If you’re only growing one type of tomato this year, it should be this
Every spring, home gardeners face the same thorny dilemma: With so many choices and so little space, what tomato should I grow?
We asked three garden experts — Scott Daigre of Tomatomania!, Mark Anderson of Farmer Mark certified organic farmer’s markets and Yvonne Savio, retired coordinator of Los Angeles County’s Master Gardener program and creator of GardeningInLA — to reveal their tomato faves and tell us where they stand in the ongoing debate over hybrid versus heirloom varieties.
For the uninitiated, heirlooms are typically older varieties that have been reproduced from seed for at least three generations without crossbreeding. Many heirlooms have been handed down within families or communities and are known for their excellent flavor and unusual colors and shapes.
Hybrids are a cross between two tomato varieties, usually bred for specific characteristics, such as disease resistance, productivity or uniform shape or color.
In general, most agree that hybrids aren’t as tasty as heirlooms, but they produce more tomatoes per plant of the same size and shape, they last longer once picked and they have a reputation for being more disease resistant.
However, heirloom fans argue that the old varieties have a history of being disease resistant too, or they wouldn’t have been saved.
Anyway, you get the drift of the debate.
Here’s what our experts have to say on the subject:
Scott Daigre of Tomatomania!, the traveling heirloom pop-up
Impossible to say, with so many varieties and different tastes (Tomatomania is offering 300 varieties this year), but for the first time we have chosen our tomato of the year. It’s a red beefsteak called Madam Marmande, a hybrid using a French heirloom line. We trialed it for the first time last year, and it blew our socks off. It was successful for people across the board, in all different planting areas, and that doesn’t happen very often.
Heirlooms versus hybrids?
We love the stories behind our heirlooms, but they can be more difficult to grow and produce less fruit than hybrids. I tell everyone to grow both. If you only have room for three plants, grow two hybrids, for their productivity and disease resistance, and at least one heirloom, because they’re fun and different, an adventure. Hybrids can be an adventure too, but they’re more success insurance.
Mark Anderson of Farmer Mark certified organic farmer’s markets
My personal preference is Cherokee Purple, an heirloom variety. I really love the deep purple color, and it’s such a meaty variety. ... When you slice into it, it’s all flesh on the inside. It has a smooth but rich flavor. I like the balance of sweetness and acidity; there’s even a savory component to it. It’s an indeterminate variety, which means it can grow really tall and the roots like to sprawl, but it will keep blooming and producing fruit until it’s killed by frost. The fruit are beefsteak size, but with heirlooms you don’t have the uniformity of size, so you can have a 3-pounder and then some half-pounders as well.
Heirlooms versus hybrids?
I kind of always go with nature’s version — heirlooms — because they pack more flavor and nutrient density. In the hybridization process, nutrient density is not one of the primary qualities companies are selecting for. Hybrids are geared toward being sturdier varieties and more productive. If you’re a hobby gardener and not dependent on production, then heirlooms are the way to go, but if you’re dependent on large production and need more security, that’s where hybrids will play into your decision.
Yvonne Savio, creator of GardeninginLA.net
I always grow several plants of Celebrity because, to me, it has the perfect balance of acidity and sugars, the prototypical tomato taste. And it produces lots of tomatoes, even though it’s a determinate type which produces for only a couple months (as opposed to indeterminate types, which keep producing until the plant is killed by frost). Last year I got 84 tomatoes off my two plants between June 16 and Aug. 10.
Heirlooms versus hybrids?
It’s all about taste and production to me. Celebrity is a hybrid, but Black Krim and Cherokee Purple have really big flavors and I grow them too. They’re indeterminate and heirlooms, but on the other hand, with the Cherokee Purple I had only 20 fruits between June 14 and Aug. 20, so in relation to the Celebrity, it’s only half the count. And hybrids are developed for certain characteristics, most of which are resistance to diseases. Green Grape was one of the first heirlooms that people started noticing. It’s delicious, but it keeps being susceptible to diseases and bringing problematic things that can establish in your soil, so at a certain point you have to ask, “Why should I mess around with it anymore?”
What’s your favorite tomato?
We asked the professionals. Now we’re asking you: What’s your favorite tomato, and why? Tell us at Home@latimes.com. If we get enough responses, we’ll include them in an upcoming Saturday section.