Heirloom tomatoes have become very popular of late.
And for good reason!
Because by growing heirloom tomatoes you’ll be able to experience a wonderful diversity of tomato sizes, shapes and flavors.
That’s not to say that there aren’t many wonderful hybrid tomato varieties, because there certainly are.
But there are also many unique and wonderful tomatoes that are only to be had by growing some of the old heirloom tomato varieties.
Though the modern hybrid varieties offer many wonderful and important characteristics, they also present a potential danger. By relying too heavily upon a relative few hybrid varieties, we risk losing the diverse and resilient gene pool represented by the thousands upon thousands of non-hybrid varieties.
By maintaining production of heirloom tomato seeds, we help to maintain the gene pool that protects us from potentially disastrous consequences.
And this applies to all types of heirloom seeds, not just tomato heirlooms.
The exact definition of an heirloom plant is a bit fuzzy and somewhat debated, but in essence an heirloom variety is one that has been around for a long time, and is open-pollinated.
Open-pollinated means that the plant reproduces true from seed, whereas hybrids do NOT reproduce true from seed. This means that you could collect heirloom seeds from this year’s crop, and plant them next year and get essentially the same variety from the seeds. But to grow a hybrid variety, you must purchase new seed every year (one reason the seed companies love hybrids!). Saving seeds from your hybrid crop will do you no good, since the seed from hybrids is either sterile, or will not be a true reproduction of that hybrid variety.
A hybrid variety can only be produced through the controlled crossing of the selected parent varieties.
To borrow an example from the animal kingdom, mules are the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey. And breeding the horse and donkey is the only way to get a mule. Similarly, the only way to get any hybrid tomato variety is by controlled cross-pollination between the parent varieties that give the hybrid its desired characteristics.
(NOTE: To assure production of true-to-type heirloom tomato seeds, heirloom tomato varieties need to be kept somewhat isolated from other varieties to prevent cross-pollination. If multiple heirloom tomato varieties are grown together in the same plot, the resulting seeds will likely be crosses of different varieties. Some of which might be really good – just not quite the same as the desired parent variety.)
Just be aware that if you decide to grow heirloom tomatoes, it’s possible you’ll encounter some problems that you could avoid with hybrid varieties.
There’s a reason, of course, that many of the disease resistant characteristics have been bred into hybrids. The old heirlooms don’t have the same ‘built-in’ protections, and so you may find that certain heirlooms won’t be successful in your area.
That certainly isn’t a reason to avoid growing heirlooms, but you might want to hedge your bet by also growing some hybrids.
If they’re ALL successful, you’ll have some happy friends and neighbors when you start trying to get rid of the glut of tomatoes you’re producing!
As I did with the hybrid tomato varieties, I’ll list a few of the more popular heirloom varieties here. If you’ve had some great experiences with a variety I don’t list here, feel free to add it to the list using the form below.