Why and How you Should Grow Heirloom Tomatoes

Mixed Heirloom Tomatoes at a Produce Market
Mixed Heirloom Tomatoes at a Produce Market | Source
Tomato plants can grow quite large, so you need to stake them. This is one of mine and I should have pruned it. See all of the blossoms in the back. When the plant was fully mature, I couldn't even find all of the tomatoes.
Tomato plants can grow quite large, so you need to stake them. This is one of mine and I should have pruned it. See all of the blossoms in the back. When the plant was fully mature, I couldn't even find all of the tomatoes. | Source
A beefsteak tomato in comparison to a cherry tomato. This large heirloom variety was popular before new hybrids were created that had a smoother appearance.
A beefsteak tomato in comparison to a cherry tomato. This large heirloom variety was popular before new hybrids were created that had a smoother appearance. | Source

Here you'll learn just what heirloom tomatoes are and how to plant and grow them. Heirloom tomatoes are the ones that you found in Grandma and Grandpa's garden. These tomatoes are an open-pollinated variety, unlike the newer hybrid varieties. You can save the seeds from the plants and replant them year after year. With hybrids, you can’t do this and have them true to form. They are available in a wide variety of shapes and colors. You can even grow purple, pink and black ones.



Why Grow Heirloom Tomatoes?

Many gardeners would like to preserve the older vegetables from the past. Doing this has many advantages. The seeds can be saved, many are tastier and some gardeners would like to preserve our heritage. These varieties were often passed down from generation to generation for years. The seeds have become acclimated to the area in which they've grown.

Hybridizing started in the 1940’s and the heirlooms are the varieties that were eaten before our modern day tomato. You’ll enjoy the variety of shapes, sizes and colors to choose from. A plateful of different types that are sliced is a pretty sight to see. Prepare a plateful for a picnic and you’ll have everyone talking.

The main disadvantage of the older varieties is the lack of disease resistance that the newer hybrid tomatoes have. Many of the old tomatoes have trouble with cracking and having odd shapes too. The taste makes up for the problems you might have.

If you have the garden space, you should try growing some this year for a real taste-treat. You’ll have have fun picking and eating the tomatoes to see how each one tastes and looks. Then save the seeds for next year from your favorites.

Choosing the Right Variety

You’ll need to consider what variety is best for your area. If you have a short season, be sure to choose a variety that ripens early. The seeds are available at many of the garden sites online. Johnny’s Seeds carries a large variety. There is even a Seed Savers Exchange that you can join if you’d like to try different ones. Be sure that your choices will ripen before the first frost.

You can purchase these as seeds and start them early indoors or many greenhouses now offer the type that is best for your area.

Here is a short listing of some of the popular varieties.

Brandywine – They are large pink tomatoes with potato-like leaves. The fruit is shaped like a beefsteak tomato. It has a good tomato taste. It takes 78 days to maturity.

Cherokee – This tomato has a purple skin and a flesh that is brick colored. The rich taste is often compared to Brandywine. It takes 85 days to maturity.

Cherokee Green – This is a good tasting green tomato. The fruit is medium in size. The fruit can be green, orange or orange with green stripes. It takes 72 days to maturity.

Moskvich – This is a variety that is good for the north because it matures early and tolerates colder temperature. The fruit is a pretty bright red that is smooth with a rich taste. It takes just 60 days to maturity.

Rose – These are big tomatoes with a delicious taste that is said to rival Brandywine. The fruit is smoother than Brandywine. It takes 78 days to maturity.

Pruden’s Purple – This is a Brandywine type that matures earlier. The fruits can be over 1 pound in size. The skin is dark pink with a crimson flesh. It has potato-like leaves. A bonus is that it doesn’t crack like some heirlooms do. It takes 67 days to mature.

Green Zebra Heirloom
Green Zebra Heirloom | Source
Yellow Pear Heirloom
Yellow Pear Heirloom | Source

Starting the Seeds Indoors

Many of the heirlooms won’t be found at the local greenhouses. If you have a variety you can’t find, you’ll probably need to order the seeds and plant them indoors.

