• Kim Milikowski

Heirloom Tomatoes for Today's Garden

Whenever I walk by the tomatoes in the grocery store produce aisle 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. Our seeds have been started. Summer is just a few months away and we will be eating delicious tomatoes soon😊

Every spring we grow 100 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. We grow specimens of each variety to maturity to evaluate performance and flavor.

For me it started with my great grandfather Ben 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.

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 to the US to share with friends and family. 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. 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 not as flavorful as 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. It produces many small, uniform tomatoes but it does not have the intense flavor of an heirloom like Mortgage Lifter or Cherokee Purple. 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.

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.

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.