It probably doesn't surprise you, but I talk about gardening in my real life too. Somehow I have affected many of my friends, co-workers and neighbors enough that several of them are trying their hand at vegetable gardening this year. Some of these people ask me a lot of questions.
The question I hear most often is "What is the difference between hybrid tomato plants and heirloom tomato plants, and which is better?"
The answer to that question can get complicated.
A basic explanation of a hybrid tomato variety is a variety that has been purposely created by selectively cross breeding two or more different tomato varieties to take on positive traits of the parent tomato types. Hybrids are usually noted as "hybrid" or by "F1" or "F2". An F1 hybrid is a filial 1, first generation cross. An F2 or filial 2, is a cross of two F1 hybrid types. If you saved the seeds of most hybrid tomatoes and re-planted them, those seeds would not have the same characteristics as your first planting.
F1 or F2 Hybrid Tomatoes
Heirloom or Open Pollinated TomatoesThe terms Heirloom and Open Pollinated are sometimes used interchangeably. True
Heirloom tomatoes, just like family heirloom possessions, have been passed down from generation to generation. They have not been modified or crossed in any way and to the best of our knowledge, are the same as they were
50 or 100 years ago. When you save the seeds of Heirloom tomatoes and re-plant them, you will get the same tomato again - provided you didn't accidentally create your own hybrid by planting them next to other tomato varieties, thus allowing them to cross-pollinate. Plant breeders began creating hybrid tomato
varieties around 1960, so I don't consider a variety to be a true heirloom unless it can be dated back before 1960.
Open Pollinated varieties, often labeled OP,
are similar to heirlooms since they too will reproduce true to the parent plant if not
allowed to cross.
OP varieties are newer than heirloom varieties, and are technically hybrids that have stabilized to reproduce true.
So What Does All This Really Mean?As a gardener, what does this mean? Which is better, hybrid tomatoes or heirloom tomatoes? That depends on what you are wanting. Many fantastic hybrid tomato cultivars have been created over the years, but many others have sacrificed flavor for traits like uniformity or long keeping.
Many heirlooms are incredibly flavorful and interesting, but are sometimes prone to disease or only produce a few tomato fruits per plant. When I first discovered how delicious heirlooms can be, I wrote a post called The Pros and Cons of Heirloom Tomatoes that goes into the differences in greater detail.
In my garden, I grow a mixture of choice hybrids and heirlooms and that is what I recommend for others.
First decide what you want from your tomatoes. You may be looking for huge beefsteaks, sweet cherries, the best flavor, low acid, early varieties, color varieties, tomatoes for sauce, uniform tomatoes or a number of other traits. Decide what you want and then look for the best tomato varieties that fulfill your criteria. Sometimes the best choice is an heirloom and sometimes a hybrid variety. When possible, I choose one or more of each and have fun discovering which works best in my garden.