When doing this, they should be planted at least 4 weeks before you plan on planting outdoors. Fill small containers with a seed planting mix or with sterilized soil making sure that it is moist. Plant the seed about ¼ inch deep and ½” apart. If using a planting flat that isn’t divided, planting rows in furrows works best. Gently cover the seeds and water them gently. If you’ve planted more than one variety, you should label them right away, so you won’t forget which one are which.

Until the seed germinates, it is important to keep the soil moist, but not too moist. I’ve covered the planter with plastic wrap to work like a greenhouse. You can also purchase planting flats that have plastic covers.

Place the container in a warm place. I’ve set mine on top of the fridge or dryer and the extra heat seems to make the plants sprout faster. Use plant lights to make sure the seedlings get at least 12-18 hours of direct light. The plants will also need good air circulation. Use a fan if needed. They should get 5-10 minutes of air circulation at least twice each day. If you don’t do this, the stems won’t be strong and they may get stem rot.

If, you’ve used small containers, once the first true leaves appear on the plant, replant into 4” pots. Once the plants get larger, pinch off the top leaves and you’ll have a nice bushy plant.

Planting the Tomatoes in the Garden

When planting, you’ll need to grow extras, because the heirlooms don’t always produce as many tomatoes per plant as the newer varieties. Tomatoes like warm weather and frost can kill them, so plant after all danger of frost is gone. Plant them in good fertile soil in a sunny spot. Manure or compost from your pile is a good nutrient. Tomatoes thrive in lots of sunlight, so find a spot in your garden that gets plenty. Use manure when planting. Give the tomatoes enough space so that they will have good air flow. This will help prevent diseases later on.

A trick I’ve learned when planting is to remove all of the bottom leaves, leaving about 1/3 of the plant or at least 4 sets of leaves. Plant the rest of the plant deeply in the ground. You may need to plant it horizontally. It will look like you have tiny plants, but you will be rewarded later with a plant with a deep root system that will grow much bigger later on. The plant will put on many more tomatoes and be a bigger healthier plant.

Staking is important. Heirlooms can grow really tall. Be sure that the trellises or stakes you use are good and strong. I’ve had trellised plants topple right over in a strong wind, because I didn't use strong enough stakes that should have been deeper in the ground. This can cause plant breakage and make it difficult to pick the tomatoes later.

Mulch around the plants. This will keep weeds from sprouting and will help the plants later on. It helps keep in moisture around the plants too. Mulching will keep the soil cool enough in the hot summer months. Tomatoes don't like soil temperatures reaching above 85 degrees.

Caring for The Plants

The plants need to be watered on a regular basis. This is important so the plants get a good start and it is crucial later on to have good tomatoes. Never let seedlings completely dry out or they may die. Keep a consistent supply of water. Try to water from below, rather than watering the leafs. Morning hours are best for watering. An inch a week is fine in cool weather, but during the hot months 2" is better.

You may need to prune the tomatoes to get extra big tomatoes.This is a subject many growers argue about. Some say to prune and others say not too. If you grow a big plant, it can be easy to even miss some of the tomatoes as the hide behind all the lushness. Some of the branches will become shaded and not produce as much sugar and you may get smaller tomatoes or even have the leaves yellow and drop. The choice is yours to prune or not to prune.

You'll need to prune off just enough branches that the bottom ones don't hang on the ground and none of the branches are shaded. In the end you will be rewarded with larger fruit.

The tomatoes will do best if fertilized once a month. You'll only need a very small amount and organic fertilizer is best. Look at the local gardening center and you should be able to find some especially formulated for tomatoes.


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Comments 40 comments

KimberlyLake profile image

KimberlyLake 4 years ago from California

Great info, well written. Voted up and useful


Lita C. Malicdem profile image

Lita C. Malicdem 4 years ago from Philippines

These heirloom tomatoes are familiar in my country but I don't even know that they have variety names until I've read this hub. Your planting tips on what variety to plant according to the season are very informative. Tomatoes are in season these hot days and I love to sundry the pulpy ones which I see here as the Green Zebra. Thank you for these interesting gardening tips. Might as well try planting tomatoes, too. Interesting and voted up!


