Heirloom tomatoes are all the rage today. You’ll find them at farmers’ markets and up-scale restaurants. Everyone seems to be talking about heirloom tomatoes.
Personally, when I choose tomatoes (and many other plants) to grow in the garden I don’t look for heirlooms; I look for F1 hybrids. So while heirlooms tomatoes are getting all of the attention right now, I want to explain why I grow hybrids.
Heirlooms are plant varieties that have been around for a long time. In the case of tomatoes, the plants have been selected by gardeners and farmers for certain traits, for example, taste. Each year seeds are collected from the tastiest tomatoes until a fairly stable variety is developed. These tomatoes often have interesting shapes and colors. If you want to save seeds from this year’s tomatoes to plant next year, heirlooms let you do this.
F1 hybrid plants are different. These are made by taking two parent plants and crossing them – putting the pollen of one plant onto the pistil of the other plant. The resulting seed is an F1 hybrid – F1 stands for filial 1, the first generation of a cross. These hybrids combine the best of both parents. For example, a good tasting tomato is crossed with a blight resistant tomato to produce a uniform F1 hybrid that tastes good and is blight resistant. Plant breeders work for years to produce the best F1 hybrids. These seeds cost more than heirloom seeds because of the work involved in crossing the plants and you can’t save the seeds. If you do, the resulting plants will lose their uniformity and revert back to the parental lines.
I’m an F1 hybrid tomato grower and here are some reasons why.
I spent my college years studying plant breeding and worked 2 summers in the corn breeding program at Harris Seeds. I appreciate the science and artistry that goes into producing F1 hybrids. Because of this, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m biased when it comes to hybrids!
But it’s not just my personal history that makes me choose them. I appreciate that F1 hybrid tomatoes offer levels of disease resistance that aren’t found in heirlooms. The Johnny Seeds catalogue has pages of tomatoes from which to choose. All of the F1 hybrid tomatoes have various levels of resistance to blight and other diseases. The heirlooms that Johnny sells are described in terms of taste and size – disease resistance isn’t mentioned because it’s seldom present in heirloom varieties.
The other reason that I like hybrids is because of a phenomenon called “hybrid vigor.” Early plant breeders noticed that F1 hybrids grew better than their individual parental lines. The act of crossing two plants produces progeny that are much more vigorous. Scientists still can’t explain exactly why this happens but it does. F1 hybrid tomatoes produce more fruit than heirlooms because of hybrid vigor.
So that’s why I grow F1 hybrid tomatoes. I appreciate the disease resistance of these plants. The uniformity of hybrids and their vigor are important to me. But if I was looking for unusual tomato shapes and colors, if I wanted to grow plants that my grandparents might have grown or if I liked to save my own seeds, I’d grow heirlooms.
Whether you grow tomatoes that are heirloom or F1 hybrid, one thing is certain – home-grown tomatoes taste better than anything you can buy in the grocery store!