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The best heirloom tomato varieties to grow in your garden

By: James A. Baggett
Check out tomato grower, Jennie Smith’s, favorite heirloom tomatoes varieties ranging from cherry to beefsteak and learn a little about each one’s history.

Jennie-smith-butcher-crick-farms-heirloom-tomatoes-portrait: Heirloom tomato grower, Jennie Smith, of Butcher Crick Farms in Carlisle, Iowa.

Jennie Smith’s grandparents couldn’t imagine the number of different tomatoes their granddaughter would one day grow on their old farmstead in central Iowa. And they wouldn’t recognize the range of tomato colors, shapes, sizes and flavors we can choose from today. That’s because we have an astounding selection of heirloom varieties that have been preserved through the efforts of generations of gardeners just like Jennie, not to mention the modern hybrid tomatoes developed by plant breeders. But Jennie definitely has a preference for historical varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

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What makes heirloom tomatoes different?

Heirloom tomatoes, like other fruits, vegetables and flowers tagged with the “heirloom” label, are open-pollinated, meaning wind, insects or the plants themselves take care of producing the next generation. When there is no cross-pollination or genetic mutation, the result is offspring that look and, in the case of tomatoes, taste, just like their parents.

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Indeterminate vs. determinate tomatoes

Most heirloom varieties are indeterminate, which grow long vines that produce fruit throughout the season until killed by frost. The best-tasting varieties tend to be indeterminate. A few heirloom plants do not sprawl all over the place. These tomatoes are called determinate varieties. Determinate varieties get to a certain size and then set their fruit more or less at once. Determinates may be a better choice if you want to grow tomatoes in a small space or in a container.  

Full sun, ample moisture and warm weather produce sweet and juicy fruit. Thanks to the preservation efforts of generations of tomato lovers, seeds and transplants of heirloom tomatoes are easy to come by online, at farmers markets and through mail-order sources. As a tomato pro, Jennie has tried lots of different heirloom varieties over the years, and shared 30 of her favorites below. Add some of these heirlooms to your garden and take a bite from the past.

Heirloom tomatoes in all shapes and sizes

Tomatoes are the number-one homegrown crop. And it’s no wonder: After all, what captures the feel of summer better than a sun-warmed, juicy, just-picked tomato? There are scores of varieties to choose from, so we asked Jennie to share some of her favorites. When deciding, keep the various sizes of the fruit in mind:

  • Very small (1 inch or less)
  • Small (1 to 1½ inches), medium (1½ to 3½ inches)
  • Medium-large (3½ to 5 inches)
  • Large (5 to 8 inches)
  • Extra large (8 to 10 inches)
  • Giant (10 inches and larger)

Heirloom tomato seed sources

Beautiful heirloom tomatoes for your garden

‘Blue Berries’

This new, small cherry variety from Brad Gates at Wild Boar Farms in California, was bred in the 1960s by crossing cultivated tomatoes and wild species from Chili and the Galapagos Islands. This tomato is amethyst when unripe, but as it ages it turns crimson-red where it was shaded while the exposed areas turn a shade of purple so dark it almost looks black.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 75 days after planting from seed

‘Sweet Pea Currant’

Very small, pea-sized red fruit with great big flavor.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 75 to 80 days after planting from seed

‘Black Cherry’

This small cherry tomato was bred in Florida by the late Vince Sapp and is famous for its dynamic flavor and fruit that looks like large, dusky purple-brown grapes.

Type Indeterminate Size 6 to 8 ft. tall, 3 to 4 ft. wide Harvest 65 to 75 days after planting from seed

‘Douchoua Pepper’

This beautiful medium bell pepper-shaped tomato has a lovely creamy white to yellow color and paste-type flesh that is crunchy and not so juicy.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 70 to 75 days after planting from seed

‘Red Zebra’

Introduced in 2003 by Jeff Dawson of California who described it as a chance cross between ‘Green Zebra’ and another unknown parent, this ping pong ball-sized tomato has juicy and flavorful deep red flesh and a fire engine red exterior streaked with jagged golden stripes.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 85 days after planting from seed

‘Paul Robeson’

Named in honor of the famous opera singer and civil right activist, this dark maroon heirloom from Russia bears medium-size fruits with a sweet, smoky flavor.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 8 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Pink Oxheart’

This old favorite dates back to 1925 and gets its name from its large pink heart-shaped fruit that is very flavorful.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 86 days after planting from seed

‘Rutger’s’

Medium-large red fruit with wonderful flavor for canning developed by the Campbell Soup Company in 1928 and improved by Rutgers University in 1943.

