The Ultimate Guide To Heirloom Tomatoes: Everything You Need To Know
Tomatoes are an iconic plant for all gardeners. Beginners can start a few tomato plants with ease and have a delicious bounty. Expert gardeners grow dozens of varieties to sell at farmers’ markets. Summer means tables full of tomatoes in salads. Summer brings an abundant harvest of tomatoes, canning hundreds of jars of delicious sauce and diced tomatoes for the winter.
If you are looking for the best tomatoes to grow, you need to try heirloom tomatoes. After years of using the conventional seeds and plants found in stores, I switched to heirloom seeds. I never looked back again! Now, my harvest is full, and the tomatoes I grow are unique and flavorful in comparison to other types.
When I first started to grow tomatoes, I searched magazines and websites for all of the information I could absorb. Let’s look at everything you could want to know about heirloom tomatoes; there is more than you might imagine.
A. Important General Knowledge About Heirloom Tomatoes
1. What Are Heirloom Seeds?
Seeds typically are available as heirlooms or hybrids. You can find cheap seeds at the dollar store, but that doesn’t mean the plants you are growing are free of GMOs. Hybrid seeds are created by crossing two varieties. The goal is to create vigorously producing plants.
Heirloom seeds are different. They are old-time varieties, open pollinated instead of a hybrid. Gardeners save the seeds each year from their plants and hand them down through generations. Prices can vary; companies that guarantee GMO-free seeds could be more costly.
Heirlooms are divided into four specific groups.
1. Family Heirlooms – gathered and passed down within a family over generations.
2. Commercial Heirlooms – introduced before the 1940s, open-pollinated and circulated for over 50 years.
3. Created Heirlooms – produced by hybridizing two parents to eliminate undesirable characteristics, taking eight to ten years.
4. Mystery Heirlooms – created through natural cross-pollination of heirloom varieties
2. Benefits Of Using Heirloom Seeds
There are more reasons to purchase heirloom seeds besides the potential lower cost. Here are the reasons why we switched and never plan to go back.
The produce tastes better
You are growing iconic plants, cultivated by generations before us. The idea of crisp, cone-head cabbages produce thoughts of flavorful soups, and those thoughts would be correct. As companies focused on creating heavy producing hybrid plants, the taste and nutrition of the food were sacrificed.
Tomatoes should be flavorful and juicy. If you bite into an heirloom tomato, juice should stream down your arm. Tomatoes grow with hybrid seeds are less likely to be sweet, tender and juicy.
Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated so that you can save your seeds
I always prefer to save my seeds. You can opt to save seeds from your best-producing plants. They are true to type and typically give you good results the following year.
The vegetables don’t ripe all at one time
Commercial growers want uniformity, and they want to pick the crop at one time. For home gardeners, a plant that has the vegetables ripen all at home would be difficult.
Your goal with your garden is to have a steady supply of fresh produce throughout your growing season. You need time to preserve all of the surpluses. If all 20 tomato plants ripened at one time, you could only enjoy fresh tomato and mozzarella salads for a few weeks. Also, you would be at the stove canning tomatoes for days and days.
The seeds come with beautiful stories
I am a sucker for stories, and anything passed down through the generations. Many of the heirloom seeds you can purchase from companies have been grown for centuries. You are connected to these centuries and gardeners from long ago. Also, you can use these heirloom seeds and pass down your favorites to your kids.
3. Do Heirloom Seeds Affect Your Harvest?
Yes! Saving your heirloom seeds will significantly affect your crop. Hybrid seeds and maturing plants found in nurseries are made to grow anywhere. It doesn’t mean they will grow well everywhere.
Saving your heirloom seeds allow you to pick what plants worked best for your garden. You select the seeds from the plants that produced the best that you for you. Over the years, the seeds you saved will perform best in your local soil and climate. The seeds will also become more resistant to local pests and disease.
As I mentioned above, your harvest will be staggered rather than all at one time. It is more convenient for home gardeners and small-scale farmers. For example, I have a steady supply of fresh tomatoes from July through September. Some of my plants produce sooner, and others wait for the last weeks of August to finally ripen.
