It’s cold outside, but the sky is blue, the sun is shining through your windows, and seed catalogs are arriving daily in the mail. Spring is just around the corner. This is the year. You’re going to grow your own tomatoes.
So you pick up a catalog from the growing pile and turn to the tomatoes pages. My word, there’s a lot to choose from. And what are all these words? Hybrid? That’s a car, isn’t it? Heirloom? Determinate? Indeterminate? Cordon? Bush? Oh dear, it all seems far too difficult. You close the catalog and wave farewell to your final New Year’s resolution.
Don’t give up so fast. The terms are really quite easy to understand. Let’s go through them.
Hybrid Tomatoes and Heirloom Tomatoes
The terms hybrid and heirloom are related to one another and describe the “pedigree” of the particular variety.
Hybrid tomatoes could be called “designer” tomatoes. They have been deliberately crossbred in order to achieve particular traits, such as disease resistance, uniformity of size and color, and heavy cropping.
Crossbreeding is a labor-intensive, and therefore expensive, technique that involves removing the pollen-bearing organs from the flowers of one variety of tomato, then manually transferring pollen to those flowers from another variety of tomato plant. It can take several years to arrive at a new hybrid variety.
It is, in fact, analogous to the hybrid car, which uses the mixture of a normal gasoline powered engine and an electrical drive system to achieve the traits of better gas mileage and lower atmospheric and noise pollution.
Heirloom varieties are left to pollinate naturally; so-called open pollination. The seeds of an heirloom tomato are retained each year for germination the following year.
They have been selected because their traits—usually taste and disease resistance—are considered superior to most others. Some varieties are over 70 years old.
There are different categories of heirloom tomato:
· Commercial heirlooms are varieties that have been around for 50 or more years
· Family heirlooms have been passed along through several generations of a family
· Created heirlooms are actually hybrids that have been intentionally crossbred, but then nurtured over several years to retain and stabilize the positive traits.
So how do you choose? It’s a bit like choosing wine. You need to try it before you know if you will like it. The seed catalogs describe the traits, so choose one or two with traits that appeal to you. Better yet, go to a supermarket that specializes in organic and natural produce and taste various tomatoes when they are in season. Don’t forget to make a note of those you may wish to grow.
A couple of notes about heirloom tomatoes. First, heirlooms can look unattractive when compared to the typical bright red, smooth-skinned tomatoes found in the supermarket. However, they have been kept for a reason and that is normally the taste. Second, the term heirloom is usually associated with superiority and therefore commercial interests have begun to misuse the term similarly to the misuse of the word “organic.”
Determinate Tomatoes and Indeterminate Tomatoes
Once more (and quite obviously) these terms are related to each other. They refer to the growth habit of the variety.
Determinate tomatoes, also known as bush tomatoes, are bred to grow to a compact height, generally not more than four feet. They stop growing when the reach a certain height, normally not more than four feet. They also crop very quickly, with all of the fruit maturing over a period of a month or two.
Indeterminate varieties, also known as cordon tomatoes, continue to grow and produce fruit throughout the summer. Because of this, they either require staking for support, or you can leave them to lie on the ground.
So once more you have a choice to make, but this one is even easier. How much space do you have? If you are growing tomatoes in a grow bag in your apartment, you are likely to want a determinate variety if you don’t want the plants taking over your space. In the garden, your choice depends more on the cropping habit.
If you want to crop lots of tomatoes at once to make and sell your grandmother’s pasta sauce, choose a determinate. If you like to eat tomatoes all summer long, then an indeterminate is for you.
There is nothing better than eating a tomato straight from the vine. Now you know the four most important terms when choosing to grow tomatoes from seed, take the plunge. You won’t regret it.