If you’ve ever had a fresh heirloom tomato, you already understand why they can go for five dollars a pound at the farmer’s market – the taste is unbeatable. Once you’ve had a homegrown heirloom tomato, you’ll never go back to store-bought.
By definition, heirloom tomatoes are any open-pollinated tomato variety that was first developed at least fifty years ago. Common heirloom tomato varieties include the popular Brandywine and well-loved Beefsteak, but there are so many more. Heirloom tomatoes may have originated from a particular family, community, or seed company, but all heirlooms must be non-hybrid and non-GMO.
While taste seems to be the favorite characteristic of heirlooms, there are plenty of other reasons to grow and buy heirloom tomatoes. Read on to learn why heirloom tomatoes are distinguished in the garden and on the plate.
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What Makes Heirloom Tomatoes Special?
There’s no denying that heirloom seeds – particularly heirloom tomato seeds – have a cult following and you’re probably wondering why. What does it matter if your tomato seeds are from 1940s France?
There is no shortage of factors that set heirloom tomatoes apart from the rest, but gardeners, chefs, and seed companies alike all seem to treasure heirloom tomato seeds for their unique history and premier genetics.
Any plant can be an heirloom, but you’ll often hear the term in reference to vegetable varieties. While there is some disagreement on how old a particular cultivar must be in order to be considered an heirloom, the general consensus is half a century.
Heirloom seeds can be classified in a few different ways. Many heirloom tomatoes got their start within one family or community, and the seeds of that particular variety were passed down through the generations, and so are called family heirlooms.
Still other heirloom tomatoes were brought to life by small seed companies pre-WW2. Defined as commercial heirlooms, these varieties may have started as family heirlooms, but have been picked up by seed companies, mass-produced, and sold. Heirlooms don’t always start with an individual, but all heirloom seeds carry with them the story of a specific person, family, or place.
Who hasn’t heard of the Brandywine slicer tomato and its delicious, pink fruit? Or Amish Paste, one of the best cooking and canning tomatoes in the world? Even the popular Cherry Roma snacking tomato is classified as an heirloom variety.
Cherokee Purple is another well-known heirloom tomato, valued for its chocolate color and delicious flavor. Mortgage Lifter is another well-known heirloom tomato, and the story goes that the grower used the profit from this beefsteak slicer to pay off his mortgage!
Tomatoes come in a wide range of colors and shapes, and heirloom tomatoes come in varieties just as abundantly diverse. Massive beefsteaks, standard-sized slicers, paste tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and even heart and pear-shaped tomatoes–there’s an heirloom tomato for every garden and palette.
Open-pollinated Genetic Diversity
An heirloom tomato is an open-pollinated tomato variety that was created at least fifty years ago. The term open-pollinated describes any plant that was pollinated by natural processes, whether through insects, birds, or wind.
The antithesis of open-pollination is hybridizing, a process in which people hand-pollinate or use equipment to cross two different varieties to create offspring that has the best traits of both parents. Unlike hybrids, which typically result in infertile crosses between two different parents, open-pollinated vegetables produce offspring that come back true, resembling their parents and producing viable seeds.
Where To Buy Heirloom Tomatoes?
The most popular heirloom tomato (and other vegetable varieties) are readily available at small seed companies and local seed exchanges. The Seed Savers Exchange is one such globally-recognized nonprofit where members can exchange heirloom seeds in forums like these.
Most small seed companies will also carry heirloom tomato seeds, including:
A small, family-owned seed company based in Mansfield, Missouri. Founder Jere Gettle is passionate about providing a sustainable food supply to everyone and encourages Baker Creek customers to save and share their own seeds.
A small seed company based in Asheville, North Carolina, Eden Brothers is an online authority in heirloom vegetable, flower, and herb seeds, offering nearly 1,000 heirloom varieties at affordable prices.
Established in 1879, Harris Seeds is a small seed company based in Rochester, New York. Founded by the Harris family, ownership has since changed but the quality hasn’t, as the company still prides itself on its wide range of heirloom seed varieties.
Based in Wolcott, Vermont, all of the small seed company’s seeds are, in fact, certified organic and the business itself advocates for equity and environmental justice.
