Dani Carrollreprinted with permission
It is an extremely busy time of year in my garden, and I imagine in
your own lawn and garden as well. While a lot of the cool weather
vegetables are nearing the end of their time in the garden for now, a
lot us are looking forward to the warm-weather vegetables. Vegetables
such as tomatoes, okra, beans, peppers and eggplant come to mind. Most
vegetable gardeners spend the most time on tomatoes. We spend the most
time staking them, harvesting them, preserving them, and picking out
which cultivar we want to purchase and plant. I make the decision on
which ones to grow by past experience. There are a number of tomatoes
that provide consistent harvests year after year. There are also a few
that may lack in the number of fruit produced, but I like the taste so
much that it does not matter.
Decisions, decisions, decisions!
The possibilities are almost endless when it comes to tomatoes. There
are literally hundreds and hundreds of choices, especially if you start
your own from seed. Poring over the seed catalogs can be very
overwhelming. Probably the biggest debate right now is whether to choose
a hybrid or an heirloom tomato. Many questions have been asked about
the advantages / disadvantages of the two. It may be easiest to start
with what exactly hybrid and heirloom mean.
The term heirloom
tomato has several definitions. In the commercial industry, it may refer
to tomato cultivars (open-pollinated, we will get to that) introduced
before 1940 or tomato cultivars that have been around for more than 50
years. And some will debate 50 years, calling an heirloom a tomato that
has been around for 100 years. In a loose definition of the term,
heirloom tomatoes refer to tomato cultivars that have been passed down
through generations by saving the seed from the plant and replanting the
next year. Often these heirlooms take on the name of the area /family
where the seeds came from. For example, Cherokee Purple. This is an
heirloom tomato most of us are familiar with. The seeds from this tomato
were shared from a gentleman in Tennessee. The seeds had been shared
with his family generations prior from Cherokee Indians in the area.
tomatoes are open pollinated. Open pollinated tomatoes are plants that
will keep their genetic traits if the seed are saved and planted again.
Open pollinated plants can be self-pollinating or cross-pollinating.
Tomatoes, for the most part, are self-pollinating (as are most beans and
lettuce). This simply means the flower pollinates itself (with a little
help from the wind and the buzzing of insects that shake the flower).
The seeds saved from tomatoes grown this year can be replanted next year
to get the same type plant. There will always be some genetic diversity
when saving heirloom, open pollinated seeds. That is how nature works.
For the most part, though, the genetic characteristics of the plant will
remain. Other plants are cross-pollinating. The flower does not
pollinate itself, but depends on others (insects, wind, even bats!) to
transfer pollen from one flower to another. One example is squash. To
save the seed from an heirloom squash, the plant should not be planted
with other squash type vegetables where cross-pollination may occur.
Have you ever noticed a strange squash plant growing out of your compost
pile? This was probably the result of a squash fruit that was thrown in
the pile. The seeds germinated, but had cross-pollinated with another
squash-type plant the year before.
I think there are a lot of
heirloom tomatoes that are quite tasty. Black Krim is one I really like.
There are a few strains of Brandywine that I also grow year after
year. Aunt Gertie's Gold is another one, a large golden beef steak type.
The great thing about heirlooms are the wonderful colors, the odd
shaped leaves and the taste of some are unsurpassed in my opinion.
Unfortunately, they also have their downfalls. The seeds were saved from
year to year because of their taste. This mean most heirlooms have
little to no disease resistance. Soil diseases may wipe them out quite
quickly. They definitely take extra care in the garden. Fruit production
is not near the production of some of the hybrid tomatoes. In fact, a
lot of heirlooms take a long time to produce that first fruit. I have
waited until fall many times to pick heirloom tomatoes that were planted
in the spring. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Very tasty. This is a
general statement. Some heirlooms may produce all summer long. Some may
never succumb to disease pressures. For the most part, they do not
produce as much and incur more diseases than hybrid tomato plants.
on to hybrid. Hybrid plants are not genetically modified organisms
(GMO). That is a common misconception. A hybrid tomato plant is a tomato
plant that is the cross of two open pollinated tomato plants by
controlled pollination. Controlled pollination means the pollination was
done by hand. A hybrid tomato plant has two parent tomato plants. The
parents were chosen by their desirable traits such as disease
resistance, heat tolerance, fruit color, shipping ability, and even
height. The pollen from one is used to pollinate the other. The seed is
taken from the fruit. The resulting plant from the seed is then a
hybrid or F1 plant. By controlling the pollination, the plants from the
seed will be the same. For example, a pack of Celebrity (F1 hybrid)
seeds will grow into Celebrity tomato plants all the same.
tomato plants also have a space, a big space, in my garden. They are
bred for a reason. Many exhibit resistance to a lot of plant diseases
such as Big Beef and Celebrity. The Talladega tomato is resistant to two
viruses along with other tomato diseases. The list of hybrid tomato
plants and their attributes are long. After you grow different varieties
for a few years, you will have your favorites.
If you routinely
save your seed from heirloom plants to plant the following year, do not
count on doing the same with hybrids. Remember, hybrid tomatoes are the
result of two separate parent plants. The seed saved from the fruit of
the hybrid (F1) tomato plant will not produce the same plant. The seed
may produce plants more like the parents. You really have no idea what
traits the new plants will have.
When choosing tomatoes for
your own garden, you may want to give heirloom and hybrid tomatoes both a
chance. I have found a place for both in my own garden.