5 Great Varieties of Heirloom Tomatoes

In a world that worships the new, sometimes older is better. For me, that’s true with tomatoes. While modern hybrid tomatoes look great and are very productive, the old heirloom varieties have the taste and look of “real” tomatoes.

What’s an Heirloom?

Heirloom tomatoes are those varieties grown prior to World War II. They often are regional varieties from around the world that have been passed down within families.

Heirloom tomatoes differ from the modern hybrids on a number of counts. Heirlooms tend to have a wider variety of fruit colors and shapes. The fruits are softer, so they are more difficult to ship long distances. That’s why they aren’t as available commercially as modern hybrids.

The fruits have a good blend of sweetness and tomato flavor. On the downside, some heirlooms have more disease problems and are so regionally adapted they may not grow well in all parts of the country. To help guide you, I’ve described five of my favorites.

Five Favorite Heirloom Tomatoes

All of the varieties listed are indeterminate (they keep growing and producing fruit all summer until frost). The days to maturity are calculated from transplanting to first harvest.

Big Rainbow (90 days). This attractive, bicolored, beefsteak type features 2-lb. golden orange fruits, with light yellow shoulders and red streaks throughout the flesh.

Heirloom tomatoes.
Photo courtesy of the
National Gardening Association.

Black Cherry (65 days). This large, round cherry tomato features chocolate-black fruits. The fruits are produced in abundance and have a rich, earthy, complex flavor.

Brandywine (85 days). Originally from the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania, this is probably the most widely known heirloom variety. One-pound fruits are pink, red or yellow, depending on the strain, and have a perfect blend of sugars and acids. The plants feature unusual potato-shaped leaves.

Consoluto Genovese (78 days). This Italian heirloom is known for deep red, juicy, heavily ribbed fruits that produce well in hot weather.

Stupice (52 days). This Czech Republic heirloom is very cold-tolerant. Plants produce very early, 2-ounce red fruits.

Growing Heirloom Tomatoes

You can grow heirloom tomatoes from seed or transplants. Heirloom tomato transplants are easier to grow and are becoming more readily available at local nurseries and online.

If you use seed, sow them indoors six to eight weeks before your last frost date in 2-inch-diameter pots filled with sterilized seed-starting soil. Thin the seedlings to one per pot after germination, and keep them under grow lights for 14 hours a day. Keep the lights within inches of the seedling tops.

Water and feed the transplants lightly. Once they are 6 inches tall, transplant into a 4-inch-diameter pot. One week before setting them into the garden, harden off the transplants by setting them outdoors for a few hours each day.

For container growing, plant in a 12-inch-diameter pot filled with potting soil. In the garden, amend the soil with compost, and stake or cage these varieties to keep them upright.

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Charlie Nardozzi, a nationally recognized garden writer, book author, speaker, and radio and television personality, has appeared on HGTV, PBS and Discovery Channel television networks. He is the senior horticulturist and spokesperson for the National Gardening Association and chief gardening officer for the Hilton Garden Inn.