When deciding which veggies to grow in your garden, you know that you need to choose varieties appropriate for your growing season, but beyond that there are many, many options. A common decision point is heirloom or hybrid. There is no right answer. Some people are squarely in the heirloom only camp, and some folks swear by hybrids. In this post, I’m going to focus on tomatoes, since they are the most popular garden plant we grow.
Vine ripe, homegrown tomatoes – does any other homegrown fruit elicit such passion and excitement? If you’re like me, and many other tomato lovers, you don’t even bother purchasing tomatoes at the store. Homegrown tomatoes, regardless if they’re heirloom or hybrids, are far superior in taste and quality than anything you can find in the supermarket.
Heirloom tomatoes seem almost mystical, and there is much debate over what makes an heirloom variety. Some say it must be over 100 years old, while others say that it must predate the rise of post-World War II hybridization. No matter the age debate, heirloom varieties must be open-pollinated. Meaning if you saved the seeds from that plant, and grow it next season, you will get the same variety. Most heirlooms are started from seeds that have been saved by seed exchange clubs and seed preservation programs. Many are hundreds of years old, as tomatoes have been grown in the United States since the mid-1600s.
Hybrid varieties are the result of deliberate plant breeding. There is northing unnatural with plant breeding. You could even do it in your garden which is exactly how Gregor Mendel did it in the 1800s. Plant breeding is simply the transfer of pollen from one specific variety of plant to another. There is no crazy gene splicing or anything like that. Those techniques are used by plant geneticists to create genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. GMO plants are very expensive and generally not available to backyard gardeners. Don’t worry, hybrids are not the same as GMOs.
Hybrids are bred to enhance a specific quality or characteristic. With tomatoes, disease resistance is the most common hybrid variety. You’ll see the resistant diseases along with the designation “F1” listed on the seed packet or label. F1, short for Filial 1, is a genetic designation meaning the first offspring of a specific cross. The drawback to hybrids is that seeds collected and sown will not grow true. In other words, you could end up with a very wild tomato without the carefully selected parental characteristics.
At the heart of the heirloom vs. hybrid debate is the rapid loss of varieties. Believe it or not, some varieties are at risk of going extinct. The best way to save these old varieties is to grow them and eat them. How great is that? You can’t save the whales by eating them. But you can save the tomatoes by eating them!
I particularly like the range of strange colors and shapes available with heirloom varieties. The names I also find irresistible. Who wouldn’t want to grow the exotic green and yellow Green Zebra or the hardy and robust Black Sea Man?
There is a popular misconception that heirlooms are temperamental and more difficult to grow than hybrid varieties. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are susceptible to the same problems of many hybrid varieties, but healthy soil, proper irrigation, and plenty of sunlight are all you need to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes. Your local Cooperative Extension will help you figure out which ones grow best in your region.
Aside from deciding between heirloom or hybrids, you need to choose between determinate or indeterminate varieties. Determinate varieties have flower clusters, and consequently fruit clusters, at the shoot tips. Typically, these fruit clusters will all ripen at the same time, presenting you with a bonanza of yummy fruits. However, this also means that you won’t get a continuous supply of tomatoes all summer long. Many people grow these varieties for canning. Determinate tomatoes also tend to be smaller and work very well in pots on the patio, with many of them having the word “patio” in their names. They also tend to be short season plants, an advantage for Zone 5 and below gardeners.
Indeterminate tomatoes have flower clusters along the sides of the shoots, allowing plants to grow and produce fruit continually until the first frost. These plants usually need some kind of support, such as wire cages or stakes. If you have the space, you can allow these plants to express their true rambling nature. However, many indeterminate varieties have a long season. Be sure to check the label or seed packet to make sure there’s a chance the fruit will ripen before the first frost.
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