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What is an heirloom tomato?

Updated on August 24, 2014
Patsybell profile image

I inherited my love of gardening from my mother and grandmother. I am a garden blogger, freelance writer, and Master Gardener emeritus.

Big and juicy

Sliced Pineapple and Paul Robeson heirloom tomatoes have that  rich, old fashioned tomato flavor.
Sliced Pineapple and Paul Robeson heirloom tomatoes have that rich, old fashioned tomato flavor. | Source

Tomatoes with a story

Heirloom has many defintions. My definition is a plant that has been passed down for generations. Usually these plants are indeterminate, open-pollinated (non-hybrid) plants that lack disease resistance.

It's easy to pass down heirloom seeds for generations because seeds can be collected and will show the traits of the original seed. Collecting pure or true seed that faithfuly reproduce similar plants is possible because tomatoes are generally self pollinating.

Season stretching indeterminate heirlooms are usually big tomato plants needing strurdy staking or support. Heirlooms that are indeterminate are continuously growing bigger and taller. They produce fruit until first frost, are usually preferred by home gardeners.

Determinate tomatoes grow to a defined height and generally produce all their fruit at once. A good choice for containers or when you want a lot of tomatoes all at once for recipe making or preserving.

Heirlooms often lack disease resistance. Since these tomatoes have been around for generations, it's not usually an obsticle. This is seldon a problem in a clean garden using crop rotation and organic gardening practices.

Heirlooms are the tomatoes we love and want to pass on to future generations.

Heavy producer

Grow an endless supply of these little Riesentraube tomatoes on indeterminate vines. Volunteer seedling tomatoes come up every year in the garden.
Grow an endless supply of these little Riesentraube tomatoes on indeterminate vines. Volunteer seedling tomatoes come up every year in the garden. | Source

Are heirlooms better?

Big heirloom tomatoes are the darlings of the garden these days. You can find a few heirlooms at the big box garden centers. But for the best choice - pick the tomatoes with a past.

My neighbor always has the first ripe tomato of the season. I suspect she's made a deal with the devil.

Most heirlooms will not survive commercial production. They are usually thin skinned and just simply could not survive the transport.

Buying seeds online or from a catalog will give you a huge selection of tomatoes. For example, you usually won't find Royal Hillbilly or Carbon tomatoes locally. See if there is an organic grower at your farmers market.

Most of my tomato choices are heirlooms. I try some different tomato varieties every year and keep keep the best tomato choices from last year. One year I grew all black tomatoes; like Carbon and Paul Robeson. That was a very good, juicy and abundant year.

This year I am growing several oganic bicolor heirlooms. Bicolor and striped tomatoes are often red and yellow, like Copia or Gold Medal. They can be green like the Black Stripe and Green Zebra tomatoes.

Define "heirloom"

Ask the next three gardeners you see, "Whats an Heirloom?" They might say, "A variety that has been passed down through a family for generations," or "An herb, fruit or vegetable that has been around for 50 or 100 years" or "Any plant that was grown befor World War II."

The term "heirlooms" can apply to any plant, not just tomatoes.

My neighbor who usually wins "Earliest Tomato" victories may be because she usually grows hybrids bred to produce early. I usually grow big heirlooms that ripen later in the season.

The neighbor who made the deal with the devil? She's not talking. (To me.)


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