Monday, 9 February 2009

Heirloom Tomatoes Vs. Hybrid Tomatoes

by Marc @ GardenDesk

As you probably already know, I am fanatic about growing tomatoes. I love tomatoes of all kinds and I increase the varieties I grow more each year. My absolute favorites are heirloom tomatoes, also called heritage tomatoes. For at least 15 years, I raised "normal" red hybrid tomatoes. I didn't even know there were other kinds of tomatoes. Once I discovered the diversity of Heirloom tomatoes, a whole new world was opened up to me.

Did you know that there are more than red tomatoes? There are also striped tomatoes, green tomatoes (even when ripe), yellow, orange, purple, and even white tomatoes. You probably knew that, but for many years I didn't. I apologize if I am stating the obvious, but if there are any gardeners out there who never considered diverse heirloom or heritage tomatoes, they are missing out on so many great and exotic flavors and colors. Here's a few examples of some unusual heirlooms:

Aunt Ruby's German Green

Great White

Black Krim

So what is the difference between hybrid tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes? All of the following comments would apply to all vegetable varieties, but in this post I am focusing specifically on tomatoes.

Hybrids have been selectively bred over the years for good looks and disease resistance. If you save the seeds of a hybrid and re-plant them, the next generation plants will not be true to the parent. This is a big advantage for the seed companies. For example, if you want to grow Burpee Big Boy, you must always buy the seeds from Burpee.

The definition of an heirloom tomato varies. Most everyone agrees that all heirlooms are open-pollinated. This means that if you save the seeds of a certain variety, they will be the exact same tomato in subsequent years. This is of course if you are careful not to allow them to cross-pollinate with other tomato varieties.

The debate about the definition of heirloom is in the age of the variety. Some sellers claim they are creating "new" heirloom varieties because their only criteria for being called an heirloom is that it is open-pollinated. I don't agree.

Many people consider a cultivar an heirloom only if it has been passed down for many generations, and I am in this camp. Some people don't consider a variety an heirloom unless it is over 100 years old. Some say 50 years. I think a true heirloom or heritage variety needs to be at least 65 years old because growers began creating hybrids after World War II. If a variety was in existence before then and has been handed down true to the variety, then it isn't a hybrid.

I prefer heirlooms and as long as people keep saving heirloom seeds, I am not against hybrids. The only time I would be against hybrids is if the seed companies or governments regulated seed buying so much that heirlooms were no longer available. As long as both kinds are readily available, there is still a place in my garden for some hybrid varieties. In some cases, hybrids have an advantage over heirlooms.

So what are the pros and cons of growing heirlooms vs. hybrids?


  • Heirlooms have exceptional flavor.
  • Heirlooms are highly unusual and interesting.
  • Heirlooms offer a sense of heritage and history.
  • Heirlooms are great for seed saving.
  • Cons:

  • Heirlooms are not as disease resistant.
  • Pests seem to prefer heirlooms.
  • Heirlooms many times have lower yields.
  • Heirloom fruits are less uniform and less attractive.

  • Let me explain these a bit more:

    Heirlooms or Heritage varieties really do offer exceptional flavor! My favorite tomato for flavor is still Brandywine, an Amish variety dating way back to the 1800's. Brandywine was my first heirloom and when I ate my first fresh organic Brandywine, it was by far the best tasting tomato I'd ever eaten! That got me hooked on heirlooms and since then have found additional favorites. The original Brandywine is pink but this year I am also trying Yellow and Black Brandywines.

    The 2nd reason to grow heirloom tomatoes is because some of them are very interesting! Earlier I showed pictures of Aunt Ruby's German Green, Great White, and Black Krim. I have fun growing as many different colors and striped/speckled varieties as I can. The uniqueness doesn't stop at the tomato fruits either. Some heirlooms like Brandywine and Pruden's Purple have old-fashioned leaves that look more like potato leaves than tomato leaves.

    The third "Pro" is that it is fun to look up the origins of each heirloom variety. Each one has a special heritage of its own. There are varieties available from many different time periods and from all over the world. I really enjoy having tomatoes in my garden that originated all over the United States, some from Germany, Russia, Japan and the Middle East! You may even be able to find a variety that is hundreds of years old from your home town! Last year I found the Kentucky Beefsteak variety which is a variety over 100 years old that began right here in my home state. They were really cool with giant 2 pound orange fruits.

    I mentioned before about the huge benefit of being able to save the seeds from heirlooms. This is really great if you find a variety or two that you like and stick with them. You never have to buy seeds again and each year's crop should get better since it becomes more and more adapted to your micro-climate.

    Okay, enough of the "fun" talk of how great heirloom tomatoes are. Let's get into the "cons " or drawbacks of growing heirloom tomatoes.

    First of all, remember that true "heirlooms" have not been altered in any way like hybrids have. So the same thing that makes heirlooms great also make them very susceptible to disease and pests. Hybrid varieties many times have a series of letters after their names, like VFNT. This means the plants are resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilt, nematodes, and tobacco mosaic virus. Many heirlooms can be wiped out by these diseases. Hybrids are not necessarily bred to be resistant to insect or animal pests but it has been my experience that garden pests prefer the heirlooms (that's no surprise - I do too). My Brandywines have been heavily attacked by Blister Beetles and Tomato Hornworms, and all of the low fruits get eaten by turtles or groundhogs.

    The third drawback with heirloom tomatoes is that many of them don't produce as much fruit as a hybrid tomato plant. Mel Bartholomew of "Square Foot Gardening" is always saying, "you only need to grow one tomato plant per person in your family". With heirlooms, I don't agree. When growing heirlooms, you should grow several plants as insurance against pests, disease and low yield. Now, to be fair to the heirloom varieties, this is not because they are inferior. It is usually because the variety originates in an area with a different climate or other environmental factors. After saving seed from a variety, it many times increases in yield the following year.

