Heirloom vs Hybrid Tomatoes

Tomato season is upon us and there are so many varieties available. How do you choose which to grow? The first step is to understand the differences between heirloom and hybrid tomatoes. Both varieties have their stengths and weaknesses. Read on to learn more!

HEIRLOOM TOMATOES photo credit : Lisa Toutner

HEIRLOOM

Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that have been grown without cross-pollination for at least 40 years. They are open-pollinated, which means pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. That allows them to remain stable in their characteristics from one year to the next. Gardeners appreciate their consistency in taste and agree that most heirloom varieties tend to have greater flavor than hybrids. Heirlooms are often grown locally and allowed to ripen on the vine which affects their flavor. They often produce only a small number of fruit. Since they have not had the selective crossbreeding as hybrids, Heirloom Tomatoes tend to be more susceptible to pest disease, especially fungus, which makes them crack and split.

 HEIRLOOM PLUSES

  • STABILITY: Heirlooms produce large numbers of seeds and bear tomatoes identical to parents
  • TASTE: Heirlooms are considered flavorful, and even superior to commercially-produced varieties
  • DISEASE-RESISTANCE: More susceptible to disease.
  • INDIVIDUALITY: Many heirlooms have unique shapes and sport a variety of colors, including purple, yellow, white, orange, pink, red, green, black and striped.

 HEIRLOOM MINUSES

  • INDIVIDUALITY: Unusual, misshapen or inconsistent tomatoes.
  • PRODUCTIVITY: Heirlooms take longer to mature and produce fewer tomatoes than hybrids.

HEIRLOOM TOMATOES photo credit

HYBRID

Hybrid tomatoes typically yield a crop that is uniform in both appearance and timing. Typical supermarket tomatoes are hybrids that have been carefully crossbred to achieve a desired combination.  Some of those characteristics may be bigger in size, better disease resistance, dependability, less required care, early maturity, higher yield, and/or specific plant size.

 HYBRID PLUSES

  • PRODUCTIVITY: You'll harvest more tomatoes
  • DISEASE-RESISTANCE: Hybrids have a reputation for not being as susceptible to diseases and pests as their heirloom counterparts.
  • STRENGTH: Hybrids are known for yielding tomatoes of similar size and with fewer blemishes.
  • LONGEVITY: Harvested hybrid tomatoes have staying power. They endure the long hours on at the roadside farm stand better than heirlooms

 HYBRID MINUSES

  • FLAVOR: Most gardeners agree that hybrids are not as flavorful as heirlooms
  • INSTABILITY: Long term hybrids don't produce seeds as strong as what birthed them- according to experts. However, many gardeners claim they save hybrid seeds year to year which produce seedlings and fruit that is true to the original hybrid.

At Vineyard Gardens we carry both hybrid and heirloom tomatoes. A few of the  hybrids we carry are Burpees Big Boy and Big Beef, two of the largest ones, and Celebrity, a midsize disease resistant variety that we have carried for years.

BIG BEEF-hybrid tomato

CELEBRITY -hybrid tomato

BURPEES BIG BOY - hybrid tomato

HEIRLOOM TOMATOES VARIETIES at VINEYARD GARDENS

AUNT RUBY'S GERMAN GREEN TOMATO OG (85 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. “The biggest surprise I’ve ever experienced in tomatoes,” said the late Chuck Wyatt, vintage tomato collector. Until you try it, you won’t believe a green tomato could be this good. I rate it second only to Brandywine for flavor and it is on just about everyone’s top-ten list. Oblate 12–16 oz fruits blush lightly yellow and develop an amber-pink tinge on the blossom end when ripe. Don’t allow them to get too soft before picking. The green flesh of this beefsteak is faintly marbled with pink. Flavor sweet and tart, rich and spicy. The central large tomatoes are the best. Flavor deteriorates when cold weather sets in. Created a sensation at a staff taste test in September 1996, where it was rated “good” or “excellent” by all who tried it. [Wow, that long ago! I still grow and love it based on that test. -ed.] Aunt Ruby’s is not just the best green eating tomato, it also makes a delicious basis for salsa verde. Originally from Ruby Arnold’s German immigrant grandfather, introduced in the 1993 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook by Bill Minkey of Darien, Wisc. Nominated to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.

