Do you want to grow the best tomatoes?
Then planting heirloom varieties is the way to go. These are plants that hark back to the days when food crops were about nutrition and flavor, not rushing an unripe, tasteless, and vitamin-deficient crop to market.
Stop subjecting your family to the ordinary, pale-fleshed, flavorless fruits that dominate grocers’ shelves, or paying premium prices to experiment with gourmet varieties.
How about growing some quirky-shaped vegetables, in a rainbow of colors, that are as intriguing to look at as they are delicious to eat?
What’s Their Secret?
Heirloom plants are treasures that have been grown for generations from seeds gathered year to year, to preserve their exceptional flavor – as opposed to commercial crops that are prized for their durability, often at the expense of taste and nutrition.
Heirlooms differ from another type of tomato plant, the hybrid.
Hybrids are a combination of two cultivars that have been deliberately cross-pollinated for purposes such as disease resistance, increased yield, or uniform shape.
They don’t come in the same array of colors and shapes as heirlooms, but there are varieties available that are superior to store-bought produce. Whether their flavors rival those of heirlooms is open to debate.
In general, growing your own fruits and vegetables results in healthier produce. Per The Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, produce that is allowed to vine ripen contains the most vitamins, nutrients, and phytochemicals for good health.
When commercially grown tomatoes are picked green for transport, their vitamin C content is decreased. Although they continue to ripen, turning red in the process, they never achieve their full complement of nutrients.
In addition, even minimal commercial processing affects the overall nutritional value of fruits and vegetables, and mishandling that produces bruising further reduces nutritive content.
With what we know today about the value of eating a variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, I find that serving colorful and tasty heirloom produce is a fun way to nourish my family.
A Note on Organic Practices:
Some seeds and plants are certified organic. This means that they have been cultivated without chemicals, and meet the stringent standards required for this designation.
Heirloom seeds may or may not be so certified, and selection is a matter of preference.
Heirloom Tomatoes to Love
At my house, we just planted a Brandywine Red with an interesting background and local roots.
Named for a creek not far from here, this extraordinarily tasty variety was saved from extinction by an old gentleman who supplied the Seed Savers Exchange with seeds that he had gotten from a fellow gardener, whose family had been cultivating the variety for almost a century.
That’s heirloom vegetable gardening at its best – good people growing good crops.
Tomato plants grow in one of two ways: determinate and indeterminate.
These plants grow into a compact bush shape, and produce all their fruit over a couple of weeks.
These plants continue to grow all season, producing fruit for the duration, often until a frost.
Now, let’s check out some of our favorites.
15 of the Best Varieties for Home Gardeners
1. Ace 55 – VF
A bush variety, this plant matures in about 80 to 85 days. It may not require staking, and has excellent disease resistance.
Ace 55 is a thick-walled red variety on the order of a beefsteak, with a sweet flavor and low acid content, making it great for eating fresh or preparing in cooked dishes.
Due to its low acid content, it is not suitable for canning.
Seeds are available from True Leaf Market.
2. Amish Paste
There’s no better plum variety for sauces and canning than this meaty red one, and we have the Amish of Wisconsin to thank for it.
This indeterminate variety matures in about 80 days. Support with a trellis as needed, and enjoy its fruit all season long.
Seeds are available from Mountain Valley.
3. Arkansas Traveler
Mild-tasting, this indeterminate type has a pinkish hue, crack-resistant skin, tolerance for heat and humidity, and overall disease resistance. It’s great straight from the garden and onto the plate.
Maturity is in approximately 80 days, and support with a trellis or stakes may be required.
You’ll find seeds online at MV Seed Co.
4. Black Krim
If robust flavor and nutrition are what you’re looking for, this one’s for you.
Of Russian origin, the color of this indeterminate beefsteak-style is a blend of purple, red, and brown hues.
Supply climbing support for this hearty, disease-resistant variety, and enjoy a continuous supply of vegetables from its 80-day maturity until the first frost.
Seeds can be purchased from Amazon.
5. Black Russian
A bushy plant with indeterminate fruit bearing, it may be grown as a container plant when maintained by pruning.
It has reddish-brown skin, meaty flesh, and a unique flavor often described as smoky. Not too acidic, nor too sweet, it strikes a tasty balance as a stand-alone or salad feature.