4. How To Save Heirloom Tomato Seeds
Saving your heirloom seeds isn’t a complicated process. You may be surprised at how easy it is! Let’s go through the steps to simplify the process for you.
1. You only need a few tomatoes to save seeds. If you have multiple varieties, you need a few of each type. Wash all of the tomatoes and cut it in half across the middle. Squeeze the tomato seeds and juice into a labeled container. Typically, you want to fill the containers half way. I put them in an area with direct sun, but where I would smell the odor.
2. Watch the containers. Within three to five days, you will notice a whitish colored mold partially covering the top of the seed mixture. Sometimes, you need to have frequent watering to keep the seeds afloat. With a spoon, gently scrape off the mold. You have to be careful and gentle, so you don’t remove the seeds.
3. Fill the container with water and stir. The good seeds will sink to the bottom.
4. Next, pour off the liquid and discard any floating seeds. Keep up the process until you have removed all of the bad seeds. Then, put the good seeds into a fine strainer and rinse them thoroughly.
5. Place the seeds on a plate or tray. They need two to four days to dry thoroughly. You should move them around twice a day. Remember to keep those plates labeled correctly! When the seeds don’t stick together, they are dried. Make sure you keep them out of the direct sun!
6. Store the saved seeds in a cool, dark and dry place. Some people use jam canning jars or baby food jars to save seeds.
5. The Average Size Of Heirloom Tomatoes
Have you ever browsed a farmers’ market and noticed the gigantic tomatoes gracing their tables? These farmers embraced the practice of growing heirloom tomatoes. There is a broad range of normal when it comes to the size of heirloom tomatoes. Sometimes, you will get ones that resemble the size of the tomatoes you find in the store. Other ones will barely fit into the palm of your hand!
If you want the large tomatoes, I have some great suggestions for you to try. Not all breeds grow to be large tomatoes. Don’t opt for cherry tomatoes or paste varieties if you want big tomatoes. Their sizes are similar to what you find in the store. Here are my suggestions for the best-sized heirloom tomatoes.
- Big Beefsteak: 10 to 12 ounces on average
- Brandywine: Can reach up to two pounds each
- Aussie: 12 to 16 ounces on average
- Gold Medal (Gourmet variety): 1 pound
- Limmony (yellow): 1 pound
- Hugh’s: 1 to 2 pounds
- Black Russian: 1 pound on average
- Vorlon: 10 to 12 ounces
- Persimmon: 1 pound
These are a few varieties I have tried that resulted in gigantic tomatoes. You will also notice these tomatoes don’t just come in red! We will cover the different colors of tomatoes soon, but a large, black tomato is enough to wow your friends and family!
6. Different Heirloom Tomato Varieties
One of the most exciting parts of growing heirloom tomatoes is selecting which ones to grow! You aren’t stuck with the same dull, red varieties everyone in the neighborhood grows. You can find tomatoes in black, orange, yellow and more colors than you imagine!
There are hundreds of different heirloom varieties; it is impossible for me to introduce every type to you. I have tried tomatoes from every color; I love a rainbow of tomatoes gracing my windowsill after harvest. Here are my favorites of each color.
- Green Tomatoes: Yes, you are probably thinking of fried green tomatoes. You can cook these as well. We commonly associate green tomatoes with ones that aren’t ripe. However, certain types never turn red and stay green permanently.
- Orange and Yellow Tomatoes: Yellow and orange tomatoes are great keepers. If you store them properly, they can last longer than other varieties. Their levels of acid are lower than average choices, resulting in a milder taste.
- Pink Tomatoes: Pink tomatoes are closer to their red-colored friends than the previous two choices. You can find a huge variety of options.
- Purple and Black Tomatoes: When you want a show-stopper tomato, you have to grow a few purple and black varieties. People stop and question if they truly are tomatoes. Black and purple cultivars have an increased level of anthocyanins, similar to blueberries and blackberries. Their levels of antioxidants are higher than other tomatoes. Some note that these tomatoes have a complex flavor that isn’t loved by everyone.
