This year I have decided to grow a number of open-pollinated Heirloom tomatoes.
These are my 2007 selections. The photos came from Totally Tomatoes with the exception of the Homely Homer photo, which may or may not even be an heirloom. Totally Tomatoes is where I bought most of this years seeds.
I am a tomato fanatic. I love the taste of tomatoes! To me, organic garden vine-ripened fresh tomatoes are like candy is to a child. Not just any candy either. Tomatoes are like special Christmas candy that you can only get one time a year. When most people think of tomatoes, they think of plain red tomatoes. Possibly a beefsteak type. Today's "normal" tomatoes are hybrids that have been bred for disease resistance and good looks. I like the "normal" hybrid garden tomato very much. Let's think of it as the Christmas candy cane - special but common and abundant.
I don't know about you, but at Christmas when I was a kid I wanted more than just candy canes. There were always many other "special" candies like creme drops, ribbon candy, chocolate Santas, orange slices and more. By comparison, if you want "special" tomatoes, you need to grow heirloom varieties. There are so many different flavors and colors of heirloom tomatoes.
So what are the pros and con's of growing heirlooms?
The first pro is what I described above with the candy reference - superior and varied flavor! Last year I grew Brandywine, an Amish variety dating way back to the 1800's. Brandywine was by far the best tasting tomato I'd ever eaten! That's why I'm trying so many heirloom varieties this year. I'm growing another Amish variety, Dixie Golden Giant from the 1930's that is said to have "delicious, fruity flavor with few seeds." I also chose Caspian Pink, originally grown in Russia in the area between the Caspian and Black Seas. According to Totally Tomatoes, it was the only tomato that BEAT Brandywine in taste tests!
The 2nd reason to grow heirloom tomatoes is because some of them are very interesting! Look at the pictures of Aunt Ruby's German Green tomatoes, Kellogg's Breakfast, and Black Krim. Aunt Ruby's German Green is described as an "Heirloom green beefsteak with a deliciously sweet flavor that's enhanced by a spicy undertone." Okay, that's different. Totally tomatoes calls Black Krim "A most unusual novelty that is sweet and tasty".
The uniqueness doesn't stop at the tomato fruits either. Some heirlooms like Brandywine and Pruden's Purple have old-fashioned leaves that look more like potato leaves and tomato leaves. Here is one of my Pruden's Purple seedlings:
The third "Pro" is that it is fun to look up the origins of each heirloom variety. Each one has a special heritage of its own. There are varieties available from many different time periods and from all over the world. You may even be able to find a variety that is hundreds of years old from your home town! I am growing Kentucky Beefsteaks which are enormous orange beefsteaks that began right here in my home state.
Okay, enough of the "fun" talk of how great heirloom tomatoes are. Let's get into the "cons " or drawbacks of growing heirloom tomatoes.
First of all, true "heirlooms" are more than fifty years old and are still true to their parent plants. That means they have not been altered in any way like hybrids have. So the same thing that makes heirlooms great also make them very susceptible to disease and pests. Hybrid varieties many times have a series of letters after their names, like VFNT. This means the plants are resistant to verticillium and fusarium wilt, nematodes, and tobacco mosaic virus. Many heirlooms can be wiped out by these diseases. Hybrids are not necessarily bred to be resistant to insect or animal pests but it has been my experience that garden pests prefer the heirlooms (that's no surprise). My Brandywines last year were heavily attacked by Blister Beetles, Tomato Hornworms, and all of the low fruits were eaten by turtles.
The third drawback with heirloom tomatoes is that many of them don't produce as much fruit as a hybrid tomato plant. Mel Bartholomew of Square Foot Gardening" is always saying, "you only need to grow one tomato plant per person in your family". With heirlooms, I don't agree. When growing heirlooms, you should grow several plants as insurance against pests, disease and low yield. This is also why I am still growing 12 kinds of hybrid tomatoes.
So it comes down to exceptional flavor, being unusual and interesting with a sense of heritage versus being susceptible to disease and pests with possible lower yields. Do the pros outweigh the con's? For me they do. Bring on that yummy "candy-like" flavor! Bring on the strange and interesting qualities. Bring on the rainbow of colors!
And bring on the pests. I'm ready for a good old-fashioned battle of good versus evil. Heirloom tomatoes are worth fighting for. Wish me luck!