Heirloom Tomatoes (11 Common Questions Answered)


Heirloom tomatoes are desirable and often fetch a high price at farmer’s markets (if you can get them before they run out!)  As such, you may want to learn more and possibly grow your own.

So, what do you need to know about heirloom tomatoes?  Heirloom tomatoes are non-GMO, non-hybrid, open-pollinated varieties that are at least 50 years old. Heirloom tomatoes often have better flavor but less disease resistance than hybrid varieties. Heirloom tomatoes come in many colors and sizes, with determinate and indeterminate varieties available.

Of course, heirloom tomatoes can be a little harder to grow than other varieties.  Mainly, this is due to a lack of disease resistance in heirloom tomatoes.

In this article, we’ll talk about heirloom tomatoes, what they are, and why you might want to consider growing them.  We’ll also answer some common questions about heirloom tomatoes.

Let’s get started.

Heirloom Tomatoes (Common Questions Answered)

Heirloom tomatoes must be:

  • open-pollinated varieties
  • not GMO (genetically modified organisms)
  • not hybrid varieties
colorful heirloom tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes are non-GMO, non-hybrid, open-pollinated varieties that are at least 50 years old.

However, these three factors alone are not enough to qualify as heirloom.  Often, a tomato variety is only considered to be an heirloom if it is at least 50 years old.

That means it has been passed down for at least 1 or 2 generations with in a family, or developed naturally over a long time period by saving seeds from tomato plants with the best traits.

Heirloom tomatoes often have a superior taste to the hybrid, half-ripe tomatoes that were shipped hundreds of miles (or more) for you to find in a grocery store.

heirloom tomato
Heirloom tomatoes often have better flavor but less disease resistance than the hybrid varieties you often see in grocery stores.

What Are The Best Heirloom Tomatoes?

The best heirloom tomato variety depends on your own personal tastes!

You can find Italian, Spanish, German, Siberian, Czechoslovakian, and other types of heirloom tomatoes that originated in countries all over the world.

You can also find red, pink, yellow, green, purple, and black heirloom tomatoes.

colorful heirloom tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes, and countries of origin.

You can find lots of determinate or indeterminate heirloom tomatoes, depending on how much space you have to grow.

You can find heirloom tomatoes with large fruit, small fruit, or fruit that matures early.

To learn more, check out this list of over 30 great heirloom tomato varieties.

What Heirloom Tomatoes Are Determinate?

Many heirloom tomato varieties are determinate.  Here are a few varieties of determinate heirloom tomatoes you can choose from:

  • Cream Sausage – this determinate heirloom tomato variety yields long, sweet, 3-inch yellow or orange fruit in mid-season (73 days to maturity).  You can learn more about Cream Sausage tomatoes from TomatoFest.
  • Early Annie – this determinate heirloom tomato variety yields round, 4-ounce red fruit with few seeds in early-season (60 days to maturity).  You can learn more about Early Annie tomatoes from TomatoFest.
  • Grushovka – this determinate heirloom tomato variety from Siberia yields small, plum-shaped, 2 to 3-inch pink or red fruit in early-season (65 days to maturity).  You can learn more about Grushovka tomatoes from TomatoFest.
  • Heinz H9129 – this determinate heirloom tomato variety yields medium, round, red fruit in mid-season (73 days to maturity).  You can learn more about Heinz H9129 tomatoes from TomatoFest.
  • Principe Borghese – this determinate Italian heirloom tomato variety yields small (1 to 2 ounce), plum-shaped, red fruit in mid-season (78 days to maturity).  You can learn more about Principe Borghese tomatoes from TomatoFest.

You can find a longer list of determinate tomatoes (not all of them are heirlooms) here.

tomato plants with stakes
Determinate tomatoes tend not to grow as tall as indeterminate varieties.

What Heirloom Tomatoes Are Indeterminate?

