Heirloom Tomato Plants: What Is An Heirloom Tomato

Bowl Of Heirloom Tomato Plants
(Image credit: tvirbickis)

"Heirloom” is a popular buzzword in the gardening community these days. In particular, heirloom tomatoes have received a lot of attention. This can leave some gardeners asking, “What is an heirloom tomato?” and “What are the best heirloom tomato varieties?” Never fear, a whole world of delicious and unusual tomatoes awaits you once you know the answers to these questions.

What is an Heirloom Tomato?

The strict definition of an heirloom tomato (or heritage tomato in the UK) is a tomato variety that has been open pollinated propagated for more than 50 years, but most people today consider any open pollinated (non-hybrid) tomato as an heirloom tomato. Heirloom tomatoes can be almost any color imaginable (including white and black), and many varieties have wild shapes, color combinations, and markings. You can get heirloom tomato varieties that are hollow inside, shaped like sausages, as small as your pinky nail, and even multi-lobed so they can be torn apart. Heirloom tomato varieties come from many different places and new varieties are found every year. Some varieties are handed down from one family generation to the next or grown only in a small geographic region of the world, others were popular varieties many years ago that simply became forgotten, while others are developed by tomato enthusiasts. This means that you can find heirloom tomato varieties that are suited for almost any climate imaginable in the world.

What Are the Best Types of Heirloom Tomatoes?

There is no hard and fast answer to what the best heirloom tomatoes are. This is because an heirloom tomato variety that tastes and grows wonderfully in one area may not do well at all in another area. Heirloom tomatoes typically are bred to do well in very specific areas and climates. When choosing an heirloom tomato to grow in your garden, it's best to ask around to see what others in your area enjoy growing. Local Master Gardener programs and your local extension service are great places to find people who will be happy to provide some suggestions. Locally written garden blogs are also a good place to find suggestions. You can check where an heirloom tomato originated from as well to help with choosing the best heirloom tomatoes for your garden. If the heirloom tomato was developed in an area that has a climate like yours, then it will do well where you are too. That being said, there are a few heirloom varieties that are considered to be “starter” heirloom tomatoes because they tend to do well in many different types of growing areas. These heirloom tomato plants tend to be available at many home and garden centers as well as smaller plant nurseries. Some of them are:

  • Cherokee Purple tomato
  • Brandywine tomato
  • Hillbilly tomato
  • Mortgage Lifter tomato
  • Amish Paste tomato
  • Yellow Pear tomato

Where Can I Find Heirloom Tomato Seeds?

Heirloom tomato seeds can either be bought from catalogs or can be traded for from other gardeners. Some popular places to buy heirloom tomato seeds are:

Where Can I Buy Heirloom Tomato Plants?

If growing heirloom tomato seeds makes you nervous, this doesn't mean you can't grow heirloom tomatoes in your garden. As mentioned, you can find a small number of heirloom tomato varieties available at local home and garden centers, but why limit yourself? In recent years, due to the increased interest and demand for heirloom tomatoes, a nice cottage industry has sprung up where you can buy heirloom tomato plants online. Two popular heirloom tomato plant growers are:

Go wild. Amaze your friends and family. Grow an heirloom tomato in your garden this year and you will not be disappointed.

Heather Rhoades
Founder of Gardening Know How

Heather Rhoades founded Gardening Know How in 2007. She holds degrees from Cleveland State University and Northern Kentucky University. She is an avid gardener with a passion for community, and is a recipient of the Master Gardeners of Ohio Lifetime Achievement Award.