AUNT RUBY'S GERMAN GREEN TOMATO

BLACK KRIM TOMATO OG (80 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. Don’t wait too long to harvest this delicate heirloom tomato. At half green and still firm they are already dead ripe and perfectly delicious. If you wait till they are fully purple, you will not be able to get them from garden to table intact (to say nothing of market) and they will disintegrate like a hunk of road-kill. Krims are strikingly iridescent purple on the outside, usually with dark green-black shoulders and noticeable catfacing. Interiors are part black, too, with an unusual juicy yet meaty taste and texture, described as having “…a smoky flavor like a good single malt scotch.” Fruits average 12–18 oz. Krim hails from Krymsk on the Black Sea in Russia.

BLACK KRIM TOMATO

CHEROKEE PURPLE TOMATO OG (77 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. but with relatively short vines. No list of the best-tasting heirloom tomatoes would be complete without Cherokee Purple, an unusual variety from Tennessee said to have originated with the Cherokee Indians. Fruits are globes to slightly oblate, averaging 10–13 oz, with dusky brownish-purple skin, dark green shoulders and brick-red flesh. The real attraction is their rich taste, described as “sweet rich juicy winey,” “delicious sweet,” and “rich Brandywine flavor” by aficionados maintaining it in the Seed Savers Exchange. Ranks in my top five for flavor. Expect some concentric cracking. Amy LeBlanc suggests the vines should not be pruned because the delicate fruits sunburn easily. Indigenous Royalties. ①②

GARDEN PEACH TOMATO  OG (71 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. Yellow fruits blush pink when ripe and have thin fuzzy skins somewhat like peaches, soft-skinned, juicy and very sweet. Light fruity taste is not what you’d expect in a tomato. Burpee in 1893 called it “delicate, melting in the mouth like a grape.” For well over a century savvy gardeners have brought Peach’s little 2–4 oz fruits indoors before frost to keep for several weeks. Jim Stockwell from North Carolina would not be without it. “Not only are they early and prolific but their unusual flavor and no core sizes make them perfect for grilling without falling apart.” Doreen Mundie says also wonderful dried. Amy Goldman places its 1890 origins with plant breeder Elbert S. Carman, owner and editor of The Rural New-Yorker. It was introduced the 1890 catalog of Hallock & Son’s of Queens, NY. Showed some tolerance to LB in Colrain in 2014.

GARDEN PEACH TOMATO

GREEN ZEBRA TOMATO  OG (77 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. A most unusual beast in the tomato menagerie, this zebra starts out green with darker green stripes, softening and blushing yellow and apricot when it ripens. It might have remained a mere curiosity but for its delicious sweet rich flavor. Small-medium 4–5 oz fruits are emerald green inside. Perfect exteriors hold up under adverse conditions and don’t crack. “The perfect salad tomato,” says Anne Elder of Ann Arbor, Mich. “Tried Green Zebra for the first time last year. The tomatoes were a big hit with our customers,” said Tammy Martin of Ruckamuck Farm in Milbridge, Maine. Sometimes incorrectly shows up on lists of heirloom tomatoes, but was developed by Tom Wagner of Tater Mater Seeds in 1985 from four heirlooms. Kent Whealy ranks it in his top ten tomatoes. Susceptible to SEPT.

GREEN ZEBRA TOMATO

PINEAPPLE TOMATO OG (85 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. Garden author Michelle Owen says, “I roast…these exceptionally sweet red-streaked yellow tomatoes…in a hot oven, then sauté with ridiculous amounts of garlic, rosemary and extra virgin olive oil and throw over pasta. Before I face the firing squad, I will ask for this as my last meal.” With its silky smooth texture and complex fruity taste, Pineapple may be the best striped tomato. Typically grows huge fruits in excess of 1 lb that get a little funky cosmetically. Fruits hold tight to stems so bring scissors to your harvest. Cut in half, it looks like the interior of a pineapple except with yellow and red marbling. It doesn’t taste like a pineapple, though, nor like a typical red tomato, either. Its unique mild low-acid fruity sweetness needs a fruit name all its own. Originally from Kentucky, but our seed stock came from Martha Gottlieb of Common Ground Fair Exhibition Hall fame.