Type Determinate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 60 to 100 days after planting from seed

‘Thai Pink Egg’

This egg-shaped tomato originated in Thailand, where it is valued for its appearance. Grape-sized but with a paste consistency, it starts out a pearl-ivory color and ripens to a pinkish-red.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 7 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 65 to 70 days after planting from seed

‘Anna’s Noire’

An unusual variety developed by Belgium horticulturist Pascal Moreau, this large tomato (also known as ‘Black Pineapple’ in English) has a green-purple-orange-yellow exterior and a streaked interior that resembles a tie-dye pattern in red, pink, green and yellow.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 7 ft. tall, 3 to 4 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 85 days after planting from seed

‘Crnkovic Yugoslavian’

Brought to the U.S. by Yasha Crnkovic, who obtained seeds from relatives in the Vojvod area of Yugoslavia, this is a large pink beefsteak that are deliciously juicy.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 70 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Hugh’s’

Large pale yellow beefsteak fruit with sweet flavor from Madison County, Indiana, in the 1940s.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 7 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 85 to 100 days after planting from seed

‘Woodle Orange’

Known for its brilliant tangerine color and sweet taste, this Iowa heirloom produces large, round, baseball-sized fruit with a smooth polished skin and rich complex taste.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 70 to 75 days after planting from seed

‘Green Doctors’

This is a sport of a yellow cherry tomato ‘Dr. Carolyn’ that author Amy Goldman found in her New York garden in 2002, this small green cherry variety has good sweetness and lots of tart flavor.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft, wide Harvest 74 days after planting from seed

‘White Cherry’

This crack-resistant cherry produces clusters of small pale, almost translucent, lemon- yellow colored tomatoes with a sweet, fruity flavor (the less sun exposure the fruits receive, the paler the color).

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall and 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 75 to 80 days after planting from seed

‘Yellow Pear’

This extremely old variety dates back to the 1800s and bears clusters of tiny pear-shaped, bright yellow tomatoes that are sweet and mild.

Type Indeterminate Size 6 to 12 ft. tall, 3 to 4 ft. wide Harvest 75 to 80 days after planting from seed

‘Green Zebra’

Small round fruit ripens to a yellow-gold with dark green stripes with a sweet taste (and a sharp bite) on this modern heirloom.

Type Indeterminate Size 36 to 40 in. tall, 24 to 36 in. wide Harvest 60 to 80 days after planting from seed

‘Olpaka’

Originating from Poland around 1900, this medium pepper-shaped paste tomato can be eaten straight off the vine, but it is prized for sauces and canning.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 85 days after planting from seed

'Blue Beauty'

A recent cross between ‘Beauty’ and a “blue” tomato, this medium beefsteak-type with lovely dark-purple shoulders is great for slicing.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 days after planting from seed

‘Lucid Gem’

This heirloom selection by Brad Gates produces beautiful large beefsteak-type fruit that ripen yellow, then more toward orange with black splashes on top and juicy flesh that is marbled yellow to red.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 days after planting from seed

‘Speckled Roman’

A medium cross between ‘Antique Roman’ and ‘Banana Legs’, plum-shaped with jagged orange and yellow stripes.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Wapsipinicon Peach’

Fuzzy, pale yellow medium fruit (2 inches) with sweet flavor dates from 1890 and named after a river in Northeast Iowa.

Type Indeterminate Size 2 to 3 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 100 days after planting from seed

‘Cherokee Purple’

Large dusky pink fruit with purplish tints with superb flavor said to be more than 100 years old, originally grown by the Cherokee Indians.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Gold Medal’

Large, sweet and mild-tasting yellow fruit is splashed with rosy-red that radiates from the bottom; first introduced in 1921 as ‘Ruby Gold’.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 7 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 75 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’

Beautiful large orange beefsteak preserved by a railroad supervisor named Darrell Kellogg from Redford, Michigan, from an heirloom originated in West Virginia.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Yellow Brandywine’

With roots in Indiana by way of Ohio, this large, golden beefsteak with intense flavor has become an American favorite heirloom since it became available in 1991.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 8 ft. tall, 2 to 4 ft. wide Harvest 90 to 100 days after planting from seed

‘Blue Berries’

This new, small cherry variety from Brad Gates at Wild Boar Farms in California, was bred in the 1960s by crossing cultivated tomatoes and wild species from Chili and the Galapagos Islands. This tomato is amethyst when unripe, but as it ages it turns crimson-red where it was shaded while the exposed areas turn a shade of purple so dark it almost looks black.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 75 days after planting from seed

‘Green Doctors’

This is a sport of a yellow cherry tomato ‘Dr. Carolyn’ that author Amy Goldman found in her New York garden in 2002, this small green cherry variety has good sweetness and lots of tart flavor.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft, wide Harvest 74 days after planting from seed

‘Sweet Pea Currant’

Very small, pea-sized red fruit with great big flavor.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 75 to 80 days after planting from seed

‘White Cherry’

This crack-resistant cherry produces clusters of small pale, almost translucent, lemon- yellow colored tomatoes with a sweet, fruity flavor (the less sun exposure the fruits receive, the paler the color).

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall and 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 75 to 80 days after planting from seed

‘Black Cherry’

This small cherry tomato was bred in Florida by the late Vince Sapp and is famous for its dynamic flavor and fruit that looks like large, dusky purple-brown grapes.