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Lita, I think the tomatoes will do better there than here. They like hot weather. Thanks for reading and voting up.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Kimberly, Thanks for commenting and voting up.


mary615 profile image

mary615 4 years ago from Florida

I always envy people who can grow tomatoes. I've tried so many times. Either pests eat them or the birds eat them just about the time the tomato is ready to eat. I just go to the supermarket and buy them now. This was a great Hub and informative. You make me want to try again!


Pannonica profile image

Pannonica 4 years ago

Loved this hub, I always grow tomatoes every year but haven't tried these. I will investigate if I can find them online, disadvantage of living in a small town is nothing local! Lots of information here for me to work with, thanks for the info, voted up.


viking305 profile image

viking305 4 years ago from Ireland

I grow tomatoes in the garden organically every year and they taste so much better than any shop bought ones. I have never heard of the Heirloom variety of tomato though. I will look out for the seeds and have a go at growing them.

Thanks for SHARING, Up and useful


Thelma Alberts profile image

Thelma Alberts 4 years ago from Germany

Thanks for this informative hub. I am planning to plant tomatoes in my backyard. So this come right on time. Thanks for SHARING. Voted up and useful.


CreateHubpages profile image

CreateHubpages 4 years ago

I love to cook pasta with fresh tomatoes.


Keri Summers profile image

Keri Summers 4 years ago from West of England

A thorough and detailed, informative Hub, BK. I particularly enjoyed reading about the different varieties. I don't have the space to grow tomatoes properly yet, but when I do will try heirloom varieties. I've not grown this type, but have seen and tasted them and they are amazing. Thanks. Up, awesome, beautiful.


cebutouristspot profile image

cebutouristspot 4 years ago from Cebu

I never had any luck on growing tomatoes. They died after baring the first tomatoes. :( white stuff eat them out. I would try your tips and hope this time I will succeed. Thanks for sharing.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Mary, I know how you feel, because I have that luck with insects and my squash plants. We love to eat them, but I'm always battling with bugs. Thanks for commenting.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Pannonica, Thanks for reading the hub and voting up. The seeds are available at many of the seed catalogs online.


Jennifer Essary profile image

Jennifer Essary 4 years ago from Idaho

Thank you for the great information and inspiration to become a seed saver. In the past I've plopped plants from the garden store in the ground but starting them from seed seems more natural. Voted up, useful, and shared.


Diana Mendes profile image

Diana Mendes 4 years ago

Thanks for the information. I have just started growing tomatoes & so I find this hub very useful.


Pannonica profile image

Pannonica 4 years ago

Thank you Barbara. In fact I found some this morning and ordered, now all I need is to read your hub again and hope for good weather this summer! Looking forward to taste testing.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

viking, You can find a few varieties at most stores. Thanks for commenting and voting up.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Thelma, I'm happy I was able to help. Thanks for commenting and voting up.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

CreateHubpages, I like any vegetable better that is fresh. Thanks for commenting.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Keri, Try growing them in a container. Just be sure that you use a large one and just put it on the deck or patio. If you don't have that, I guess you'll need to wait. Thanks for commenting and voting up.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

cebutouristspot, I've never heard of the white stuff eating tomatoes. We get tomato worms here and they'll eat the plant in a short time, but I check every day to see that there aren't any.

I checked and the only thing I could find about white stuff on tomatoes was that the tomato horn worms can have wasp eggs on them that look white. The horn worms can eat an entire tomato in a day. Just check your tomatoes every day and if you see them on the plant, use a pair of tongs or two forks as tongs and get them off. Stop on them on the ground.

Plant the tomatoes far enough apart, so you can see every branch. You want to kill these right away since they can do so much damage. Some may not have the wasp eggs on them and will just appear as a green worm. You need to look the plants over really well.

Good luck with your tomatoes. Heirlooms may not be a good choice if you are having problems. Look for seeds that say they have disease tolerance.

