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
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds.com
- Seed Savers Exchange, www.seedsavers.org