Nothing says summer like biting into a juicy, freshly picked homegrown tomato. No tea no nightshade, but store-bought tomatoes pale in comparison to the plethora of colors, flavors, shapes, and sizes of heirloom tomatoes. Seed savers have passed down seeds through generations of growers to make your BLT, Caprese salad, marinara sauce, and salsa more flavorful.
If these seeds are so superior, how come you can’t find heirloom tomatoes at the supermarket? Heirloom tomatoes are unpopular with farmers because they require more attention than their hybrid counterparts and don’t produce as much fruit. Their thin skin makes them more apt to become bruised during transport than grocery store tomatoes that have been bred to have thicker skin to withstand travel. Another reason heirlooms aren’t mass-produced is because they usually have a shorter shelf life and are less disease resistant than hybrids.
Thankfully, heirlooms are available at farmers’ markets across the country and can even be grown in your backyard. You say tomato, we say heirloom. Read on to find out what heirloom tomatoes are, what makes these berries (yes, technically tomatoes are berries!) unique, the best varieties to grow, and tips for producing sweet and juicy fruit.
What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?
“Heirloom” denotes the same meaning as your grandmother’s silver, it has been passed down for generations. Gardeners and growers have maintained these seed lines over the years for their rainbow of colors and sweet, juicy flesh. This non-hybrid cultivar (cultivated variety) of tomato is open-pollinated, which means that they are pollinated naturally by birds, insects, wind, or human hand. Unlike the seeds of hybridized plants, heirlooms are said to “breed true”. Plant lady translation: They share the same DNA, so their offspring will look and taste just like their parents. Heirloom seeds can be classified as family heirlooms, commercial heirlooms, mystery heirlooms, or created heirlooms.
What Makes Heirloom Tomatoes Unique?
And how come they taste so much better than that crap at the store? As Stanford University’s article The Trouble With Tomatoes puts it, “the typical American slicing tomato is grown for gross and garnish rather than taste.” Many factors contribute to the poor quality tomatoes you find in the produce section: They’re often planted in poor soil, picked prematurely, and are refrigerated in transit. A gene mutation was deliberately bred into almost all tomatoes to make the fruit grocery-store-ready-red, unfortunately, it also threw off the balance of acid and sugar.
Heirloom Tomato Varieties
There are hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes, each with its own flavor profile, and even that can vary depending on growing conditions and climate. According to Farm to Jar, “In general the cherry tomatoes are sweet, the paste tomatoes are meaty and higher acid, and the plum tomatoes are juicy and mild.” Most, though not all, heirlooms are indeterminates which means they will grow indefinitely until something, like frost, kills them. Indeterminates are tall and viney, while determinates are bushier. Indeterminate tomatoes usually have better flavor than determinates. Fruit ripens throughout the season and is usually ready to pick around 75 days after transplanting. From mild yellow to zesty green, we break popular varieties down by color below, then help you decide which one is best for your garden and where to buy seeds before we get into planting tips and growing tricks.
Dark Purple Heirloom Tomato Varieties
Often maroon or purple/brown colored tomatoes are referred to as “black”. Their flavor profile tends to be less acidic and more smoky and earthy than their red sisters. Popular varieties include:
Black Cherry: Aptly named for their appearance, these dusky purple-black fruits have a complex and sweet flavor.
Cherokee Purple: Another aptly named variety, this deep, dusky-rose colored beefsteak-style tomato may have been grown by native Americans. The drool-worthy fruit is rich and full of flavor, fabulous on its own, or a sweet addition to salads and sandwiches.
Green Heirloom Tomato Varieties
Giant Green Tomato: If you like your tomatoes large and in charge, look no further than this emerald-green fruit. Weighing in at over one pound, this jolly green giant is sweet and juicy.
Cherokee Green Tomato: From the same line that brought you Cherokee Purple comes this grass-green variety with amber skin and a bold, acidic, complex tomato flavor.
Red Heirloom Tomato Varieties
Don’t let their color fool you, red heirloom tomatoes have more robust, higher acid flavors than their commercially sold counterparts. Popular varieties include:
Amish Paste: A superstar for salsa, sauces, or canning, this meaty plum variety was preserved by some Amish folks in Wisconsin.
Italian Heirloom Tomato: What a beefcake of a beefsteak. This slicing tomato’s bright red fruits can grow to over one pound. They are extremely productive and easy to peel, which makes the excellent for slicing and canning.
Orange Heirloom Tomato Varieties
Low acidity makes this variety mild and sweet. Popular varieties include:
Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties
Sweetness and acidity are perfectly balanced in these “classic” tasting tomatoes. Popular varieties include:
White Heirloom Tomato Varieties
Azoychka: Golden skin envelopes the white flesh of this tart Russian-born variety. Medium-sized fruits come early and generously.
Great White: If you like your tomatoes as mild as they are meaty, this shark-sounding variety is for you.
Striped Heirloom Tomato Varieties
Sometimes referred to as marbled, these low-acid fruits are rich, juicy, and super sweet. Popular varieties include:
Green Zebra: Prized for its high salt content, this green and yellow striped variety tastes mildly spicy and slightly tart. While it’s classified as a beefsteak, the fruit only gets to about baseball size.
Gold Medal: Popular for its super-sweet taste, this luscious low-acid fruit lives up to its name in both color and taste.
Pineapple: This plant produces dinner plate-sized orange, red, and yellow striped fruit. Its juicy, meaty flesh has a mild yet sweet flavor.
How to Select Which Variety to Grow
Beyond flavor, size, color, and texture, when selecting varieties consider whether or not they are organic, how long they take to mature, and what other growers in your area have had success with. Your local co-op and farmer’s market are good places to start.
Where to Buy Heirlooms
Speaking of your local farmers’ market and co-op, those are also great places to ask about seeds and seedlings. Otherwise, you may be able to find them at your local garden center or nursery. Online seed and seedling sellers include Seed Savers, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Tomato Growers Supply Company, and Victory Seed Company. After harvest, collect seeds for next year.
According to Wikipedia, “Collecting heirloom seed is as easy as picking ripe tomatoes, chopping or mashing into a jar till less than half-full, filling with water, shaking from time to time and allowing to decompose for 1–6 days until seeds sink to the bottom, then rinsing until the seeds are clean, and drying. This decomposition is beneficial because it discourages transmission of diseases to the seed, the drying promotes better germination, and because the seeds are easier to separate when they are clean.”
How to Plant
Sadly, you can’t just throw seeds in the ground and call it a day. Start seedlings indoors six to eight weeks before you plan on transplanting, which should be after the last chance of frost. Dig a hole for each plant, approximately 10 inches deep and eight inches wide, leaving at least one foot between plants and four feet between rows. As far as soil is concerned, Our State recommends this nutritional cocktail that uses eggshells from free-range chickens:
1/2 cup crushed eggshells (calcium)
1 tablespoon organic bone meal (phosphorus)
1 tablespoon Epsom Salt (potassium)
1 scoop compost
Knead the mixture into the soil with (preferably gloved) hands. Gently place your plant in the hole, covering roots and most of the stem with soil. Water generously and surround the plants with newspaper or mulch to lock in moisture while deterring weeds. Stakes or wire cages will keep them stable as they start to grow.
Growing Heirloom Tomatoes Can Be Tricky
To produce sweet, juicy fruit, tomato plants want full sun, ample moisture, and warm weather. Pruning (aka suckering) is also important. Removing suckers helps with air circulation to proactively prevent foliar diseases. Heirloom’s thin skin makes them more prone to splitting on the vine, so Johnny’s Selected Seeds warns to be careful not to over-water, especially since excess water can dilute the fruit’s flavor.