    The fourth "con" is that the fruit set is many times not uniform and "ugly". Many varieties are heavily lobed or are more susceptible to cracking. This is not really a problem for my home garden, but it is a real concern for market gardeners.

    So it comes down to exceptional flavor and seed saving, being unusual and interesting with a sense of heritage versus being susceptible to disease and pests with possible lower yields of "ugly" fruit.

    Do the pros outweigh the con's? For me they do. This year I will be growing 35 tomato varieties, 28 of which are heirlooms. What do you think? Do you prefer Heirloom or Heritage varieties or do you stick with hybrid tomatoes?

    Keep Growing!

    - Marc


    Raine said...

    I like heirlooms best, because there seems to be so much more flavor.

    My favorites are German Pink, Georgia Streak, Black from Tula, Cherokee Purple, Boxcar Willie, Black Krim, Green Zebra, Persimmon, Anna's Red & Purple Calabash. The different colors look so prey together in a tomato salad when you have an overlap in growing/maturity times.

    AmethystDragon said...

    I have very similar views and I just love growing tomatoes - my biggest problem is restraining myself to growing only a small number of varieties as our greenhouse isn't huge and our weather in the UK doesn't really suit many varieties

    My favourites are the heritage plum tomatoes and grow about 4 or 5 varieties of these each year in various colours - Tomatoes are just a great plant to grow - Which reminds me - 'bout time I planted some seed!

    renee @ FIMBY said...

    I like a combination of both and found in my garden certain heirlooms, like prudens purple did terrible. Amish paste on the other hand was disease resistant and prolific.

    Here's another take on heirloom tomatoes:

    ChristyACB said...

    This year I'm growing 11 varieties in my Square Foot Garden, all heirloom.

    Choosing your heirloom variety is as much science as art though and if chosen well, will give just as much as the hybrids.

    Great article and I'm with you, the Brandywine is the best!

    farm mom said...

    I completely agree with your accessment on the differences and the pros and cons of each. I still have a few tried and true hybrids I enjoy for sauces and large recipes that I buy from an organic company I trust, but nothing beats the flavor and interest of the heirlooms. This year I'm growing 34varieties, all but 4 are heirlooms.

    Mrs. Anna T said...

    What an informative post! Thank you!

    Di said...

    Heirlooms for me! I think I'm up to 12 varieties for this summer!!! Only been gardening a year but NOTHING tastes as good as tomato fresh off the vine!

    patricia said...

    heirlooms all the way -- marglobes and brandywines were two i tried this past summer -- they were amazing! a big slab of tomato, some mayo and kosher salt on homemade bread -- omg -- swoon swoon -- i'd pick it over homemade cookies and that's saying something...someday i'd like some heirloom chicks to raise too...

    Anonymous said...

    We grow mainly heirlooms, some favorites are Jaune Flame, Kellogg's Breakfast, Brandywine, and New Zealand Pear.


    Anonymous said...

    Oh, Marvel Striped is another delicious beauty!


    mitzi said...

    I prefer an heirloom from my climate zone, Arkansas Traveler. The generic hybrid tomatoes can crack badly in our summer heat and variable rainfall (though I do water the plants as needed), and the ATs I grew last year hardly cracked at all. I'm trying other heirloom varieties this year (2 from locally saved seed). If you have any problems growing tomatoes, I'd highly recommend finding a gardening Grandma or a master gardener close by and asking for a few seeds.

    Green Bean said...

    I love heirloom tomatoes. Adore them really. I try year after year to grow them but with very little success. An edible landscaper whose very into organic and such recently told me to give up and go with a few hybrids as we've got so many different disease strains in our local soil. Not sure that's worth it, though! The hybrids are no where near as delicious.

    Rhonda Jean said...

    Great post Marc. I must say I enjoy your style of writing.

    I only grow open pollinated seeds. I currently have some beefsteaks in the ground and producing, and we have Armish paste, Pink Brandywines and Moneymaker at advanced seedling stage.

    Good luck with your harvests.

    way-eye-C-it said...

    I also like growing heirloom varieties organically!

    brandywine tomato seeds

    bonny best tomato seeds

    Anonymous said...

    "First of all, remember that true "heirlooms" have not been altered in any way like hybrids has been my experience that garden pests prefer the heirlooms.....

    The third drawback with heirloom tomatoes is that many of them don't produce as much fruit as a hybrid tomato plant....

    The fourth "con" is that the fruit set is many times not uniform and "ugly".... "


    Sven Olafson said...

    Hornworms are smart! So are Woodchucks! They know that Heirlooms are better tasting, and are more nutritious. Case closed!
    But the real need for the Heirloom enthusiast is a definitive statement as to how hybrids are actually made (too simple is to say two open polinated heirlooms equal a hybrid) My understanding is that there is some genetic engineering involved, which results in uniformity, resistances, and LOSS OF TASTE and NUTRITION. Need to hear about that.

    Anonymous said...

    Gads, I think of home grown tomatoes all winter.

    I play the song "Home Grown Tomatoes" just to get in the mood. I am a farmer who is active in our farmers market. While the majority of people buy the hybrid (sic) I refuse to plant them or sell them.

    I love a BLT with homemade mayo and sea salt. The flavor is amazing.

    I love the cracks and texture of each, this year I planted about 20 different types of tomatoes, the black krum or the black prince are my FAVORITES. Yum...stop. Think. I'm ok.

    Just take your salt shaker full of sea salt and is good.