Updated: Jan 10
Whenever I walk by the tomatoes in the grocery store produce aisle in the winter I always long for a plate of our homegrown tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil. There is nothing that compares to an heirloom tomato from the garden. Every spring we grow 125 varieties of tomato seedlings for our garden shop. Most are heirlooms but we mix in a some of our favorite hybrids and always try a few new varieties each year. We grow specimens of each variety to maturity to evaluate performance and flavor.
For me it started with my great grandfather Ben Specht in Pennsylvania. I would spend summer
vacations there as a little girl and I helped him in his garden where he grew Henderson’s Winsall tomatoes. Each year he saved the seeds for the following year. I can remember him holding a giant tomato in front of me. He then cut the tomato, sprinkled a little salt on it and we ate the tomato together on the swing on his porch. The swing pictured here with Ben is the same swing that is on our porch at Foster Hill Farm and is pictured above with a day's harvest of our tomatoes. The swing has come full circle from the the porch in the alley in Milton to our farm in Stafford Springs, CT. I love it every time I sit on it and wish Ben could sit on it with me to see what his love of gardening and tomatoes that he passed down to me has become.
Heirlooms are considered by most to be any open pollinated variety that was introduced prior to 1949 which was the year that Burpee introduced its popular hybrid Burpee Big Boy. Heirlooms often have interesting stories about how the seeds were saved and passed down. Many originated in other countries and were brought here to share with family and friends.
Heirloom tomatoes are perfect for saving and sharing seeds. They are all open pollinated which has made it possible to pass them down from generation to generation. The saved seeds will produce a plant and fruit that is identical to the parent. The pollinators get more active as the season progresses. It is best to save seeds from one of the first tomatoes that forms on the plant to minimize cross pollination. Heirlooms are indeterminate. They will continue to produce until the frost kills the plant. Most will also grow up to 8 feet tall or more. They need staking and a very large pot or to be planted in the ground.
Heirloom vs. Hybrid
A hybrid is an intentional cross of two varieties. Many are bred and known for disease resistance and often for commercial production. Seeds saved and planted from a hybrid tomato will not produce a plant like the parent so the seeds cannot be saved. It is generally our finding that the hybrids are great performers with disease resistance but sometimes do not have the full flavor of an heirloom. Take an F1 Hybrid Patio Tomato for example. This variety is perfect for containers because it is determinate and only grows to a few feet tall. It produces many small, uniform tomatoes with good flavor, but it does not have the intense flavor of an heirloom like Mortgage Lifter or Cherokee Purple.
There are a few exceptions. One hybrid we grow every year is Sun Gold which is one of the sweetest tomatoes and one of our favorites. It is one of the hybrids that does boast great flavor and disease resistance. There is a list of some of our favorite hybrids and heirlooms at the end of this article.
Why were hybrids created? Seed companies were selling open pollinated tomato seeds throughout the early and mid-1900s. Breeders started to experiment with hybrids and realized that along with the disease resistance qualities of the hybrid, people would have to purchase seeds every year. Open pollinated seeds were bad for sales because people were saving them and only had to purchase them once. The introduction of Burpee Big Boy in 1949 was a game changer for the seed companies. Commercial growers embraced the hybrids for their disease resistance, predictable performance and their blemish free visual appeal. Some hybrids are determinate so they set all of their fruit at one time for a harvest period of a few weeks. This makes harvest for processing easy and allows growers to have successive crops for commercial production.
Heirlooms have withstood the test of time demonstrating their inherent disease resistance. We are preserving history by continuing to save these seeds and plant them each year. No doubt the heirloom tomato plant is sometimes a bit unwieldy as it grows tall throughout the summer and needs a stake. The flavor and preservation of these varieties is well worth the effort.
There is a place in our garden for many heirlooms and a few favorite hybrids every year.
Favorite Heirloom Varieties
Here are a few of our favorites that we always have in our own garden:
1. Persimmon – This large, sweet tomato is a vibrant yellow-orange color. The name alone wants to make you grow it but once you do you will have one every year. The flesh is firm and the plant produces a high yield of these beautiful tomatoes. It was said to have been grown by Thomas Jefferson in 1781. The flesh is the same beautiful color as the skin and has a fruity flavor.
2. Marianna's Peace-My eye is always drawn to this plant in the garden. The large dark pink tomatoes look like a painting. The plant is rare with its lush potato type leaves. The variety was named for Marianne Tibbetts of the Czech Republic. Her family grew these on their farm there in the early 1900s. While in route to a labor camp in a truck Marianne and a few others jumped from the truck and escaped from the Czech Republic on foot. Through her sister these seeds made their way to the US and were named to honor Marianne.
3. Waimea Wild Cherry – This delicious ½ oz. tomato is a wild tomato grown in Hawaii. There are trusses of small bright red tomatoes that pop in your mouth. They are one of the sweetest cherry tomatoes and we always grow at least one of these in our garden every year. They are one of our go-to tomatoes for eating right from the plant. You will have more tomatoes than you know what to do with. Great snack to pack in a lunch. The vines can get very big and require staking. They produce for a long season until frost kills the plant.
4. Polish Tomato – This potato leaf variety produces an abundance of large, beefsteak style tomatoes that are dark pink. It is a Polish market tomato. They are uniform and juicy. Perfect for sandwiches or on a burger. Aside from the delicious tomatoes I always am drawn to the potato leaf old fashioned varieties. The plants themselves are quite lush and beautiful.
5. Amish Paste – This is a 12 oz., large and blocky paste tomato from the Amish community in Wisconsin. This larger, fleshy and blocky fruit is perfect for processing. We also love to eat this one fresh in salads or sliced on a platter.
1. Sun Gold – My friend Jacelyn introduced me to Sun Gold many years ago. They are absolutely delicious, sweet little yellow/orange cherry tomatoes with hundreds of tomatoes on each plant. We grow one of these vines every year in our personal garden to just graze on when we are working in the garden. It was this tomato that opened my eyes up to hybrids that not only can be great producers but can taste amazing, just like the heirlooms that we love.
2. Bigdena – These tomatoes are so perfect they look like they are fake. They are nearly blemish free. There are impressive clusters of 8-12 oz., round, bright red tomatoes. Our plants were ladened with picture perfect, red tomatoes. This variety is highly disease resistant and would make a good choice for market/commercial production or a home garden.
3. Super Sweet 100s – This is a go-to red cherry tomato that always performs for us regardless of conditions. This variety is disease resistant and produces trusses of bright red cherry tomatoes until frost. The tomatoes are a 1 oz. fruit and are very sweet.
4. Sunny Boy – This tomato will catch your eye in the garden. The fruit is such a bright yellow and has very few blemishes. The flesh is also bright yellow and is very sweet and firm. It is one of our favorite yellow tomatoes and looks terrific on a plate sliced with maybe a Persimmon and a Bigdena for a colorful presentation.
5. Mountain Magic – I love this tomato because they are the size of Campari tomatoes, a little 2 oz., 2-bite cocktail tomato. This plant stands out in the garden with clusters of these little tomatoes. It is very disease resistant. The plant produces in just 60 days so you will have a long season of fresh tomatoes for eating fresh or topping your salad.