Named for the iconic Johnny Appleseed, Johnny’s Selected Seeds is an employee-owned small seed company with a mission to make even the rarest heirloom seeds available to everyone.
A west-coast seed company that operates out of Cottage Grove, Oregon, the farm itself is certified organic and all seeds are guaranteed non-GMO.
Of course, there are so many seed companies out there, so shop local when you can! Heirloom seeds are significantly cheaper than hybridized seeds, so heirloom varieties are ideal for the gardener on a budget.
How To Grow Heirloom Tomatoes
Growing heirloom tomatoes from seed isn’t really all that different from growing hybrids or tomato starts, but there are a few tips that should help you grow healthy and productive heirloom tomatoes.
Choose Local Heirloom Varieties When Possible
Heirloom varieties that have historically been grown in your growing area are more likely to thrive, and less likely to succumb to local pests, disease, and weather patterns
Local heirloom varieties, when you can get them, have already naturalized to that region, making the work of growing a successful crop that much easier.
Water & Fertilize Regularly
One of the worst things you can do for tomatoes is over water them – so let the soil dry out completely between waterings. Be careful to not get tomato foliage wet during waterings, as damp foliage contributes to disease.
You might consider installing drip irrigation in your tomato patch to conserve water and automate your irrigation system (read this article for more information on drip irrigation systems).
Heirloom tomatoes are vigorous growers, and as most are indeterminate varieties they’ll need frequent pruning to keep from becoming unmanageable. Check for suckers often, and prune the suckers between each leaf node with your fingers or a sharp pair of snips.
Wear gloves and clean your snips between plants, to reduce the risk of transmitting disease.
Preventatively Treat For Disease
Heirloom tomatoes, unfortunately, are at greater risk for diseases like powdery mildew than other tomato varieties. Fungal diseases like tomato blight and powdery mildew are usually unavoidable towards the end of the season, but you can take preventative measures.
Be sure to plant your heirloom tomatoes far from your potatoes, as both species are highly susceptible and could actually pass the diseases back and forth.
One way to increase heirloom tomato’s resistance to disease is to use a horticultural technique called grafting. Austin Little, from the University of Illinois, explains:
One of the most effective tricks for improving heirloom performance is grafting a vegetative heirloom cutting onto a disease-resistant hybrid rootstock. With this practice, the plant gets the resistance traits of a hybrid while maintaining the unique qualities of the heirloom fruit.¹https://greenupside.com/how-do-tomato-plants-get-blight-plus-prevention-tips/
While grafting does technically modify the heirloom plant by increasing its disease resistance, the technique doesn’t hinder the heirloom’s ability to set true seeds. Grafting is still revered as an ancient agricultural practice that has proven successful for millennia.
You might also decide to preventatively treat tomatoes for disease by spraying a fungicide every week. There are many fungicides on the market to suit a variety of preferences, whether conventional, organic, or all-natural. Neem oil is a favorite all-natural plant-based oil used to treat powdery mildew, while copper fungicide is an excellent choice to fight tomato blight.
7 Reasons To Grow Heirloom Tomatoes
If the intriguing names and beautiful colors aren’t enough to convert you to the cult following around heirloom tomatoes, the following factors will.
1. Better Taste
There’s a reason that these heirloom tomato varieties have been treasured over time. Heirloom varieties tend to taste so much better than the hybrid vegetables that you’ll find at the grocery store.
Heirloom tomato breeders were never concerned about shelf life or transportability – these varieties were selected over the years for their superior flavor, and with each planting, the flavor often improved.
Heirloom varieties were traditionally meant to be enjoyed locally, at peak freshness, and you can almost taste the history with each bite of an heirloom tomato.
2. Even Ripening
Heirloom vegetables, rather than ripening all at once like most hybrids, tend to have staggered ripening over the course of the season, so you’re never overwhelmed with too much produce at one time.
3. Superior Nutrition
Heirloom tomatoes may not be quite as productive or disease-resistant as hybrid varieties that were bred for those specific traits, but heirloom vegetables are generally more nutritious than hybrids.
