The Blog

Hybrids versus Heirlooms (and the Truth About GMOs)

For many people, a tomato is a tomato. As long as it meets the three criteria—ripe, round and red—they’re happy to place a slice on their favorite sandwich and enjoy. But did you know that Mitchell’s Nursery sells a wide variety of tomato plants? Each has its own benefits. No type is necessarily better. It simply comes down to what the grower is seeking in their crops.

Hybrid Tomatoes

Hybrid tomatoes are the type you’re most likely to find at your local supermarket—although it should be noted that the hybrids you grow in your garden might have a richer flavor than the ones at your nearby store. Hybrids have been crossbred with other tomatoes to have positive characteristics. While savory in their own right, hybrid tomatoes are really bred to resist pests and diseases. They also have firmer flesh and thicker skin—this is needed when they’re being harvested by machines, so they remain whole instead of becoming sauce in the process. Some people prefer that firmness while slicing tomatoes—plus, the thick skin contains the juice inside better. If you’re in the mood for a bite-sized treat, we also sell cherry tomato plants.

Hybrid tomato seeds come from cross-pollination between two different varieties of tomatoes, which can occur from bees or by hand. If you were to save the seeds from a hybrid tomato and plant them the following year, the tomato plants will differ from the parent plant. In commercial seed operations, they take much care to keep the different varieties separated, so one variety won’t get pollen from the wrong plant. Commercial seed producers will take pollen by hand from the flowers of selected plants and then add it to other plants—similarly to how bees do. This can deliver natural disease resistance from a plant to one that already has a good flavor or large fruit.

When you look at the tag on a hybrid tomato plant, you’ll notice the info often begins with initials. Those letters represent the diseases that the plant has been bred to resist. Here is a helpful list:

V = Verticillum Wilt

F or FF = Fusarium Wilt

N = Nematodes

T = Tobacco Mosaic Virus

A = Alternaria Leaf Spot

Heirloom Tomatoes

By contrast, heirloom tomatoes have been grown without crossbreeding for at least 40 years. If you take the seeds from an heirloom tomato, carefully store them, and then plant them in the spring, their tomatoes will taste just like the previous year’s crop. Another characteristic of heirloom tomatoes is their open-pollination, as pollen is distributed naturally through such items as wind and bees. Again, this differs from commercial hybrids, which are pollinated by hand to ensure the correct combination of traits. If you invest in heirlooms, you might wish to purchase a quality repellant, since they don’t have the natural repellant of hybrids. Heirloom plants also typically produce fewer fruit than other varieties—but their tomatoes are usually large, and the taste is phenomenal!

Mitchell’s Nursery has an awesome assortment of heirloom plants, including German Johnson, Mr. Stripey, Cherokee Purple, Rutgers, Marglobe, Big Boy, Jubilee, Black Krim, Brandywine, and Mortgage Lifter. All of them produce robust sandwich-slicers.

GMOs

A common question nowadays: Which tomatoes contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? The answer is, none of them! Some of you might recall the Flavr Savr tomato, which was lab-engineered to have a longer shelf life in the 1990s. While the Flavr Savr saved flavor, it didn’t save cost. Their production was too expensive and the demand too little. Scientists are continuing to allegedly improve the tomato, as well as find other uses for it—including making them carriers for edible vaccines. However, as of this writing, there are no genetically modified tomatoes available commercially.

Determinate vs. Indeterminate

Maybe you want your tomato plant to reach a certain height—or maybe you’re aiming to set a Guinness World Record for the longest vine. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Determinate varieties are exactly what their name suggests. Their characteristics are already determined. They’ll stop growing at a certain height. Most of their fruit matures within a few months, appearing at the end of their branches. Determinate tomato plants are popular with folks who want most of their tomatoes at once, such as for canning or making sauce.

Perhaps you prefer to put your plant in the soil and let it grow without a limit. Indeterminate varieties continue to grow and produce tomatoes all throughout the season. This is why they need extra-tall supports of at least 5 feet. If you don’t prune them, no harm is done—just know that they could eventually take up a lot of space.

Homegrown vs. Supermarket

Of course, there’s the big question: Why grow your own tomatoes when you can drive down the road and purchase them at a supermarket? Fresh garden-to-table produce often provides more nutrients than the fruits and veggies at your local supermarket. Plus, supermarket produce can be picked green and grown in varieties that ship better but don’t necessarily taste better. That’s not to discount our friends at large retailers. If you need a tomato or two for that potluck dish due yesterday, their tomatoes will do fine! But, there is something so satisfying about biting into a plump, juicy, delicious tomato that you grew yourself.

Why do homegrown and farmers market tomatoes have more flavor? For more info on the difference between homegrown and supermarket tomatoes, click here.

Conclusion

So, which tomato plants are right for you? They all share at least one thing in common: deliciousness. Either will taste great on your sandwich or salad. With the right care, any of them will produce fruit sure to please you and those you serve. Come see us at Mitchell’s Nursery & Greenhouse in King, NC. Consider us your local tomato plant provider. We’ll be glad to show you our plants and help you decide which ones best suit your goals.