- Red Tomatoes: At least, our staple, the red tomato has hundreds of choices. Everyone is familiar with the red varieties. Luckily, you can find every type of tomato in this color. If you are searching for a particular kind of canning, paste or sandwiches, you can find a red heirloom tomato for you.
- White Tomatoes: Our last color for tomatoes is white. If you planted one on accident, you might assume something is wrong with your plant!
1. Green Zebra are one of the most famous green tomatoes. They are a dark lime-green with stripes. Sweet with a sharp bite, these are strikingly beautiful.
2. Green Giants are large tomatoes, weighing over one pound each. The plants are large and need to be staked.
1. Dr. Wyche’s Yellow grows to be an average of one pound each. The color resembles a tangerine-orange, an eye-catcher for sure.
2. Yellow Pear is small, sweet tomatoes shaped like a pear. They are ideal for salads and fresh eating, but you could preserve them as well.
1. Brandywine is the top choice for pink tomatoes. While you might find them in yellow or black, there is no way you can compete with the size and excellent taste of a pink Brandywine. Yields vary each season, but many believe this is the best tomato of all. I find it hard to argue!
2. German Pinks are one of the oldest heirloom seeds, dating back to the 1880s. Originated in Bavaria, they yield tomatoes between one and two pounds. Near seedless, German Pinks meet canning jars and freezers on a regular basis. However, they are an amazing slicing tomato.
1. Cherokee Purple is one of the most favorite purple tomatoes. They are prolific plants that produce beautiful, large tomatoes. You can expect them to weigh close to a pound. The plants are rather heavy and need to be staked. I love Cherokee Purple tomatoes as a slicer.
2. Black Beauty is the darkest heirloom tomato that I have grown. They are meaty with a creamy flesh with a savory taste. Unlike other tomatoes, the flavor improves when left to sit on the counter for a few days.
1. Martino’s Roma is a classic heirloom that ripens in midseason. They are prolific and has a concentrated harvest. The fruits are firm and dry. These are ideal for canning and sauces. Everyone needs a good Roma in their garden.
2. Italian Red Hearts are a medium-sized, heart-shaped tomato grown in Italy. The foliage is wispy, producing lovely shaped tomatoes that are versatile. You can eat them as slicing tomatoes or use them in the sauce.
1. Sausage Cream tomatoes are the go-to choice if you want to make white tomato sauce. They have small vines that are loaded down with a heavy harvest of these elongated tomatoes.
2. Snowball tomatoes are parchment-white with a smooth texture. Gardeners love to use them for white sauce or fresh eating.
7. There Are Different Shapes Of Heirloom Tomatoes!
Not only are there hundreds of tomatoes in various colors, but you also can find tomatoes in various shapes. There are pear shaped tomatoes, heart shaped tomatoes, plum and long shaped ones. The list is long!
You will probably notice the main types of tomatoes:
These are easy to grow and mature quickly. Cherry tomatoes are small, bite-sized tomatoes. Children love them, and you can easily grow them in containers. They make the perfect addition to any salads.
You might notice these labeled “plum” tomatoes at types. With a small and elongated shape, they resemble the fruit. Most gardeners grow these varieties for canning purposes. Check to make sure these seeds aren’t labeled paste!
Pear or Long Shaped Cultivars
Roma tomatoes fit into this category as well. These are the workhorses for any sauce or paste you want to can for the winter. There is a lot of meat on these tomatoes with less juice and few seeds. Flesh cooks down into a thick product.
When you want a large tomato, Beefsteaks are the way to go. They are large, making the perfect addition to a sandwich. Monster sized tomatoes with a lot of flesh scream sauce tomatoes. The only downside to these beautiful tomatoes is that they take much longer to mature fully.
Heart Shaped Cultivars
These tomatoes range in size from eight ounces up to over a pound. You harvest them between mid and late in the season. They require six hours of direct sunlight. Heart-shaped tomatoes are delicious with a lot of meat and flesh. Sometimes, they can be too dense for a sandwich, so they often enough processed into a sauce.