PINK BRANDYWINE TOMATO  OG (82 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. with potato-leaf foliage. Pink Brandywine is the heirloom that launched a movement, leading many gardeners to be flavor-positive preservation-aware seed-savers. As Brandywine’s popularity exploded, so did its production as commercial bulk seed. But like all heirlooms, our favorite old-fashioned OPs with their hand-selected hand-me-down genetics need special care. Fedco Seeds has partnered with Daniel and Corinne at Blackbird Rise of Palermo, Maine, to keep building the Brandywine legacy. For four summers, they’ve grown hundreds of plants from our classic Sudduth/Quisenberry strain, selecting for that perfect Brandywine color, flavor, bountiful size and shape that says “homegrown comfort.” The result is this extra-select strain of large oblate pink meaty beefsteaks, trending away from small-fruited, less-vigorous and late-ripening traits. Of course, that precious balanced deep flavor with perfect hints of tart still rings true! Oblate meaty beefsteak fruits average right around a pound, ripening unevenly throughout the season, often preferring cool early fall to peak heat of August.

PINK BRANDYWINE TOMATO

ROSE DE BERNE TOMATO OG (80 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. This Swiss émigré could be considered the Brandywine of continental Europe. Like Brandywine, has many strains, and is widely considered in France, Germany and Switzerland to be the best-flavored tomato. Only medium-sized yet delivers the robust flavor of the bigger types. It bested some formidable competition in my trials—including June Pink, Gulf State Market and the celebrated Eva Purple Ball—with a rich sweetness the others couldn’t match. I enjoyed one juicy 5 oz translucent smooth pink fruit after another. No slouch in the appearance department either, the unblemished globes are perfectly round, the soft skins not excessively fragile and the color and size very attractive, making it another excellent field-to-market variety that does not require high tunnels. Some LB tolerance. ①②

RUTGERS 250 TOMATO  OG (76 days) Open-pollinated. Semi-Indeterminate. For years we’ve fruitlessly searched for worthy hybrid beefsteaks, just something with flavor and texture beyond packing peanuts. So far, all we’ve found are insipid red blobs. Surprising us in a 2017 trial of newly released open-pollinated slicers was Rutgers 250, a super-uniform tomato that looks and performs like a hybrid, but with flavor! Rutgers University tomato breeders went back to the parents used to breed our original Rutgers strain, and lightning struck twice. This ½ lb deep red slicer is smooth, solid, and blemish and crack free. It’s a perfect palm size, holding and ripening off the vine for at least 10 days. And a real sandwich-maker: tangy-tart with tomato-y depth, and lightly sweet. While touted as a “retro re-release,” the former and latter Rutgers versions are very different tomatoes; 250 ripens a little later than the original, the immature skin color is paler green and the plant is a head shorter. And 250 is more productive and has modern market looks and savvy. But it’s also meaty, juicy and firm without being hybrid fiberboard dry or grainy. NEW!

RUTGERS 250 TOMATO

WEISNICHT'S UKRAINIAN TOMATO OG (85 days) Open-pollinated. Compact Indeterminate. with potato-leaf foliage. Thanks to Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farm in Granby, Mass., for helping put this little known but extremely tasty heirloom on the map. In 2015 at the 31st annual Massachusetts Tomato Contest in Boston, Voiland won first prize in the heirloom category for his entry of Weisnicht’s Ukranian. A panel of food writers, chefs, produce experts and state officials judged the tomatoes on flavor, firmness/slicing quality, exterior color and shape. Mine in Colrain, though not entered, did pretty well in the size and yield categories as well. We received the original seeds for this scrumptious pink tomato from Scott Weisnicht of Waupun, Wisc., in 2004 and in my trials that year it received an unusually high 4–4.5 out of 5 taste evaluation, #1 among the 43 varieties I grew that cold wet summer. In 2013, I savored my first fruit in Colrain on Sept. 4, the flavor sweet, rich and complex with delicious acid overtones. Often bi-lobed, the medium-large 8–18 oz fruits are sparse seed bearers. They begin producing in late August or early September with a 3–4 week moderately productive main harvest period. Scott Weisnicht also supplied us with our first seeds for the much-revered rare Pride of Wisconsin melon.

BLACK CHERRY TOMATO OG (75 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. Two-bite cherries (avg 14–28g) with the dusky color and complex flavor typical of the best black tomatoes, juicy and delicious. Somewhat late for a cherry tomato, fruit ripens slowly and individually until frost, but worth the wait. Examine each plant closely at picking time: the dark-hued cherries are easy to lose in the foliage. Best flavor if left to ripen on the vine till nice and dark. Seems to tolerate the usual tomato diseases but fruits will crack readily in rainy weather. Combine with Sun Gold and any bright red cherry for a lovely display. Brix 7. Developed by Vince Sapp of Tomato Growers Supply and released 2003.

