Want to plant delicious tomatoes this year? With so any different varieties, how is a gardener supposed to know which one to grow? I’m of the opinion that some of the best tomato varieties to grow are heirloom tomatoes.
What are heirlooms? Heirloom tomato varieties are those that have been passed down through generations. From gardeners hundreds of years ago, heirloom tomato seeds retain old-timey qualities that make them some of the most sought after tomatoes around. They also produce the flavor that you may have enjoyed as a child when you took a bite from a homegrown tomato from grandma’s garden.
During our annual plant sale, I usually work the tomato section, and when I ask folks what they’re looking for, they usually just say “a tomato plant.” But there are many different types of tomatoes out there, that you really want to know the size and type of tomato you want to grow. Not all tomatoes are built the same. Some are perfect for preserving, others for salads, and still more make the perfect tomato sandwich. I’ve broken this guide down into different types of tomatoes, but before those lists, what exactly are heirloom tomatoes?
What are heirloom tomatoes?
Heirlooms are some of the best tomatoes for a variety of reasons, but here are the main ones:
- They are full of flavor
- Heirloom tomatoes stay true to parent plants
- Come in both determinate varieties (smaller sized) and indeterminate varieties (can grow 8-10 feet).
- They’re also some of the only seeds that can be saved by gardeners and grown the next year to produce the same fruit type. Seeds saved from hybrid plants may produce fruit the next year that has different characteristics from the tomato variety you saved it from. (For more information on saving tomato seeds, check out my full article here.)
- Heirlooms have generally been grown and saved for decades or centuries. For example, Cherokee Purple Tomatoes hearken all the way back to the 1800’s and were all but forgotten until a resurgence of popularity in the 1990’s. Now, it’s one of the biggest sellers at our annual Master Gardener Plant Sale.
- Finally, when you grow heirloom varieties of anything, you’re connecting with gardeners and farmers of the past, and that’s a pretty amazing thing in our ultra-busy and fast paced world.
When it comes to finding heirloom tomato seeds that I’m mentioning below, there are some good choices available. Some seed companies, like True Leaf Market, only sell heirloom varieties. It’s like planting a piece of history! So, if you want to enjoy some of the vine-ripe flavors of yesteryear, plant any of these heirloom tomato varieties in your garden this spring.
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Best Heirloom Tomatoes For Slicing
Love a tomato sandwich? Then a large slicing tomato will be right up your alley. The huge fruits from these plants are sure to impress. Plan for extra time for larger tomatoes to grow. So, which heirloom tomatoes are perfect for slicing? Check out these indeterminate plant varieties:
- Ace 55-VF is a large red slicing tomato that is similar to a beefsteak tomato. It has thick walls, sweet flavor, and low acid. Great for eating but not for canning. It’s an indeterminate variety that will produce flavor-filled slicers all summer.
- Arkansas Traveler is great for slicing and easy to grow. It’s heat-tolerant, crack-resistant, disease-resistant, and has a pinkish cast on the outside of the tomato.
- Black Russian has a deep brown color and is not too sweet and not too acidic. This heirloom tomato has a unique smoky flavor that is great as a slicer or as part of a salad.
- Cherokee Purple as mentioned above has become a favorite over the past few decades for it’s purple red color and delicious flavor. These are definitely worth purchasing a seed packet for!
Best Small Heirloom Tomato Variety
Perfect for containers and small spaces, small tomato varieties, such as grape tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, are super fun to grow. These heirlooms produce bright, flavorful tomatoes that are perfect for all types of recipes and salads. They’re also great for garden snacking. Many small tomato varieties have vigorous plants that will continue to produce until the first frost.
- Tumbling Tom Red is ideal for growing in a hanging basket. This attractive vining plant produces an abundance of small, round, red sweet tomatoes.
- Yellow Pear produces small yellow tomatoes shaped like pears. The plant is indeterminate and will produce a large vine that will need to be supported.
- Black Cherry tomatoes are small, round, and almost black. The sweet, unique black cherry tomatoes are produced all summer on a rambling vine that will reach 6-feet when mature.
Best Heirloom Tomatoes For Preserving
Looking to have tomatoes beyond the summer harvest? There tomato varieties are best for those home gardeners hoping to preserve some of the harvest for use later. This could be making tomatoes into paste and canning, canning whole tomatoes, or freezing for use later, these tomatoes fit the bill. (Never tried freezing tomatoes? Check out my tutorial for how to freeze tomatoes!)
- Amish Paste tomatoes are one of the best plum variety tomatoes for preserving as paste, sauce, or for dicing. Very few seeds, thick meaty flesh, and 8-inch long tomatoes make this a perfect choice for canning, freezing, or dehydrating.
- Bonny Best is an old canning tomato because of its meaty texture and perfect balance of tart and sweet.
- German Johnson, a favorite at our master gardener plant sale each year, has a sweet-tart flavor, skin that resists cracking, and very few seeds, making it an ideal choice for preserving. It also performs well in hot and humid areas.
Growing tips for heirlooms
Growing heirloom tomatoes is slightly different from growing hybrids, but they are well worth any additional effort you may encounter. Here are a few tips for success with heirloom tomato plants:
- Always water plants at soil level to avoid getting the plants wet and potentially creating an environment for fungi to grow on the plants.
- Heirlooms typically grow taller than hybrids and need to be supported. I prefer using a long pole as a support, but tomato cages are popular as is the florida weave method.
- Space heirlooms a little farther apart to allow for extra plant growth and to promote good air circulation.
- Prune often to keep the suckers from draining the plant’s energy. (See my post below for how to prune tomatoes.)
Tomato Pests and Diseases
As with all tomato types, there are 101 ways to kill a tomato. Here are some common diseases found in tomatoes:
- Fusarium wilt: Technically a fungus, this wilt disease will cause the leaves of your plant to wilt as though they haven’t been watered in weeks. There will also be patchy yellow leaves all over the plant. Here’s a helpful article from The University of Minnesota on FW.
- Late blight: Gardeners will notice wet lesions on the leaves of the tomato plant. This can occur after periods of cooler, wet weather. Remove any infected leaves and discard. See this article from NC State University on how to prevent late blight in tomatoes.
Common Tomato Pests include:
- Tomato Horn Worms: these garden monsters can make quick work of any tomato plant in a matter of days, and their light green color allows them to blend right in with the plant itself. For more information on the Tomato Hornworm, check out this article from NC State University.
- Aphids: These tiny leaf-sucking pests are pretty annoying and tend to come in large numbers. A good shot of water from the hose and/or insecticidal soap will usually do the trick.
So, if you’re looking for that old-fashioned tomato taste from your childhood, consider growing heirloom varieties in your garden this year. You can save the seeds yourself to keep them going year after year! I’d love to know your favorite heirloom variety; comment below and let me know!
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Sunday 14th of May 2023
I’m trying a new tomato. It’s a cross between a Cherokee Purple and a Carbon. I have no idea what it will taste like. Do you have any experience with this tomato?
Sunday 14th of May 2023
Hi Susan! I haven't grown any Cherokee Carbons before, but they sound like they would have amazing flavor. Gurney's claims they have the flavor of a complex beefsteak, so I'd love for you to let me know what you think once you've tasted them!