The Beauty of Heirloom Tomatoes

Growing Vegetables
Heirloom Tomato

Many gardeners are intrigued by heirloom tomato plants and wish to grow them. There are many reasons why you might want to consider growing heirloom tomatoes. They come in many unusual shapes and many different colors. Not to mention many different flavors you can taste. Heirloom tomatoes also include many different plant types you might want to use. The best of all, heirloom varieties are no GMO food.

In case heirlooms are new to you or if you've never used them before, you should definitely consider them. They bring numerous advantages to all vegetable gardeners looking for great food to grow.

Heirloom Varieties

What are heirloom varieties? Any person with a gardener somewhere in the family tree can relate to a story about a flower or a vegetable highly prized by an aunt, grandparent, uncle or another relative. Those old-fashioned plants are often very healthy, strong and definitely something modern gardeners wish to grow. These old varieties are typically known as heirloom varieties. Usually, for a variety to be considered heirloom, it has to be at least 50 years old.

However, up until recently, these heirloom plant varieties weren't readily available to gardeners. Unless you had someone in the family still growing a particular plant variety, it was almost impossible to get this variety for your garden.

Luckily, interest in heirloom varieties, especially tomatoes, has increased in the past few years. It means that various heirloom varieties are more accessible these days. Today, many gardeners can get heirloom varieties and grow them in their gardens.

If you are attracted to heirloom tomato varieties, you might wish to grow them in your garden.

About Heirloom Tomatoes

In order to understand heirloom tomato plants, it's important to know the basics of tomato reproduction. It is closely related to something called "open-pollinated" variety (OP). An open-pollinated tomato variety breeds true from seed. It means that the seed saved from the parent plant will grow into a new plant with the same characteristics. Open pollination seed is produced by simply allowing a natural flow of pollen between different plants of the same variety.

Most of the heirloom plants are OP, which means they are not hybrids. Also, most of them predate the 1950s, which means they are decades old, sometimes more. An heirloom variety is usually defined as a variety that has a history of being passed down from generation to generation. Such a variety should also be at least 50 years old. In order to maintain purity of a variety it's important to prevent cross-contamination.

Keep in mind that all OP plants and heirlooms can cross-pollinate. In most of the cases for heirlooms, you wish to prevent this, but in some cases it may be done intentionally in order to produce different varieties.

Another thing to keep in mind is that while all heirlooms are open-pollinated, not all OP plants are heirlooms.

As the opposite of OP plants you have hybrid varieties. They don't breed true from seed. A hybrid seed is produced by crossing two different parent varieties of the same species. What is important to remember about hybrids is that they don't remain true in several generations after the initial cross. They can't be saved from generation to generation unchanged.

It's also important to know that most of the mass-market tomato plants you can find are hybrids tomatoes. While there is nothing wrong about them, if you want tomatoes of a precise, specific characteristics, it's better to go with heirlooms.

Where Do Heirlooms Come From?

In order to understand heirloom tomato varieties better, it's important to know where they come from. Heirloom tomato varieties in fact come from many different places and many of them have a long, traceable history. For example, one person donate an heirloom variety "Emmy" to Seed Savers Exchange. This variety is named after a woman who fled Romania after World War II with one of her tomatoes from Transylvania.

Another heirloom variety, the beefsteak-sized "German Pink" was brought from Bavaria in the 1880s by cofounder's great-grandfather. As you can see, heirloom tomato varieties come from many different places and often have a very exciting history.

How to Grow Heirloom Tomatoes

If you wish to grow an heirloom tomato variety, it's important to know how to start them successfully. Gardeners in northern climates will have more success growing tomatoes (both mass-market varieties and heirlooms) if they start seeds indoors or if they plant seedlings.

Once they are established, most heirloom varieties are indeterminate. It means they will continue to grow throughout the summer and will produce fruit continuously during this period.

Keep in mind that heirloom tomatoes typically are not small, compact plants. If you wish them to grow upright, you will need to stake them.

If you choose an heirloom variety that has been grown historically in your region, you can expect it to do well in your garden. Even more, it will grow into a strong, healthy plant you can be proud of.

However, keep in mind that even heirloom tomato varieties can get certain diseases and pests. Just because they are heirloom doesn't automatically make them resistant to these problems. While some hybrid varieties have an inbred resistance to certain diseases (such as tobacco mosaic disease), heirloom varieties don't have this resistance.

Heirloom Tomatoes are Rewarding

As a first-time gardener, you will sure be surprised to see all the unique colors and shaped heirloom tomatoes can have. Colors range from yellow to orange, red and purple. Flavors are very complex and rich. There are thousands of kinds of tomatoes to grow, so you can sure choose the best combination of color, shape and taste to suit your needs.

Photo credit: Ting Chen

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