Tomatoes: Heirloom or Hybrid

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Tomatoes, tomatoes, everywhere

As with any garden – large or small, for market or for the kitchen – I think one of the most common questions asked is: what tomatoes should I grow?  It’s a question that I have usually answered with: all of them.  It’s what lead me to plant 201 tomato plants in 2014.  And it probably needs to stop.

For one thing, there are literally thousands – and perhaps tens of thousands – of varieties of tomatoes.  The gamut runs from Snow White cherry tomatoes to big black Paul Robeson beefsteaks and everything in between: green-when-ripe, striped, pear-shaped and so on.  No one has room to grow them all.  So we choose.  We select varieties that are most well suited to our growing season, or that are better for eating fresh, or drying or making into sauce.  We choose varieties for their colour, their size or their shape.  Or we choose varieties that will grow where we want to grow them – such as in containers, or greenhouses.

But there is yet another choice mixed in amongst all these choices: heirlooms or hybrids.

A hybrid tomato is one whose seed came from two genetic parents, one who provided the pollen, and the other who grew the fruit (the ovum).  They tend to be vigorous growers, produce predictable yields and have been bred for (at least some) resistance to disease.  As well as the usual taste, colour, shape, etc.  Saving and growing out seed from a hybrid will produce an unpredictable offspring that could be like a parent, one of its grandparents, or some strange new combination.

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2014’s largest tomato (an heirloom)

An heirloom is a tomato with a history that goes back to its original breeding.  There are a number of so-called definitions for heirloom seeds – some say 50+ years, some say 4 generations – but all of them seem to have their exceptions: for example, by nearly all accounts the Green Zebra is an heirloom and it was bred is in the 1980s.  Seeds collected and saved from heirloom tomatoes (or any open pollinated variety, heirloom or not) will reproduce true to the parent plant.  Heirlooms, in general, tend to be less predictable than hybrids, with more in-variety variations of size and shape.  The fruit of heirloom tomatoes tend to be more fragile than hybrids – although there are exceptions (the yellow pear cherry tomato comes to mind) – but they are also usually considered to have greater flavour.

In my gardening career I’ve grown about 30 varieties of tomatoes – a miniscule amount by some standards – but I’ve hit some of the big names: Cherokee Purple, Lemon Boy, Black Cherry, as well as the previously mentioned varieties.  Most of them have been heirlooms, which I tend to prefer, but some – like Lemon Boy – are hybrids that just perform so well that they’re worth keeping a supply of seeds around.

When it comes to choosing tomatoes for market I lean toward a mixture of heirlooms and hybrids.  The hybrids are reliable enough that I know that no matter what sort of weather comes my way I should end up with a decent tomato crop, and the heirlooms add that extra diversity and curiosity to the market stand that draws attention.  Also, they just taste delicious.

Heirloom cherry tomatoes; with some San Marzanos around the edges.
Heirloom cherry tomatoes; with some San Marzanos around the edges.

Customers usually remark on the heirlooms more than they do the hybrids – I think because the hybrids are visually much the same as tomatoes we see year round in the grocery store: round, red, firm and flawless.  But the heirlooms have character: ribbed and/or green shoulders, deep or vibrant colours, stripes, unique shapes, etc.  They’re different, they’re enticing, and they’re certainly conversation starters.  Each year I try to experiment with a few new varieties of heirloom tomatoes; my hybrid selection is pretty much set in stone (or, at least, dirt).

I try to keep the name and the history of each variety of vegetable that I grow in my head so that I can relate it to the customer when they ask.  I like the stories, and I like the history – and some of the varieties have come to me in interesting enough ways that I like to include that bit as well.  The customers seem to like it, I certainly hope they do.  And I think it helps make coming to the farmer’s market a little more enjoyable for them.

Do you prefer hybrid or heirloom tomatoes?

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What varieties do you grow and what made you choose them?

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