What are heirloom tomatoes?

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Veggies on a skewer
Heirloom tomatoes complement a wide variety of other fresh vegetables
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What are heirloom tomatoes? They are handed down from gardener to gardener.

If you're new to gardening, you may be asking, "What are heirloom tomatoes?" Heirloom tomatoes, or any heirloom vegetables, are grown from seeds that have been saved and passed down for a number of years. These seeds may be preserved and circulated by individual gardeners, families, or commercial seed providers.

Where to Get Heirloom Seeds

You can find heirloom tomato seeds from garden and seed suppliers. And if you have a gardener among your family and friends, they may be able to save seeds for you. Either way, having extra seeds can be helpful in case frost or something else wipes out your first batch of plants.

Differences among Heirloom Tomatoes

Different types of heirloom tomatoes may exhibit widely different characteristics. Colors may range from red, pink, and purple to brown, black, and yellow. Some varieties have more than one color. Flavors can range from more acidic/less sweet to more sweet/less acidic. They can come in different shapes, too.

Grocery chains often carry only round tomatoes, with the exception of oblong Romas. But heirloom tomatoes may come in all sorts of shapes, including squarish, ruffled, and bell-type shapes.

What Are Heirloom Tomatoes and What Are Hybrids?

Understanding heirloom tomatoes may be easier if you compare them to hybrids. Plant breeders cross different varieties in the attempt to breed a plant with the positive characteristics of both its parents. The "baby" plant is called a hybrid. This process can occur naturally, as well, due to pollination by bees and other insects.

However, hybrid seeds won't necessarily yield plants identical to the plant from which they came. So saving seeds from hybrid tomatoes and planting these in your garden leaves a wide possibility of outcomes.

Hybrid varieties can stabilize eventually, but heirloom seed should produce plants with identical traits in each planting.

Best Varieties of Heirloom Tomatoes

What you decide to be the best varieties will likely depend on your taste and preferences, as well as the conditions where you live. You may prefer a more or less acidic taste. Maybe color or appearance is important to you.

For recommendations based on growing conditions in your area and other factors, see "Your Perfect Tomato." This list includes both hybrid and heirloom tomatoes. The article also answers questions about growing tomatoes and offer tips for successful growing.


Bill Best, "Heirloom Tomatoes," Appalachian Heritage, Fall 1998, Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Inc.

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