More and more people are getting into gardening these days, especially to grow their own food. The most popular grow-your-own plants sprouting in garden beds everywhere are tomatoes, because let’s face it — nothing beats a garden tomato in your salad or on a BLT, and they’re fairly easy to grow. But with many more varieties for gardeners to choose from than there were just a decade ago, there can be some confusion, especially about varieties. So let’s explore some specifics about these summertime favorites.
Common Tomato Questions
Q: What types of tomatoes should I grow if I want a good canning season?
A: When selecting tomato varieties, there are basically two growth types: Determinate and Indeterminate. Select determinates if you’re looking for a mass one-time bloom and produce. These are great for canning, since the plant blooms almost all at once, sets fruit, and can be harvested for mass production. Succession planting these every two weeks will get you a great harvest. Indeterminate plants will constantly produce. The more you pick, the more they bloom and produce. One plant will have you picking through to the first frost.
Q: I have heard that heirlooms are the better variety. What makes a tomato an heirloom?
A: Heirloom tomatoes are open pollinated, meaning they’re pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. Heirlooms lack the deep red color and sugar processing ability, so the ripening process is not wasting energy making that red color. They come from seed that has been handed down for generations in a particular region, hand-selected by gardeners for a special trait. Most are not as disease resistant as hybrids. Usually varieties from seed more than 40 to 50 years old, passed down through the generation of that plant, constitutes it to be an heirloom.
Q: So what is a hybrid tomato, actually?
A: Hybrids are created when plant breeders intentionally cross-pollinate at least two different varieties of a plant to produce an offspring that contains the best trait of each parent, such as bigger size or better disease resistance. Hybrid seeds will not produce the same cultivar, but will produce one of the parent plants. Most hybrid seeds are sterile, and won’t germinate. You can check to see if your hybrid tomato seeds are viable by placing them in a damp paper towel for a few days. Some will not sprout, others will, and what you get may be a pleasant surprise. In general, hybrids offer a combination of these favorable traits: dependability, easy care, early maturity, better yield, improved flavor, specific plant size, and/or disease resistance.
While hybrid plants typically yield fruit that is uniform in appearance (like what you’d see at the supermarket), heirloom vegetables produce a harvest that can be mixed, and may produce less predictably. Fruit size can vary greatly, even on the same plant.
Note: It’s important to note that hybrid and heirloom tomato varieties are not genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Kevin Cutlip has been a Personal Garden Coach for over 25 years. He owns KevinsGarden.com, and is known nationwide through his gardening advice in his monthly newsletter, TV appearances and speaking engagements throughout the southeast.