BLACK CHERRY TOMATO

FARGO YELLOW PEAR CHERRY TOMATO OG (82 days) Open-pollinated. Vigorous Determinate. Introduced 1934 by Oscar Will & Co. of Bismarck, ND, yet another of famous breeder AF Yaeger’s creations. He crossed Bison with Yellow Pear for earliness and higher yields. Each plant produces about three dozen sweet tasty 1 oz fruits. About twice the size of regular pear tomatoes, the meaty morsels are crack resistant.

FARGO YELLOW PEAR CHERRY TOMATO

HONEYDROP CHERRY TOMATO ECO (62 days) Open-pollinated. Rampant Indeterminate. From a selection of F-1 Sunsugar, Rachel and Tevis Robertson-Goldberg of Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield, MA, developed Honeydrop and sent us the original seed, with their blessing to keep the production going. Honeydrop’s sweet juicy fruity honey-colored treats taste almost like white grapes. They are much less prone to cracking in wet weather than Sun Gold. Seeking to add another light-colored cherry to our selection, we trialed it against Blondkopchen, Dr. Carolyn, Isis Candy, Lemondrop and Weissbehart. It bested them all by such a wide margin in earliness, sweetness and complexity that we declined to add any of those others. Parthenocarpic. Still retains a percentage of recessive pink off-types but see Pink Princess; these are also yummy! OSSI. Breeder Royalties. BACK!

SUN GOLD CHERRY TOMATO  (57 days) F-1 hybrid. Indeterminate. To quote one customer, “Without these little babies, there’s no summer.” A perfect combination of deep sweetness with a hint of acid tartness, so good that for almost a decade it took away our incentive to trial cherry tomatoes because no others could match it. In a field replete with choices, we are drawn to Sun Gold like candy. What is its elusive alluring tang? Quart after quart grace the table, yet we rarely reach surfeit July through September. Small fruits averaging 8.2g, borne in prolific clusters, ripen very early to a rich apricot color and keep producing till frost. Very prone to split so pick early when rains are forecast. Brix 8. Resists F1, TMV.

SUN GOLD CHERRY TOMATO

SUPER SWEET 100 CHERRY TOMATO (78 days) F-1 hybrid. Indeterminate. Like the famous Sweet 100, but with more disease resistance. Very popular hybrid cherry tomato ripens clusters of 1" round sweet fruits. Should be staked. Will split in rainy conditions. Resistant to V and F1.

AMISH PASTE TOMATO  OG (85 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. Always one of the most popular items in the Seed Savers Exchange. Listed members’ comments tell all: “large red meaty fruit,” “wonderful paste variety,” “great flavor for cooking, canning or fresh eating,” “the standard by which I judge canning tomatoes,” “huge production,” “great for sauces, salsa, canning.” Strong producer of oxheart fruits up to 8 oz with thick bright red flesh. Larger and better than Roma. Flavor has been consistently good even in poor tomato years. Wisconsin heirloom from Amish farmers in the 1870s, first surfaced in the 1987 SSE Yearbook. We have observed some inherent variation, based on how this variety responds to its environment. Needs room and good nutrition to set mostly nippled fruits. Crowding, shading or stress reduces fruit size and nippling. Boarded Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.

AMISH PASTE TOMATO

BLUE BEECH PASTE TOMATO ECO (90 days) Open-pollinated. Indeterminate. This large elongated paste tomato won our sauce test in 1997, besting several well-known varieties. We received seed from Annette Smith of Blue Beech Farm in Danby, Vt., and have named the variety in her honor. Smith got the tomato from her neighbor’s niece’s uncle who brought it to Vermont from Italy during World War II. This Roma type has been acclimated in chilly Vermont for the last 50 years, so it is better adapted to cold climates than Roma. Some years it makes a richly textured sweet sauce that’s just brimming with flavor. “Also very fine for fresh eating,” says Lillian Kuo of Orleans, Mass. Fruits, not very seedy, averaging 6–8 oz, often have green shoulders. Needs long season, but our increasingly mild extended falls have facilitated ripening. 1999 Fedco introduction. BACK!