This is because nutrients, vitamins, and minerals are more concentrated in each fruit produced by lower-yielding plants than in plants with higher yields.
4. Local Hardiness & Disease Resistance
Because heirloom vegetables are usually developed over generations in the same general area, those varieties tend to tolerate regional weather better than hybrid varieties.
Over time, many heirloom tomatoes will adapt to fit into the regional ecosystem better than a brand-new variety. Certain heirlooms will be better able to withstand local pests and weather extremes.
Heirloom vegetables have some resistance to local disease, although hybrids have more general disease resistance.
5. Perfect For Pollinators
If you’re at all concerned about the plight of the native pollinators who suffer from habitat destruction and a decreased food supply every year, heirloom varieties are the way to go. Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated, meaning that the plants require pollinators to propagate and create seeds.
Heirloom vegetables have a symbiotic relationship with pollinators, as each requires the other to survive.
Plant your garden in heirloom varieties and you’ll see more bees and bugs than you ever have before, which will do so much good for your garden and the world.
For more information on planting a pollinator patch with heirloom flower varieties, check out this article.
6. Preserve Genetic Diversity
By buying and growing heirloom seeds, not only are you growing the most beautiful and flavorful vegetables in your garden, but you’re also helping to preserve genetic diversity in the world’s seed stock.
According to the New York Times, each tomato plant has 31,760 genes.² That’s an endless amount of genetic combinations, which explains precisely why there are so many heirloom tomato seeds worldwide.
Heirloom seeds of all vegetables, not just tomatoes, add diversity to the world’s seed stock, a genome that is increasingly becoming saturated with hybrids and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
You might be aware of the harrowing statistic that half of the world’s seed is owned by four large corporations: Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina, and LimaGrain.³ While these numbers primarily refer to seed used for large-scale conventional agricultural production, it’s a statistic worth considering when shopping for seeds to plant in your vegetable garden.
Do you part to fight corporate control by supporting local, small seed companies that protect the farmer and promote genetic diversity.
7. Save Your Own Seed
Possibly the best quality about heirloom vegetables is that you can save your own seeds and grow that same variety again next year! Seeds on hybrid vegetables aren’t viable, but heirloom seeds will always sprout and produce a generation nearly identical to the parent generation, so you’ll know exactly what to expect.
Saving heirloom tomato seeds is not easy, but it is a rewarding process. To save tomato seeds, cut a tomato in half to separate the seeds from the flesh.
Transfer the seeds and pulp to a jar and allow the mixture to ferment for two to four days. When you can see a layer of mold growing on the mixture, remove it and separate the seeds.
Clean the seeds and allow them to dry, then store them in a dry, dark place until the next season!
There’s hardly a more sustainable way to garden than with self-saved heirloom tomato seeds. Who knows, maybe you’ll start growing out your own selections, and in time, perhaps you’ll come up with your own treasured family heirloom for generations to enjoy.
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¹ Keltner, Nikki, “Tips for Growing Tricky Heirloom Tomatoes.” Illinois Extension, University of Illinois Urbana‐Champaign, 21 June 2019, https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/northwest-illinois-horticulture-corner/2019-06-21-tips-growing-tricky-heirloom-tomatoes.
² Wade, Nicholas. “More Genes than Humans: The Tomato Decoded.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 May 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/31/science/the-tomato-ripe-juicy-and-bursting-with-genes.html#:~:text=The%20tomato%2C%20whose%20genome%20has,endowed%20vegetable%2C%20possessing%2031%2C760%20genes.
³ Shield, Charli. “Seed monopolies: Who controls the world’s food supply?” DW, Deutsche Welle, 4 Aug 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/agriculture-seeds-seed-laws-agribusinesses-climate-change-food-security-seed-sovereignty-bayer/a-57118595#:~:text=Today%2C%20four%20corporations%20%E2%80%94%20Bayer%2C,dominate%20the%20global%20food%20supply.
About the author:
When not writing content or growing flowers in her native Virginia, you can find Sarah hiking a long-distance trail deep in the woods. Follow along with Sarah’s adventures at http://sarahcolliecreative.com.