Gardening with Laurie: Heirloom, open pollinated tomatoes explained

By Laurie Garretson
March 8, 2012 at midnight
Updated March 7, 2012 at 9:08 p.m.

Laurie Garretson

Laurie Garretson

You certainly don't have to grow vegetables to be a gardener, but millions of home gardeners do have vegetable gardens. Over the past few years, the number of U.S. citizens who plant vegetable gardens has dramatically increased. The most popular crop planted by those gardeners is the tomato.

With the renewed interest in growing vegetables, particularly tomatoes, there is often confusion about all the different varieties. As if it wasn't hard enough to choose which ones to plant from the hundreds of types available, you're also given choices from heirlooms, to opened pollinated, to hybrids. Not to mention organic, GMO and treated varieties. But I'll save those for another time.

I get lots of questions as to what the difference is in heirloom, OP and hybrid types of tomatoes. Let's see if I can shed a bit of information about these three types of tomato varieties.

Open-pollinated tomatoes refers to varieties that have resulted from pollination by insects, the wind or other natural forms of pollination. Seeds saved from this type of tomato can be saved, planted the next season, and the new plant will produce tomatoes with the characteristics of the parent plant from which the seeds came from.

As with other types of OP crops, especially pumpkins and squash that can also be pollinated by insects and the wind, you don't want to plant OP varieties close together. Seeds saved from OP crops should not be planted close together. Seeds saved from home gardens can many times be cross pollinated because of the close proximity of different plant varieties.

The fastest way to define heirlooms would be to simply say they are OP tomatoes developed prior to the 1940s. Heirloom tomatoes are varieties of tomatoes that have been passed down over the years from gardener to gardener.

Fortunately, various seeds saving organizations have helped to preserve many of these very old varieties of OP heirloom seeds. Heirloom tomatoes have become very popular. You don't get a high yield from heirlooms, but you do get the wonderful homegrown flavor that is missing from so many of the hybrid varieties.

During the 1960s, hybrid varieties of tomatoes came on the scene. Hybrid tomatoes are developed by taking two types of tomatoes that each produce identical offspring when self pollinated. The two plants are cross pollinated to produce a plant that has the best characteristics of both parent plants.

Hybrid seed breeders work to develop seeds that are more disease resistant, more uniform in size, shape and color, more heat tolerant, produce more tomatoes and other various traits. Seeds saved from any type of hybrid plant probably will not grow plants true to the parent plant. Hybrid seeds are seldom saved.

Until next time, let's try to garden with nature, and not against it, and maybe all our weeds will become wildflowers.

Laurie Garretson is a Victoria gardener and nursery owner. Send your gardening questions to or in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77902.



Powered By AffectDigitalMedia