Allow 80 to 85 days for maturity, and eat fresh, as it doesn’t store well.
6. Bonny Best
This meaty fruit is a canning favorite with a classic balance of sweet and tart.
An indeterminate grower, it matures in about 75 to 80 days. Provide structural support and enjoy a bountiful harvest.
Seeds are available from Mountain Valley Seed Co.
This is a great slicing variety.
Available in shades of pink, red, black, and yellow, this beefsteak-type is creamy in texture, low in acidity, and high in flavor.
It has a characteristic “potato” leaf that is smooth-edged, rather than a regular serrated leaf.
Maturity varies by type from 70 to 100 days.
8. Cherokee Purple
We have the Cherokees to thank for cultivating this beauty over the past century.
It’s a dynamic bush-style plant with indeterminate fruit production that matures in about 80 days.
Resistant to disease, it may withstand a dry spell, and benefits from caging or staking.
Its sweet fruit is an attractive pinkish-purple, and it makes a vivid addition to any meal.
9. German Johnson
Great fresh and suitable for canning, this is a versatile dark pink fruit that grows indeterminately, producing one- to two-pound fruit.
It’s got a classic sweet/tart flavor, minimal seeds, and a skin that’s resistant to cracking.
This variety is disease resistant, and thrives in heat and humidity. Maturity takes about 80 to 90 days.
10. Great White
Here’s a high-yield indeterminate plant that produces sweet and juicy beefsteak-style slicers with a tropical fruit flavor.
About a pound apiece, they have a low acid content and few seeds. Maturity is in about 80 to 85 days.
Seeds are available from Mountain Valley.
This plant is a beefsteak style, with sweet, low-acid fruits mottled in yellow and red that weigh up to two pounds each.
It’s indeterminate, for a season full of produce. Maturity is in about 85 days.
12. Mr. Stripey
Mr. Stripey is an indeterminate plant that bears the sweetest fruit you may ever taste.
A beefsteak style that’s yellow with reddish stripes, these grow to weigh up to two pounds each.
Maturity is in 80 days. Stake or provide a trellis as needed.
Seeds are available from Mountain Valley.
Originating in Greece, this is an indeterminate variety with a classic acid-sugar balance.
It matures in about 60 to 80 days, and produces high yields of round red fruit that resist cracking and rotting. Provide support as needed.
14. VR Moscow
This bushy determinate plant matures in 80 to 90 days.
It’s got the classic sweet/tart taste of the best tomato you’ve ever had, and is crack and disease resistant.
Equally good fresh and canned, this is a great all-purpose choice. Stake or cage as required.
15. Yellow Pear
This is an indeterminate, disease-resistant variety that’s very easy to grow and matures in about 75 to 80 days.
Throughout the growing season, it produces a great quantity of pungent, snack-sized fruit shaped like small yellow pears.
Eat these by the handful, or make them into fresh preserves. Stake or trellis as needed.
Organic seeds are available from True Leaf Market.
Exceptional and Sustainable
Whether you grow tomatoes from seeds or plants, heirlooms are a smart investment because they are not only nutritious and tasty, but sustainable.
What does this mean? If you harvest seeds at the end of the growing season, you can grow the same plants next year.
Conversely, with hybrids, harvested seeds may produce no plants, or different plants when seeds are saved and used in successive years.
By conserving seed in our own yards, we can do our part to ensure that future generations enjoy nutritious food crops.
And if you really want to play an active role, consider joining a non-profit organization called the Seed Savers Exchange. This seedbank is dedicated to promoting biodiversity and preserving the heritage of heirloom seeds in America.
The best way to start your own heirloom plant tradition is to save seeds from the ones that grow best in your garden, and plant them next year.
Continue the Tradition
I’m a big fan of heirlooms, particularly those that originated in my area.
I like to feed my family the most nutritious foods I can, and when they taste as good as the ones I’ve recommended, it’s easy.
Add the cost savings of sustainable seed, and the good feeling I get from preserving biodiversity, and they are a win on all fronts.
Are you ready to pass the horticultural baton to the next generation by cultivating heirloom varieties in your garden this year?
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Product photos by Mountain Valley Seed Co., Jays Seeds, and True Leaf Market. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Nan Schiller
Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!