Master Gardener - Heirloom tomatoes perfect for home gardens


Not your average tomato: heirloom varieties come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors.

Sam Marshall / Submitted photo
Published: Thursday, February 6, 2014 at 03:24 PM.

Instead of trying something new this year, why not try something old? Join a growing number of gardeners who are seeking out heirloom varieties. Planting heirloom varieties offers a unique chance to connect with our past and literally taste our gardening heritage. Heirloom varieties of tomatoes are particularly popular because they offer a diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors, as well as an abundance of old-time tomato flavor. You will be able to find several popular heirloom tomato varieties at garden centers this spring, but if you wish to grow your own, now is the time to start the seeds.  

In with the old

Heirloom varieties are fruit or vegetable selections that have been around since before 1950, and have often been passed down from one generation to the next. Many gardeners choose to plant heirloom varieties for their superior flavor and interesting appearance. In contrast, most commercial vegetable varieties found in supermarkets are hybrids, bred for uniformity and long shelf-life, often at the sacrifice of flavor. 

For the frugal gardener, heirloom varieties offer a chance to save your own seeds. Many heirloom vegetables, including tomatoes, lettuce, and beans, are self-pollinating, meaning that different varieties do not have to be isolated from each other to produce seed that come true to type. You can plant several varieties of heirloom tomatoes beside each other in the garden and still expect seed saved from each one to produce plants like their parent.  

Hybrid varieties, on the other hand, are carefully bred for particular characteristics, like disease resistance or vigor. To maintain these characteristics, parent lines of these varieties must be re-crossed each year. Because subsequent generations grown from seeds saved from hybrid varieties will not reliably reproduce these traits, new seeds must be purchased each year. 

Available varieties 

Many heirloom tomatoes are available, each with its own unique flavor, size, and shape. And oh, did I mention the names? ‘Green Zebra’ has green and yellow-striped skin that tastes like apples, while ‘Cherokee purple’ has dark purple flesh with fruits weighing in as much as 12 ounces. ‘Arkansas Traveler’ is a vine-type variety that is disease and crack-resistant, and tolerates humidity well. ‘Pink Brandywine’ also does well in this region. Then there is always ‘Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter’, a behemoth tomato variety that will make your sandwich bread look like a saltine cracker. Other popular heirlooms for our region include ‘German Johnson’, ‘Marglobe’, and ‘Homestead’. 

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