Thanks for reading the hub and commenting.


cebutouristspot profile image

cebutouristspot 4 years ago from Cebu

How I wish I have taken a photo before they died. The white thing I describe are not worm they are like flakes that cover the back of the leaves. They are alive and stick to the leaf until the said leaf withers. :( Anyway I would try again and add it n my collection here at home. I have a couple of veggies and fruits :)


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Jennifer, Thanks for reading. The only word of warning I have about these tomatoes are that they aren't as resistant to disease. Gathering the seeds year after year would be fun though. Thanks for voting up.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

cebutouristspot, I looked for more info and this is all I could find. Maybe this discussion will help. http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/load/tompests/m...


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Diana, It makes me feel good that I could help. Thanks for commenting.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Pannonica, I hope you have great weather and a bumper crop this year. Thanks for reading and commenting.


moonlake profile image

moonlake 4 years ago from America

We grew hairlooms last year. We had Cherokee variety but I can't remember the names of the other ones we had. We bought many of them at Home Depot. They are so good but last year we trouble with our tomatoes and didn't get has many. Everyone around here had the same problem.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

moonlake, Thanks for reading. Mine didn't do as well as usual, but it didn't rain as often as it should of. The year before we got so many that I couldn't find enough people to give the extras. I think the weather plays a big part. They don't like summer in the north that are too cool either.


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

Thank you for this comprehensive hub on heirloom tomatoes. I do enjoy buying them from the Farmer's Market and eating them, but thought you needed special skills to grow them. It looks like anybody can grow them. Voting this Up and Useful.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

alocsin, Yes they are easy to grow as long as you don't get a cold summer. Thanks for commenting.


Perspycacious profile image

Perspycacious 4 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

Fine article, Barbara. Today is "first planting in the garden day" here (though it may snow Sunday!) Time at least to get in the hardier things like peas, radishes, spinach, chard, etc. The more fragile "sensitives" can wait for after April 20th here, unless the unseasonally warm spring follows the unseasonally warm winter. Thanks.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Perspycacious, Thanks for reading the hub. We've had warm weather in Michigan, but we don't get the plant the hardy stuff until the middle of May. It must be you are living further south. I wish you the best of luck on your garden this year.


Perspycacious profile image

Perspycacious 4 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

Climate Zone 7 here just like my Mom's in southern Maine. The difference is altitude at almost a mile above sea level!


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Perspycacious, Ours is zone 5. It must be nice to get such a head start.


Wesley Meacham profile image

Wesley Meacham 4 years ago from Wuhan, China

Voted up, interesting and useful. Shared with followers and pinned.

I grew tomatoes for a while. At the time I was living in an apartment and didn't have a yard that I could grow them in. So instead I grew them out of a planter. This wasn't ideal but it did have some advantages. For one, you mention frost killing the plants. This is very true. Most people who grow their tomatoes in the yard will cover them at night when it starts to get cold. Instead of doing this I was able to move my plants inside at night. Every morning I would pull them back outside for the sunlight. Doing this my plants survived well into the winter after all my friends' plants had died.

You have a lot of information here. This is a great hub. I really enjoyed reading it.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA Author

Wesley, Thanks for all the compliments and I'm happy to hear you found the information useful. I've grown my tomatoes in pots many different years. Growing them on the deck made it easier to remember to water them and keep them picked. I found a really huge pot at a garage sale and I used that. I agree that taking them inside is a big advantage. Thanks for voting the hub hub and sharing it.


bettyshares profile image

bettyshares 2 years ago from Lighthearted Musings

This is such a great hub about heirloom tomatoes, I have been wanting to grow an organic garden for my family since my husband has been diagnosed with diabetes.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 2 years ago from USA Author

bettyshares, Thanks for your comments. Good luck on your garden and tomatoes next year.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

Thank you very much for sharing these useful instructions. I haven't grown heirloom tomatoes, but I have bought them at farmers markets. They're delicious. I'll try growing my own next year.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 2 years ago from USA Author

AliciaC, Thanks for reading. Let me know how it goes when you grow them.

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