Many heirloom tomato varieties are indeterminate.  Here are a few varieties of indeterminate heirloom tomatoes you can choose from:

  • Amy’s Sugar Gem – this indeterminate heirloom tomato variety yields round, sweet, small (2 ounce) red fruit in mid-season (71 days to maturity).  You can learn more about Amy’s Sugar Gem tomatoes from TomatoFest.
  • Blondkopfchen – this indeterminate German heirloom tomato variety yields grape-sized, sweet, small (1/2 inch) yellow or gold fruit in mid-season (75 days to maturity).  You can learn more about Blondkopfchen tomatoes from TomatoFest.
  • Marianna’s Peace – this indeterminate Czechoslovakian heirloom tomato variety yields large (1 to 2 pound), dark pink fruit in late-season (85 days to maturity).  You can learn more about Marianna’s Peace tomatoes from TomatoFest.
  • Pantano Romanesco – this indeterminate Italian heirloom tomato variety yields large (12 ounce), bright red fruit in mid-season (70 days to maturity).  You can learn more about Pantano Romanesco tomatoes from TomatoFest.
  • Trophy – this indeterminate heirloom tomato variety yields medium (6 to 8 ounce), bright red fruit in mid-season (80 days to maturity).  You can learn more about Trophy tomatoes from TomatoFest.

You can find a longer list of indeterminate tomatoes (not all of them are heirlooms) here.

Pinterest Do Tomato Plants Bear Fruit More Than Once
Indeterminate tomato varieties can grow quite tall and often require stakes for support.

Is It Hard To Grow Heirloom Tomatoes?

The hardest part about growing heirloom tomatoes is the danger of disease.  Heirloom tomatoes are not bred to resist diseases like late blight (unlike some hybrid tomatoes, which are bred for disease resistance).

tomato early blight
Late blight is just one disease that can affect tomato plants. Heirloom varieties tend to have less resistance than hybrids.

However, there are also other challenges if you want to grow heirloom tomatoes.  According to Johnny’s Selected Seeds, heirloom tomatoes have lower yields than some hybrid varieties.

Heirloom tomatoes also have thin skins, so they are more likely to split on the vine (or get damaged during transport to market).

cracked tomato
Heirloom tomatoes often have thinner skins, which can lead to cracked fruit on the vine.

According to the University of Illinois Extension, here are a few things you can do to have more success when growing heirloom tomatoes:

watering can
Water heirloom tomato plants from below and avoid getting the leaves wet to reduce the chances of disease.

Do You Prune Heirloom Tomatoes?

You would prune heirloom tomatoes just like any other type of tomatoes.  For determinate heirloom tomatoes, you might not need to do much pruning, since they don’t grow very tall.

For indeterminate heirloom tomatoes, you might want to do some pruning to manage the height of the plant.

pruning shears
Clean your pruning shears with alcohol between tomato plants to avoid spreading diseases.

Of course, you should keep an eye on your tomato plants to see if you need to prune back any of the suckers, foliage, etc.

How To Prune Heirloom Tomatoes

You prune heirloom tomatoes the same way that you prune any other tomato plants.  However, pruning is even more important because of the increased risk of disease for heirloom tomato varieties.

Ideally, you should prune tomato plants once per week after transplanting.  Pruning reduces low-hanging foliage, which reduces the chances of disease in the soil splashing up onto leaves during rain or watering.

tomato on vine
Prune the suckers and low-hanging branches off of heirloom tomato plants to prevent disease.

Pruning also increases air flow for the tomato plant, which reduces the chances of fungi from taking hold on the plant during wet conditions.

You can learn more about pruning techniques for heirloom tomatoes here.

Do Heirloom Tomatoes Take Longer To Grow?

Heirloom tomatoes may take a little longer to grow than other varieties (such as hybrids that are bred for fast production).  For example, the Fourth of July tomato is meant to produce fruit 7 weeks (49 days) after transplant.

tomato flowers
Some heirloom tomato varieties can produce fruit in as little as 60 days after transplant.

