially after rain—which can also diminish their flavor. They can be more prone to disease. They may or may not be good producers. But they are worth the effort and you will taste tomatoes like your grandparents ate.
My parents always grew Rutgers tomatoes. It is a large determinate that produces almost all of its crop at the same time—a trait that makes it very good for canning which is just what we did with it.
So next year, grow a mix of hybrids and heirlooms. Happy experimenting!
Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067. jeanellemyersfinegardening.com