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What Are Heirloom Tomatoes?

By Ms. Susan M. Collins-Smith, MSU Extension Service

Heirloom tomatoes have distinctive characteristics that set them apart from other types of tomatoes.

Heirloom tomatoes are defined by three characteristics:

  1. Production. Heirlooms are open pollinated and are not hybridized. You’ll get a 99.9999% match to the fruit you save seeds from year after year if you save the seeds correctly.

  2. Age. They’re old. However, the distinguishing line depends on who you ask. Some say heirlooms must be 25 years old, while some say 50 years old. Still, there are others that say they must be even older to be considered an heirloom. Heirloom varieties were more prevalent before World War II, so for some, only varieties that existed before 1945 are considered heirlooms.

  3. Tradition. Heirloom tomato seeds originally were handed down in families, much like beloved furniture or dishes.

Heirloom tomatoes come in lots of different colors, sizes, and shapes.

How do I grow them? Heirlooms can be grown from seed or from transplants at garden centers. If you want to grow from seeds, they need to be started 6 to 8 weeks before you plan to transplant. For Mississippi gardeners, that means you should plant your seeds in mid-February. If you want to try a wider variety than you can find at the local garden center, start planning for next year right now.

Extension Publication 3436, “Homegrown Flower, Herb, and Vegetable Transplants” helps you understand how to successfully start plants from seeds at home.

Can I grow any variety of heirloom tomato? You can try any variety, but you’ll have more success with varieties suited to our climate. There are hundreds of heirloom varieties, and each is bred to thrive in different areas of the country. So be sure to choose varieties that will do well in Mississippi’s hot, humid summer. Extension Horticulturist and host of Southern Gardening Gary Bachman has tried growing over 100 different varieties in recent years. He’s had success with Black Ethiopian, Angora Super Sweet, Cherokee Purple, and Homestead.

Where do I get the seeds? If your family doesn’t hand down tomato seeds and you can’t find a wide variety at the local garden center, don’t worry. You can order heirloom seeds from catalogs and online. Once you find a variety you like, you can keep the seeds and plant them the next year. For more information on heirloom tomatoes, read Gary Bachman’s previous Southern Gardening columns on the subject:

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