However, there are some heirloom varieties that mature early in the season, yielding fruit within 9 weeks after transplant.  For example, the “Early Annie” variety (mentioned earlier) matures 60 days after transplant.

Although some heirloom tomatoes may take longer to grow, the wait is worth it due to the high quality of the fruit.

Do Heirloom Tomatoes Need Full Sun?

Heirloom tomatoes need full sun, just like any other type of tomato plant.  Without full sun, your tomato plants may show stunted growth.

daylight
Put your heirloom tomatoes in a spot that gets plenty of sunlight (6 to 8 hours or more per day) to get the best yields.

Even if they grow well, you might get lots of green growth (tall vines and lush leaves), but delayed fruit or reduced yields.

Ideally, tomato plants should get 6 to 8 hours of full sunlight per day.  If you are growing indoors, provide the equivalent of full sunlight with grow lights.

You can learn more about sunlight for tomato plants here.

tiny tomato plants picture
If your tomato plants get enough sunlight, there is a much better chance of getting a larger harvest.

Can You Grow Heirloom Tomatoes In A Pot?

You can grow heirloom tomatoes in a pot.  However, it probably makes sense to choose smaller varieties (determinate), which stay shorter and are less likely to outgrow the pot.

(See a list of determinate heirloom tomato varieties above).

5 gallon bucket
You can grow heirloom tomatoes in a pot, but use at least a 5-gallon container.

Remember that larger varieties (indeterminate) will grow very tall.  Often, they will outgrow a pot or fall over (due to their weight), even if you support the vine with a stake.

(See a list of indeterminate heirloom tomato varieties above).

Can You Grow Heirloom Tomatoes Indoors?

You can grow heirloom tomatoes indoors or in a greenhouse.  However, if you are growing indeterminate varieties, you will need a high ceiling and some type of support (since some indeterminate tomato varieties can grow up to 8 feet tall or higher!)

When growing heirloom tomatoes indoors, you will need:

  • a container with holes in the bottom to hold the soil and allow for drainage
  • good soil to grow them
  • stakes or cages to support them
  • a watering system (including a tray below the container to catch excess water)
  • a light source (grow lights are often necessary to provide enough light for growth)

You can learn more about what you need to grow tomatoes here.

soil
Be sure to use good soil when growing heirloom tomatoes indoors.

Can You Save Seeds From Heirloom Tomato Plants?

You can save seeds from heirloom tomato plants.  In fact, the seeds will “breed true”, meaning that they will grow into the same type of plant as the parent plant that the seeds came from.

This might not sound like a big deal, but breeding true is not a given for hybrid tomato varieties.  Often, the seeds from the fruit on a hybrid tomato plant will grow into plants that revert to the traits of one parent or the other (not the hybrid).

tomato seeds
You can save the seeds from heirloom tomato plants, which will breed true from one generation to the next.

So, when you save seeds from a hybrid tomato variety, there is no guarantee about the type of plant (and fruit) you will get from the next generation.

Make sure to put the seeds you collect in a packet and label it with the date (month and year), the type of tomato, and where you got the tomato from (seed swap, friends and family, etc.)

You can learn more about how to save and preserve seeds here.

Where To Buy Heirloom Tomato Plants

You can check with a local garden center to see if they have heirloom tomato plants you can buy.  If not, you might need to try a specialty garden center.

tomato plant 3-5-2021
If you cannot find heirloom tomato plants locally, you can order seeds online and start your own plants.

If you cannot find heirloom tomato plants for sale nearby, you can still order heirloom tomato seeds online.

Here are some online retailers that sell heirloom tomato seeds (they may also sell hybrid seeds and open pollinated seeds that are not heirloom):

Conclusion

Now you know more about heirloom tomatoes, which varieties are determinate or indeterminate, and how to care for them.

You can learn more about heirloom tomatoes (and what makes them special) here.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

Recent Posts