8. Best Season To Plant Heirloom Tomatoes
Tomatoes are a warm weather loving plant. They thrive when it is hot, but they do require plenty of water to grow well. On average, you want to start heirloom tomato seeds eight to nine weeks before your last frost. After you pass the date of the last frost, it is time to plant those tomatoes into your garden beds!
Every gardener needs to know their USDA gardening zone. It breaks up the United States into zones based on their normal weather and frost dates. The information allows growers to know when to start their seeds and when you should plant them into the ground.
USDA Hardiness Zone
Average First Frost Date
Average Last Frost Date
January 31st (or earlier)
Tomatoes take, on average, three months to grow while in your garden beds and produce a harvest. If you use containers to grow your produce, you could grow heirloom tomatoes in any USDA zone. However, you wouldn’t be able to grow them well in USDA Zones 1 and 2. They need more frost free time to properly grow and mature. I would encourage you to create a greenhouse to grow in these areas!
9. How To Select The Best Heirloom Tomato Variety For Your Area
You may want large, red, juicy tomatoes. You may prefer tiny tomatoes for your daily salads. Or, you could want the perfect variety for your canning jars. No matter what you want, there are hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
It is important that you select the best heirloom tomato variety for your area. There are a few factors you should consider when making the final decision.
Flavor and texture
The first thing to consider is what you want in a tomato. If you eat more salads and sandwiches, slicers and cherry tomatoes are the ideal choice. If you like to dry or can tomatoes, you want to get the meaty tomatoes with fewer seeds.
Time to maturity
Do you live in an area with a short growing season? If so, you have to find varieties that ripen fruits in less than 75 days. Larger tomatoes, like the famous beefsteaks, take more than 90 days to mature. Look on the seed pack for the days to harvest.
You have to think about the space you have to grow tomatoes. You need to have room for them to grow and support. If you plan to use pots or have limited space, you need a compact plant – a determinate. These are also good for cold-climate growers because all of their harvest happens at one time.
If you have plenty of space for tomatoes, you should look at indeterminate varieties. They will continue to produce vegetables until it gets too cold. However, they need supports and stakes.
This factor is imperative because tomatoes are a vulnerable produce. Sometimes, you can check seed packs to see if they have resistance to soil-borne diseases common in your area.
B. Growing Heirloom Tomatoes From Start To Finish
Now comes the fun time! You picked the plants you want, and you purchased the seeds. It is time to get started! Here is all of the information you need to know about how to plant heirloom tomatoes.
1. When To Start The Seedlings
If you opted to grow plants from seeds, you need to know how and when to plant the seedlings. You should start seeds between six and nine weeks indoors. Take a look at your last anticipated frost date for your USDA zone and then count backward. You can grow plants if you plant seeds outside, but your harvest is very limited.
You should use separate containers for each variety of tomatoes. Most nurseries offer easy to use seed starting kits, but some people use plastic cuts or eggshells. Purchase seed starting mix and moisten it in a bucket. Place the mix into the seed trays or cups. Plant two or three seeds into each and cover it with ¼ inch of the soil mix.
Seeds need to germinate and should be kept in a warm, humid area. Some people purchase warming mats. I have great success by covering my plants with plastic wrap and keeping them in my oven. Of course, I always remove before cooking! A light needs to be on at all times.
Keep watch, and soon, seedlings will sprout. After they germinate, keep them up grow lights as they grow for the next few weeks.
2. When To Move And Plant Tomatoes Outside
You watched your tomatoes grow inside for the last weeks, tenderly caring for the seedlings. It is almost time to plant outside. Tomatoes don’t enjoy frost, at all. So, you need to make sure you don’t plan to put your tomatoes out in the garden before your last frost date.
Before you plant them in the vegetable garden, you need to “harden” your plant. This process is easy and takes just about a week. The plants need to adjust to the strength of natural sunlight and wind. Pick a cloudy day and put the plants outside for a few hours. Bring them inside. Continue this process, gradually leaving them outside for longer periods of time. Within a week or week and a half, the tomato plants are ready for the garden beds.
3. Where To Plant Tomatoes
Tomatoes love sunlight. Your designated place needs to be a sunny area with at least six to eight hours of sunlight per day. More sunlight is fine, but you don’t want them to get any less.
