Hybrid Tomato Varieties

Plant plenty of hybrid tomatoes right alongside your heirloom tomatoes this year.

| May/June 2016

  • Brandy Boy is a popular beefsteak.
    Photo courtesy W. Atlee Burpee Company
  • An average Steakhouse tomato tips the scales at 3 pounds.
    Photo courtesy W. Atlee Burpee Company
  • SuperSauce might become your favorite saucing tomato.
    Photo courtesy W. Atlee Burpee Company
  • Chef’s Choice Orange is great for slicing and saucing.
    Photo by Perry Mastrovito
  • Golden Gems are sweet.
    Photo by David Liebman
  • Beefmaster produces large tomatoes.
    Photo by David Liebman

Heirloom tomatoes have become the darlings of the garden in recent years, but they can be high maintenance. Famous for their flavor – and infamous for being temperamental – heirlooms can sometimes sulk and refuse to produce or even grow if conditions aren’t just right. Heirlooms typically have been selectively bred for tight, specific regions and conditions. One year, I tried Great White, a white beefsteak heirloom. Four plants produced one massive tomato – total. Meanwhile, other tomato varieties surrounding them produced like mad. Great White just wasn’t happy in my garden.

Do you know what else have great tomato flavor, other than heirlooms? Homegrown hybrids. I’m not talking about those suspicious pale red lumps of plastic the supermarket sells that taste like they might be related to Plaster of Paris. A well-grown hybrid tomato can be just as big, soft, juicy, sweetly tangy, and mouthwatering as an heirloom, full of complex acids and sugars. Heirlooms may bring more variety of flavors and shapes to the table, but good hybrids deserve consideration as well.

Flavor isn’t all they have to offer either: Hybrids are productive, reliable, disease resistant and manageable. They produce in good weather and in bad, growing in rich soils and poor soils, in clean soils as well as under heavy disease pressures. In a word, hybrids are consistent.

Terms and conditions

Before we get too involved in the story, let’s talk about terms for a minute. Heirlooms are open-pollinated, meaning they can self-pollinate and produce offspring that are roughly identical to the parent plants – what seed collectors call “breeding true.” Hybrids, on the other hand, are the result of a deliberate crossbreeding of two different parents. Seeds saved from hybrids, unlike open-pollinated heirlooms, are wildly variable.

There has been some confusion that hybrids are in the same class as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but this isn’t the case at all. GMOs have genetic material from vastly unrelated organisms forcibly inserted into their DNA, often using a viral carrier. For the record, there are no genetically modified tomatoes on the market. None.

What about that pesky hybrid reputation for bland, red hardballs? At one time, it was deserved. Early hybrids were developed for mechanical harvesting on a large scale. They were bred to be consistent, producing a large crop of uniform firm fruit that ripened all at once on compact bushes. In the process, though, the flavor was bred out of the equation. Since then, breeders have been working hard to bring flavor back into the mix, using notable heirlooms as parents. Hybrids like Brandy Boy, Big Daddy, Scarlet Red and Rocky Top have brought flavor and consistency together in one plant.

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