10 Awesome Heirloom Tomatoes for the Newbie Vegetable Gardener
Of course heirlooms are for beginners!
When someone thinks about growing their own vegetables, tomatoes are usually the first thing to come to mind. Tomatoes are often the cornerstone of the vegetable garden, and with good reason! They are very versatile: you can slice them for a sandwich, throw them on a salad, have them by themselves or as a side dish, cook them up into sauce, dry them, or dice them for salsa. And that's just the beginning!
Many of the tomatoes available in the grocery store are hybrid varieties. Hybrids are bred to be consistently red, consistently round, and to travel well. In other words, they are still gorgeous when they get to the grocery store shelves! However, they are most assuredly NOT bred for good flavor! Because of this, many people never really taste a real tomato unless they grow them, and even then, they wind up growing....more hybrids!
Let's break that cycle! Old-fashioned heirloom varieties are great options for home gardeners, are easy to find nowadays, and produce amazing fruit that will definitely broaden your horizons. There is always room for a tomato plant. Even in the city - even on a balcony - you can grow them in containers. Read on to find out more about some of the best varieties to start with.
The difference between hybrids and heirlooms
When a beginner vegetable gardener goes looking for plants, the varieties they will likely find are going to be hybrids. Most conventional garden centers and Big Box stores stock mainly hybrids because the profitability is more consistent for them. Heirlooms have become more popular in the past decade, though, for a number of reasons, and you are more likely to find heirlooms available now than you were 10 years ago. Let's look at the key differences between hybrid and heirloom vegetables:
Hybrids: overall, hybrids are more disease and pest resistant and the plants produce more consistent yields, even when the weather is not optimal. The fruit hybrids produce is pretty standardized - if you plant a Better Boy, you know you will get fruit all pretty much matching the same description. However, what hybrids make up for in robust productivity they lack in flavor. Also, many gardeners save seeds from year to year in order to save money by starting their own seedlings. Hybrid's seeds are not "true," meaning you cannot save seeds from hybrids and expect to get the exact same kind of tomato if you plant them.
Heirlooms: reading the description of hybrids above, one might wonder why anyone would grow heirlooms. That can be summed up in one word: TASTE!!!! Heirlooms win the taste tests almost every time, and with good reason. If you think you know what a tomato tastes like, make your way to a garden's taste test and prepare to be very surprised. Also, the sheer variety of shapes, colors, and history behind heirlooms can be quite entertaining! If you wanted to grow varieties your great-great-grandmother did in the Ukraine, you can find them! The other upside of these is you can save the seeds and grow tomatoes identical to the parent year after year.
A note about hybrids and GMO: these terms are not interchangeable! Hybrids are created when one variety of a tomato is crossed with another variety of tomato to take advantage of each ones desirable trait. For example, tomato #1 is very resistant to disease while tomato #2 is low in acid. Cross them and you get (hopefully) a low-acid tomato resistant to disease. GMO involves gene splicing. Varieties are altered in a way that cannot occur naturally, no matter how many tomatoes you breed together.
For salads and slicing
We'll start out with a few varieties that "look like tomatoes" before we branch into the more exotic types. Here are some good ones for slicing and for salads:
- Brandywine: a red-pink beefsteak tomato with excellent sweet flavor, this is *the* go-to heirloom variety people often try first.
- Mortgage Lifter: this variety originated in West Virginia and as the story goes, a man started selling this variety to pay off his mortgage - which he did in under 5 years! Must be pretty tasty, huh? It is! I actually work with a man who is from that area of West Virginia and he confirmed the story to me. It is a very tasty red beefsteak that produces pretty good sized fruit, up to 4lb!
- Henderson's Ponderosa Pink: I received this variety as a free seed packet once with a seed/plant order and it turned out to be one of the best tomatoes I had ever tasted! Large pink-red beefsteak fruit.
A rainbow of fruit!
Once you have tried the basic red beefsteak, you may want to branch out into more colorful options. Tomatoes that are yellow, orange, or green when ripe are usually lower in acid than their red counterparts, so they are great options for people who need to stay away from high-acid foods. Mixing colored tomatoes in a salad or on a tray is beautiful, too! Try these on for size:
- Pineapple: this yellow tomato can grow up to 2lb! It has red streaks running through it - perfectly normal, and really the best way to tell if it's ripe besides doing the squeeze test. Beautiful tomato and low in acid.
- Kellogg's Breakfast: another one of my favorites, this orange beefsteak tomato is also lower in acid. Another West Virginia native.
- Aunt Ruby's German Green: this one is fun to grow because it is still totally green when ripe, but I can almost guarantee you will lose the first ripe tomato off the vine because you will forget that you can't judge ripeness based on color! This has happened to me every year I've grown it; I just forget! You need to do the squeeze test to judge ripeness. Aunt Ruby will occasionally get a pink blush, which is also an indicator of ripeness. This one is a great choice and fun to grow in a children's garden. Native to Germany, obviously.
Come to the dark side
Many gardeners who grow heirloom tomatoes claim the purple and black varieties have the most robust and rich flavor and while I like just about any tomato, I would agree these do shine a little brighter in the flavor category. Some good ones to try:
- Cherokee Purple: one of the more popular large dark tomatoes, it's now common in Big Box stores. Great flavor, good for salads and sandwiches.
- Japanese Black Trifele: if I could only grow one tomato, this would be one of the contenders. Extremely prolific plants are heavily produce smallish pear-shaped fruit throughout the summer. The flavor of these is amazing - and they are great for all needs, from salads to salsa to sauce. Highly recommended!!
Two final exotic options
These two are just plain interesting - they will be conversation pieces and would be great options for children's gardens!
- Garden Peach: it's fuzzy, just like a peach, and even gets a pink blush like a peach! A French variety, plants are very productive.
- Reisetomate: a South American variety with a German name (pronounce it "rise-uh tomah-tuh"), the multi-lobbed fruit looks like a bunch of cherry tomatoes all connected together....ok, it looks like something horrible went wrong, but it's supposed to look that way! It was for long trips and people could break of pieces of it as they traveled without requiring a knife to do it. Definitely an eye-catching tomato!
Heirlooms are a great option for the beginner
Heirloom vegetables offer incredible variety over and above the limited options in the grocery store. There are so many reasons to try heirlooms: flavor, heritage, curiosity, to save money or to teaching kids to garden, etc. Investigate your options, and make plans for them in your next garden! You won't be sorry!