Each plant needs to have plenty of space to grow. Indeterminate varieties should be planted three feet apart; they require staking or support, so they need a lot of room! Compact, determinate plants can be planted two feet amount. You could also grow them in the container. Larger plants will need a 24-inch pot, and compact plants can use an 18-inch container.
4. How To Plant Tomatoes Outside
First, you need to map out your garden bed. I suggest taking a ruler outside and marking each spot with a stick or marker. Remember the recommended distances mentioned above! Once you have the plan for your garden, it is time to plant!
Next, you should add new compost to the soil to provide the necessary nutrients. Check the soil pH level. It should be from 6.2 to 6.8, and it will need adjustments if it is too acidic.
Finally, it is time to transfer the tomato plants outside! It best to bury the stems two-thirds up because it allows the roots to find water deeper. Make sure you add plenty of water directly after planting and use liquid plant food or fertilizer. You should aim to water at least an inch each week, more if it is extra hot outside. If the top inch of soil is dry, you need to water your plants.
5. Providing Proper Nutrition Tor Growth
Healthy tomato plants need the right nutrients to grow. You can supply plants with all of their necessary nutrients either with everyday household items or use manufactured products. The primary nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Fertilizers contain all three and are crucial for development.
There are secondary nutrients necessary for the right growth, and these are calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Tomato plants don’t require large amounts of these nutrients. Calcium is necessary for cell health and protection against diseases. Magnesium is needed for photosynthesis. Sulfur is essential for protein and amino acids; low levels lead to growth issues.
You should purchase the right fertilizer for your plants. It should be low in nitrogen, high in phosphorous, and medium to high in potassium. You can also use organic matter to help with secondary nutrients.
I always save my eggshells! After you crack them, wash out the shells and leave them to dry. Once you have a good amount, crush them in a food processor. They add calcium to the plants and prevent blossom end rot! Rake up your grass clippings and sprinkle around the base of the plants. It makes a wonderful mulch and provides much need nitrogen. There is no need for water filters to produce tomatoes.
6. Common Issues When Growing Tomatoes
Here are some common problems and easy remedies I use in my garden.
- Are your seedlings leggy? Leggy means they are tall and leaning to one side. They are searching for a reliable source of light. First, transplant the seedling (with the dirt) into a larger container and cover the stem with more dirt. You need to give more support to the delicate seedling. Then, move the grow light closer to the plant.
- Are your tomatoes not turning red? This problem is so frustrating. You can tell the harvest will be great, but nothing is turning red! It could be because the temperature is too hot for too long. You can pick them as they start to turn and bring them into an area with the temperature between 70 and 80.
- Are dark spots forming on your lower leaves? Humid weather leads to fungal diseases. You should remove sick and diseased leaves immediately. Late blight can kill your plant quickly; you need to spray it with a fungicide and remove all debris from the area.
C. Common Questions About Heirloom Tomatoes
There are sure to be plenty of questions you still have about heirloom tomatoes. Here are the things we have left out. Hopefully, you won’t have any questions left when you are done reading this!
1. What Are Indeterminate And Determinate Tomatoes?
As you browse the internet for information, you will encounter the words determinate and indeterminate when discussing tomatoes. It helps to understand a little more about tomatoes before you head to the local nursery or put your order for seeds online.
- Determinate tomatoes bloom and set fruit all at once. Then, their production declines. At the end of the blossoms, you will notice shoots that stop the growth. It determines their length. Gardeners opt for these plants because they are compact plants that need little or no pruning. You won’t have to worry about staking them. However, some varieties are labeled “vigorous” determinates; these plants produce tomatoes so large you will need support!
- Indeterminate tomatoes are there to grow for the long haul. These plants will continue to grow and produce tomatoes throughout the summer. Flowers grow along the entire vine instead of at the ends. You will need to support and prune these plants because they will continue to grow until the weather gets too cold!
