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