by Connie Oswald Stofko
When I asked Jen Weber, retail manager at Mike Weber Greenhouses, for recommendations on the best-tasting tomatoes, I expected her to deliberate for awhile. I was surprised when she answered immediately.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Weber said. “‘Cherokee Purple’, and for a red tomato, ‘Glamour’.”
Those are both heirloom tomatoes.
When I asked her for the best-tasting hybrid tomato, that question proved more difficult.
“I don’t have a preference,” she said. “To me, they all taste the same.
“There is nothing wrong with the hybrids. I just prefer the flavor of heirloom varieties. They have that tart-sweet true tomato taste that we all love.”
Well, readers, I turn the question over to you. What hybrid tomato tastes the best? Or do you also prefer heirloom varieties? Please leave a comment below.
Heirloom vs hybrid tomatoes
To be dubbed an heirloom, the seeds for the plant must have been in circulation for at least 50 years and the plant must be open-pollinated, Weber explained.
Open-pollinated plants reproduce by cross-pollination between two plants via wind, insects or people. Or they reproduce by self-pollination between separate flowers on the same plant or between male and female flower parts contained within the same flower.
Because heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated, if you save the seeds and plant them, you can expect to get plants with the same characteristics of the parent plant.
With hybrid tomato plants, two different varieties were intentionally crossed to produce a plant with certain traits, such as a tomato with a nice red color. Some people say hybrid tomatoes look nice, but don’t have the flavor that heirloom varieties do.
But hybrids were also bred to resist disease, which makes them easier to grow than hybrids. When you look at the tag of a hybrid tomato plant, you might see abbreviations such as V1 and F1, which indicate what diseases the plant is resistant to, Weber said. See a list here of tomato disease resistance.
Another advantage of hybrids is they may produce more tomatoes.
But you can’t plant the seeds of a hybrid and expect to get plants with the same characteristics as the parent plant; hybrids don’t produce true seeds, Weber said. The new plants will have DNA from just one of the parent plants that were crossed to produce the hybrid. You’ll end up with the characteristics of one of the parent plants rather than the characteristics of the hybrid itself. In addition, some hybrids are sterile. If you plant the seeds, they won’t even germinate.
These tomatoes are a Cherokee Indian variety pre-1890 from the Tennessee Valley area, Weber said.
‘Cherokee Purple’ can be kidney shaped, round or knobby. It’s not red; it has what Weber calls a lovely deep, dusky purple-pink color with a greenish hue around the stem.
“But the flavor is sweet and juicy!” she said.
The other point gardeners should know is that while you might get only 10 tomatoes on a plant, the tomatoes are large– they can weigh about a pound.
And the plant can grow nine feet tall.
So how do you manage a plant that big?
In a previous article, Weber talked about growing tomatoes in containers, “but don’t grow these in a container!” Weber said.
You can’t use standard tomato cages, either. You need something that will support ten pounds of tomatoes plus the weight of a nine-foot plant.
Get some stakes that are 6 or 7 feet long and 1 inch by 1 inch or 2 inches by 2 inches wide. Place one stake about 1½ feet to the left and the other about 1½ feet to the right of the plant. Use a mallet to pound the stakes about a foot into the ground.
How do you reach the top of a 7-foot-long stake to pound it into the ground?
“I’m short; I’m only five feet tall,” Weber said. “My husband is 6’6″, but if he’s not home, I’ll get a stepladder.”
If you want to go for it, that’s the proper way to stake this huge plant. Or you could just use 4-foot stakes, though the plant might droop a little.
“Some years I go for it, some years I don’t,” said Weber, who like all of us, doesn’t have as much time as she would like to spend in her home garden. “Now that my kids are older, I might have them do it.”
Tie the plant to the stakes using cord that is heavier than twine but lighter than clothesline.
The tomatoes are heavy and they could fall off. Weber suggested tying an old T-shirt or pantyhose to the cord to cradle the fruit.
Cherokee Purple sets fruit mid-season, which is August. (Setting fruit is when the flower begins to turn into the fruit.)
With the weather we had last year, the fruit wasn’t as big as usual and there weren’t as many– maybe as few as two.
Is it worth it to put in so much work for just a couple of tomatoes?
“I really like them, so it’s always worth it,” Weber said. “I always think one is better than none. It’s not like you can buy those in a grocery store.”
There is some local history with this tomato, Weber said. It was bred by the Birds Eye Horticultural Research Laboratory in Albion specifically for the Northeast and Midwest areas of the United States. Two varieties of tomatoes, ‘Burgess Crackproof’ and ‘Sioux’, were open-pollinated together to make this cross breed. Glamour was then released to the Rochester market in 1957.
Glamour meets the definition of an heirloom: it is open-pollinated and the seeds have been in circulation for more than 50 years.
Glamour’s fruit is a beautiful red color and is crack proof. It’s great for both canning and slicing. The tomatoes are the size of a tennis ball and weigh roughly 6 ounces. The plant produces a heavy yield.
The plant is indeterminate, which in tomato language means it needs staking, Weber said. The plant grows about four or five feet tall.
Glamour sets fruit early to midseason. (Early is around the Fourth of July and midseason is August.)
When can you plant tomatoes in Western New York?
You can buy heirloom and hybrid tomato plants now at Mike Weber Greenhouses, 42 French Rd., West Seneca, but can you plant them now?
After a long discussion that touched on our late spring but early full moon (which is one gauge farmers use in determining when to plant), Weber answered, “Yes, you can plant tomatoes now, but I would still wait.”
Weber always recommends waiting until at least May 21.
“You want warm nights (at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit). If you plant too soon, you could stunt the growth of your tomato plant and it won’t recover. It won’t reach its maximum size.”
Other tender vegetables such as peppers, melon and squash want nights that are even warmer– about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If you plant them too early, they’ll rot.
If you want to plant your tomatoes and the other vegetables all at the same time, just wait until the first week of June. They will catch up to– or even surpass– plants that were in the ground earlier.
“People are so antsy to plant,” Weber said, noting that people were looking for cucumber plants in April!
If you want to plant something now that you can be sure cold weather won’t damage, try lettuce, broccoli and onions. Those are available now at Mike Weber Greenhouses.