2. What Are The Differences Between A Hybrid And Heirloom Tomato?
We briefly mentioned the differences in the beginning, but it is important to have an understanding of these differences truly. Tomatoes, besides a few wild varieties, are bred. Their pollination and reproduction are controlled to promote particular qualities desired by the gardener. The main difference is how the types cross and the reliability of their seeds.
Heirloom tomatoes were grown for generations with the old-fashioned method of growing tomatoes from seeds with the qualities desired by the gardener. You can find heirlooms over a 100 years old! The seedlings from the best plants are saved for the following year. Over the years, the seeds have the best characteristics desired, eliminating the unwanted qualities.
One of the most significant differences between hybrids and heirlooms is that heirlooms are developed through open-pollination. The essential qualities are encoded into their dominant genes, beating the cross-pollinated varieties in most circumstances. If you want to keep those desired features and grow hybrids as well, you should keep the heirlooms isolated.
Hybrid tomatoes are newer development in the tomato world. They develop through forced cross-pollination between two difference varieties of tomatoes. Every year is a brand new seed line, so you aren’t saving the seeds from the best plants each year.
Two very different types of tomatoes are cross-pollinated to create the hybrid seed. They will not produce a plant just like the two that created it. Also, the distinctive qualities are in the recessive genes so they could be influenced and contaminated by the seeds of other plants in your garden.
3. How Do You Properly Store Tomatoes?
Tomatoes turn colors as they ripen. They may go from a green to a dark red. As they ripen, their flavors become richer and more complex. While you can eat tomatoes before they are ready, it is best to wait for the right flavor.
Once you have harvested the ripe tomatoes, it is time to figure out how to store them. Picked tomatoes need to be kept at room temperature indoors. If they need to be held outside, you should store them in a shady area. Tomatoes don’t need refrigerated. Cold temperatures cause the flavor compounds to break down, leading to a loss of taste.
There are plenty of other ways to store tomatoes! Our family loves to can tomatoes. I spend lots of time each summer preserving our harvest. Here is what I make each year.
- Spaghetti sauce (with dried herbs from our garden)
- Tomato sauce – plain
- Diced tomatoes
- Seasoned diced tomatoes
- Pizza sauce (seasoned with dried herbs to our tastes)
- Tomato soup
- Crushed tomatoes
Canning our harvest helps to decrease the food budget for our growing family. The result is fresh tasting food that comes from our hard work and garden. You can also freeze tomatoes (whole or diced) or dehydrated tomatoes. There are so many ways to store them, letting you enjoy their taste for months to come.
4. Do Heirlooms Contain GMOs?
Avoiding seeds that contain GMOs can be difficult. Monsanto, in the U.S., owns close to half of the seeds in the country. Shopping organic and heirloom doesn’t mean that their seeds won’t contain some trace of GMOs.
If you don’t want to grow seed for any hints, you need to buy open pollinated heirloom seeds from companies dedicated to providing their customers with GMO-free seeds. Baker Creek, Seed Savers, and Sustainable Seed Company are three companies I use on a regular basis.
5. Where To Look For More Information
Gardeners love to collect knowledge about their passion. I often read many articles and magazines that I can find to learn more about growing food. It turns into a love. So, where should you go for more information? Here are the top ten websites to visit.
One of the top sellers of heirloom seeds of all varieties
A top seller for heirloom tomato seeds with over 600 varieties
Bonnie is a seller of all types of plants. Typically, you can find them in most stores
A seller of seeds that provides tons of information for gardeners
Mother Earth News
A source for information about all things gardening and homesteading
They provide a source of information for gardeners as well as a collection of delicious recipes
A seller of organic plants that gives great information to reader about the plants they sell
Oh My Veggies
A great blog for vegetarians and vegans who love to grow veggies as well
Better Homes and Gardens
BHG shows beautiful home designs and garden layouts and ideas
Burpee is a seller of plants, not heirloom. However, their website provides information about all types of plants
Heirloom tomatoes are tasty and healthy for everyone. You get a fascinating variety of colors and shapes when you opt for these in your garden. I hope that this article was helpful and provides you with all of the necessary information for growing your heirloom tomatoes! Now, find those heirloom seeds and start planting!