First of all, what are “heirloom tomatoes”? Why are they a treat to your tastebuds? Without the long version of history, heirloom vegetables are varieties that stood the test of time, often handed down in families of farmers and gardeners. They might have been commercially available at one time, but are now rarely grown for that purpose due to changing taste for shape or color. The one thing that all heirloom tomatoes have in common today are that they are deemed to have superior flavor and pleasing culinary qualities.

 Heirloom tomatoes
Colorful varieties of old fashioned tomatoes

Popular Heirloom Varieties

Which varieties are popular today, and why plant them? It is a great convenience to have seedlings available in nurseries, all ready to plant into the ground during the prime planting season after the last frost. Certain tomatoes have garnered appreciation for their looks and flavors. If you wish to grow types that are specific to your region or suit your tastes better, grow your own seedlings (starting early to mid-spring) to get the ones you prefer. There are now a huge number available from seed houses. I notice less are available then in previous years as pot grown starts.

However you choose to begin, here are some excellent heirlooms to consider growing:

Black Krim Beefsteak

black krim beefsteak tomato
Black Krim beefsteak tomato | photo by Christine Stephens on Flickr Creative Commons

Beefsteak refers to a type of fruit that is quite large and often with a ribbed shape. The Black Krim is a medium sized, dark maroon colored fruit with a tasty, sweet flavor . Popular because its grows well in wide variety of environments. Plants are open-pollinated, indeterminate type that is ready in about 69 days.

When I grew it in Central Ohio, it was definitely a medium size fruit rather than the large size implied by being a beefsteak type. Also my produce cracked badly, which I read later is attributed to over ripening. If you raise this one, perhaps make sure to harvest once they turn red.

Burpee sells Black Krim seeds icon

Brandywine Tomatoes

Pink Brandywine
Pink Brandywine | Photo by Ian Richardson

This is my own personal favorite, the Pink Brandywine; there are also other strains and colors. The taste is excellent, and the plants were healthier in my growing conditions than other heirloom tomatoes I’ve tried. The fruits have been large and there is some cracking in certain seasons.

I like the flavor of these tomatoes the best of any, and I also like a “meaty” type. If you would like to know specific information on different Brandywines, you may enjoy reading a forum conversation on the topic. I am simply happy with plants labeled “Pink Brandywine”; they’ve been outstanding for me.

DETERMINATE VINES:

Plants grow into a compact bush shape, and produce over a couple of weeks.


INDETERMINATE VINES:

Plants grow continually all season, producing fruit until frost.

Cherokee Purple Cultivar

Cherokee Purple Tomato Seeds – Heirloom Garden Variety – Non GMO

There is more than one Cherokee tomato, but I tried the purple. It has very high praise from so many gardeners that I felt I had to try it. Unfortunately, the year was the absolute worst for tomatoes in all the years I gardened, so I didn’t get what I believe would have been an outstanding tomato. I want to give it another go and include it here, because I think it deserves a place as one of the best heirlooms. Harvest in 80-90 days.

One of the more interesting flavors described as somewhat “smokey”. Very large fruits growing on healthy vines with the reputation for being more humidity and disease resistant than many other dark tomatoes. The story goes that the seeds were originally received from Cherokee Indians.

Caspian Pink

Globe shaped tomatoes with delectable deep pink flesh, Compares to Brandywine, try this one as an alternative for earlier fruit and greater production. It hales originally from Russia. Indeterminate with harvest at 80 days.

Burpee ‘Caspian Pink’ Heirloom | Large Pink Beefsteak Slicing Tomato | 30 Seeds

Want More Color?

Many of these cultivars come in lovely colors including purple, pink, orange, yellow, and even stripes. While I prefer to choose by desired taste qualities, it has to be admitted that the display of a range of colorful varieties is delicious looking. A number of the heritage types and colors are also available in the small cherry tomato group. These would be great for containers.

Even the most compact of Solanum lycopersicum (the Latin name for these plants) are large and sprawling, so if you don’t have much space, choose well. Perhaps a more productive plant or one with smaller fruits for snacking – whatever your favorites may be.

The True Story Of Heirloom Tomatoes

A Little Background On Rediscovering The Old Varieties

Once upon a time people saved seeds and passed them on when they had a plant that produced exceptional fruit or had a particular trait. Sometimes certain strains were particularly good for a particular area, growing well under conditions of heat, humidity, and climate that may have been a problem for other plants. This breeding is still going on today, but the goal for the plants changed from best for consumption to what is best for profits.

beautiful tomato fruits

The old varieties began to be lost as fewer and fewer were being produced by seed houses. Unique flavors, plant traits, and other characteristics began to be lost. As individuals awoke to this loss of plant diversity, there began a movement to track down and salvage these rare horticultural treasures. Just like antique possessions they were heirlooms that were handed down and began to be valued for their unique contributions to our gardens and dining tables.

For this reason, it is good to look for varieties that will thrive and produce well for your garden. Most tomatoes named here are widely adaptable, but if you get bitten by the enthusiasm for the special taste and color of these heritage types of vegetables, you may discover that there are purveyors of a huge range of great cultivars. Don’t be afraid to try a number; you can always give away the extra harvest.

Because tomato plants and produce are subject to problems hybrids were produced to be VFN (which stands for verticillium wilt, fusarium, and nematode) disease resistance. Many of those hybrids have wonderful flavor, too, but they won’t come true from seed the way the heirlooms will.

Tempting To Try

Some lists of old fashioned varieties to try in your garden, grouped by whether you desire certain colors or uses for your produce.

Red/Pink Fruits

  • Red Brandywine
  • Arkansas Traveler
  • Carmello
  • Caspian Pink
  • Cherokee Purple
  • The 1884 Tomato”

Yellow Fruits

  • Gold Medal Tomato
  • Great White 
  • Pineapple
  • Yellow Pear

Paste Tomatoes

  • Amish Paste
  • Mama Leone
  • Opalka

About Growing Tomatoes

Many gardeners love to save their own seeds, and this type of tomato plant is ideal for that. The seeds are easy to harvest and save, and the plants will come true, unlike hybrids.

First, a few general rules. Tomatoes commonly get diseases and are attacked by pests. For this reason gardeners are advised to rotate their crops to different parts of the garden each season. The plants also require hefty amounts of fertility from the soil, and it is a good idea to give the soil a rest and build it up after growing tomatoes there.

Modern hybrids are grown for disease resistance. Not all heirlooms will be resistant to common tomato diseases. Gardeners often prefer them for their taste, not assured success.

Give adequate space to the plants, consider pruning out the excess growth and growing on supports.

Keep the moisture in the ground as even as possible, to avoid cracking and susceptibility to problems.

Start seeds early, but not too early! Around April in Ohio, check the seed packet for recommendations for your area.

Heirloom seeds can be harvested, saved, and grown in years to come.

The quick and dirty guide to growing a good tomato is to be sure that the conditions are right.

  • Full sun
  • Warm weather
  • Regular moisture, but well drained soil
  • Fertility, including amendments

In depth articles for growing delicious tomatoes if you want detailed information and instructions.

Complete guide to growing tomatoes

Care and Maintenance of Solanum lycopersicum