Hybrid tomatoes have been created by crossing two selected varieties, usually chosen for specific qualities, such as longer shelf life. They sometimes result in vigorous plants with a higher yield than heirlooms. There are different sizes and types - cocktail, medium and beefsteak - but within those categories they are fairly similar in size, colour and flavour. It is important to note that hybrid garden seed is not the same as genetically modified seed.
Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated (non-hybrid) cultivars that have been grown by families for many generations. There is a much greater range in shape, size, colour and flavour.
So why choose heirloom seeds?
1. Many gardeners do so for the flavour of the crop. This applies specially to tomatoes. Heirloom vegetables have been saved for decades and even centuries because they are the best performers in home and market gardens.
2. Heirloom vegetables are likely to be more nutritious than newer varieties. However, opinions differ on this point. Certainly it is claimed that some of the orange and black or purple tomato varieties are higher in antioxidants then modern varieties. In the past vegetables were grown organically and today a growing voice of opinion favours organic methods to produce nutritionally dense food crops.
3. Most varieties of Heirloom tomatoes don't ripen all at once. The plant continues to produce fruit throughout the season until stopped by frosts. Hybrids produce their crop over a shorter span of time, an advantage for commercial growers.
4. Heirloom tomatoes come in a range of shapes, sizes and colours as well as round and red. Some examples are:
• heart-shaped as in the Oxheart varieties;
• fluted e.g. Purple Calabash or Zapotec;
• long e.g Green Sausage, Orange Banana, or the Roma paste tomatoes;
• plum shaped e.g. Yellow Plum
The sizes vary from small cocktail varieties in round, plum or pear shapes to fruit that can weigh over 500 g (1 lb), such as Mortgage Lifter.
As well as red, heirloom tomatoes come in an amazing array of colours: pink, yellow, orange, white, green and a very dark brownish-red that can be classed as black, purple or chocolate. Added to this are the striped, speckled and blotched varieties with two or more colours.
The amount of sweetness and acidity varies. The colors normally determine the amount of acidity - darker colors are more acidic and lighter colors are less acidic.
Generally, a red tomato tends to have a greater amount of sweetness and green more tartness, but there is a considerable range and balance of these two qualities.
Yellow and orange varieties usually have a milder and sweeter flavor with less acid while purple and black varieties tend to have a rich, acidic flavor.
5. Unlike modern hybrid varieties, heirloom tomatoes come true from seed. This enables you to save seed from your crop to grow next season and to exchange with other growers, a cost-effective way of trying other varieties.
There is much more that can be said in favour of sowing heirloom seeds. Of course a number of people disagree and insist that hybrid seed is superior. Why not buy and grow some heirloom tomato seeds and see which side you are on?
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