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.
We do have those early hybrids to thank for another hallmark of hybrid tomatoes – disease resistance. Savvy gardeners with room to do so will rotate their garden beds from year to year to help keep diseases like wilt and blight from building up in the soil. Postage stamp gardeners and tomato farms don’t have that luxury. Hybrid breeding has always focused on improving disease resistance to get around this problem. (Read “What the Letters Mean” on Page 63.) Even under heavy disease pressures, hybrids can still ripen a decent crop of tomatoes.
Many hybrids also tend to be more compact, thanks to a characteristic called “determinate growth.” Determinate hybrids only grow to a determined height, so they are more like a bush than vinelike indeterminate heirlooms. They need less support than heirlooms, although they do benefit from some support. (Read “The Sky’s the Limit,” at left.) Their determinate habit makes hybrids easier to harvest for two reasons. Because they sprawl less, you can find the ripe tomatoes much easier without having to wade into a tomato-vine jungle. The fruit also ripen all at once, within a few days to a week of each other – a major bonus for canning and processing homemade sauces and pastes when volume counts.
Maybe the best part of having hybrids in your garden is there’s no reason to grow hybrids alone. Plant both hybrids and heirlooms to get the best of both worlds. That way you’ll get your big “single slice” heirloom tomato sandwiches all summer, a rainbow of cherry tomatoes, and all the saucing and freezing tomatoes you can handle for weekend processing. Besides, if you mix them up in a salad or saucepot, I doubt anyone will know. Plus, if disaster strikes, you’ll still have tomatoes; it’s a win-win situation.
Speaking of backup plans, hybrids have one more selling point: plant availability. Even now, while heirlooms are enjoying such popularity, you’ll probably only find a few varieties offered as transplants at your local garden center or big box store. When you consider how well-adapted each heirloom is to a specific set of conditions, you may not be able to get an heirloom that will grow well in your garden. Hybrids, by comparison, will grow well in just about any garden.
Hybrid tomatoes have a great pedigree and well-deserved reputation for reliable production. They’ve earned their place alongside heirloom tomatoes in the garden. They are there in a pinch, faithfully delivering tomatoes without fail, no matter what the season brings. You can count on that!
Varieties by Region
Vegetable Product Manager Chelsey Fields of W. Atlee Burpee Company recommends the following hybrid varieties by region. With a lineup like this, you’re sure to find the perfect tomato for your garden.
Pacific Northwest – Fourth of July and SuperSauce
Mountain West – Brandy Boy and Fourth of July
Northern Plains – Big Mama and SuperSauce
Southern Plains – Fourth of July and Heatwave II
Mississippi Delta – SteakHouse and SuperSauce
Great Lakes and Heartland – Fourth of July and Big Daddy
New England – Big Mama, Fourth of July and Brandy Boy
Northeast - Big Daddy and SuperSauce
South Atlantic – SteakHouse and SuperSauce
Southeast – Big Daddy, SteakHouse and SuperSauce
The Sky’s the Limit
Whether determinate or indeterminate, any tomato will appreciate some support, and there are several options for providing that support.
Staking. This is the traditional method of supporting tomatoes. Use a 5- to 6-foot-tall stake for each tomato. Tie each branch to the stake with soft nylon or cloth ties, and don’t be afraid to prune off “suckers” or excess branches.
Tomato cages. Those store-bought wire cones really don’t supply enough support for the average tomato plant, especially when your part of the country sees significant winds. Save them for your pepper plants. The larger cages will work, however, as will concrete reinforcing wire panels or stock panels used for cattle and hogs. These can be rolled into cylinders for superior tomato cages. Another option is staking the tomato with a T-post and then adding the tomato cage around the plant and post.
A-frames. Old swing set frames or A-frames made from saplings or 2-by-4s make excellent tomato supports. Tie twine to the ridgepole of the frame and run it down to the base of each tomato plant directly below it. As the plant grows, gently wrap the twine around it. The plants’ weight will hold them secure on the twine.
Florida Weave. Set fence posts in a line along the tomato row. Run twine back and forth from post to post to create a fence or web. As the plants grow, weave them through the strands of twine for support. Livestock panels can work similarly.
What the Letters Mean
Tomatoes often have a string of letters on the stake or seed packet after their name.
Those letters can tell you a lot about your plant.
OP: Open-pollinated. This means the plant is not a hybrid, its parents were the same variety, and saved seeds will produce more of the same variety.
F1: First filial. This is a fancy way of saying first generation hybrid. A hybrid is the product of crossbreeding two different varieties for specific, desirable traits.
IND: Indeterminate. Indeterminate tomatoes will sprawl over a large area and grow as tall as allowed, and tomatoes will ripen over an extended period of time.
DET: Determinate. Determinate tomatoes have a much more contained, bushy habit of growth, and tomatoes ripen all at once.
V: Verticillium. Variety is resistant to verticillium wilt.
F: Fusarium. Variety is resistant to fusarium wilt. There are several strains of fusarium wilt, and tomatoes may be labeled with several Fs. More Fs means resistance to more strains of wilt.
N: Nematode. Variety is resistant to harmful nematode worms or roundworms.
T: Tobacco Mosaic Virus. Variety is resistant to TMV. Smokers take note, TMV can be transmitted by residues left on your hands after smoking or using smokeless tobacco.
A or AS: Alternaria Stem Canker. Variety is resistant to stem cankers.
St: Stemphylium Grey Leaf Spot. Variety is resistant to grey leaf spot.
TSWV: Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus. Variety is resistant to spotted wilt.
GM or GMO: You will not find these letters on any tomato seed packets or plant tags, as there are no genetically modified tomatoes on the market.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where he does his best to grow really big tomatoes. While he has never met a tomato he didn’t like, his favorites are Cherokee Purple and Big Rainbow. Follow his Grit blog, Life In the Fast Lane, at Grit.com.