Type Indeterminate Size 6 to 8 ft. tall, 3 to 4 ft. wide Harvest 65 to 75 days after planting from seed

‘Yellow Pear’

This extremely old variety dates back to the 1800s and bears clusters of tiny pear-shaped, bright yellow tomatoes that are sweet and mild.

Type Indeterminate Size 6 to 12 ft. tall, 3 to 4 ft. wide Harvest 75 to 80 days after planting from seed

‘Douchoua Pepper’

This beautiful medium bell pepper-shaped tomato has a lovely creamy white to yellow color and paste-type flesh that is crunchy and not so juicy.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 70 to 75 days after planting from seed

‘Green Zebra’

Small round fruit ripens to a yellow-gold with dark green stripes with a sweet taste (and a sharp bite) on this modern heirloom.

Type Indeterminate Size 36 to 40 in. tall, 24 to 36 in. wide Harvest 60 to 80 days after planting from seed

‘Red Zebra’

Introduced in 2003 by Jeff Dawson of California who described it as a chance cross between ‘Green Zebra’ and another unknown parent, this ping pong ball-sized tomato has juicy and flavorful deep red flesh and a fire engine red exterior streaked with jagged golden stripes.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 85 days after planting from seed

‘Olpaka’

Originating from Poland around 1900, this medium pepper-shaped paste tomato can be eaten straight off the vine, but it is prized for sauces and canning.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 85 days after planting from seed

‘Paul Robeson’

Named in honor of the famous opera singer and civil right activist, this dark maroon heirloom from Russia bears medium-size fruits with a sweet, smoky flavor.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 8 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 90 days after planting from seed

'Blue Beauty'

A recent cross between ‘Beauty’ and a “blue” tomato, this medium beefsteak-type with lovely dark-purple shoulders is great for slicing.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 days after planting from seed

‘Pink Oxheart’

This old favorite dates back to 1925 and gets its name from its large pink heart-shaped fruit that is very flavorful.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 86 days after planting from seed

‘Lucid Gem’

This heirloom selection by Brad Gates produces beautiful large beefsteak-type fruit that ripen yellow, then more toward orange with black splashes on top and juicy flesh that is marbled yellow to red.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 days after planting from seed

‘Rutger’s’

Medium-large red fruit with wonderful flavor for canning developed by the Campbell Soup Company in 1928 and improved by Rutgers University in 1943.

Type Determinate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 60 to 100 days after planting from seed

‘Speckled Roman’

A medium cross between ‘Antique Roman’ and ‘Banana Legs’, plum-shaped with jagged orange and yellow stripes.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Thai Pink Egg’

This egg-shaped tomato originated in Thailand, where it is valued for its appearance. Grape-sized but with a paste consistency, it starts out a pearl-ivory color and ripens to a pinkish-red.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 7 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 65 to 70 days after planting from seed

‘Wapsipinicon Peach’

Fuzzy, pale yellow medium fruit (2 inches) with sweet flavor dates from 1890 and named after a river in Northeast Iowa.

Type Indeterminate Size 2 to 3 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 100 days after planting from seed

‘Anna’s Noire’

An unusual variety developed by Belgium horticulturist Pascal Moreau, this large tomato (also known as ‘Black Pineapple’ in English) has a green-purple-orange-yellow exterior and a streaked interior that resembles a tie-dye pattern in red, pink, green and yellow.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 7 ft. tall, 3 to 4 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 85 days after planting from seed

‘Cherokee Purple’

Large dusky pink fruit with purplish tints with superb flavor said to be more than 100 years old, originally grown by the Cherokee Indians.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Crnkovic Yugoslavian’

Brought to the U.S. by Yasha Crnkovic, who obtained seeds from relatives in the Vojvod area of Yugoslavia, this is a large pink beefsteak that are deliciously juicy.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 70 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Gold Medal’

Large, sweet and mild-tasting yellow fruit is splashed with rosy-red that radiates from the bottom; first introduced in 1921 as ‘Ruby Gold’.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 7 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 75 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Hugh’s’

Large pale yellow beefsteak fruit with sweet flavor from Madison County, Indiana, in the 1940s.

Type Indeterminate Size 5 to 7 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 85 to 100 days after planting from seed

‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’

Beautiful large orange beefsteak preserved by a railroad supervisor named Darrell Kellogg from Redford, Michigan, from an heirloom originated in West Virginia.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 6 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 80 to 90 days after planting from seed

‘Woodle Orange’

Known for its brilliant tangerine color and sweet taste, this Iowa heirloom produces large, round, baseball-sized fruit with a smooth polished skin and rich complex taste.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 5 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Harvest 70 to 75 days after planting from seed

‘Yellow Brandywine’

With roots in Indiana by way of Ohio, this large, golden beefsteak with intense flavor has become an American favorite heirloom since it became available in 1991.

Type Indeterminate Size 4 to 8 ft. tall, 2 to 4 ft. wide Harvest 90 to 100 days after planting from seed

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