Garden Tips from The Micro Farm Project: Heirloom & Open Pollinated Tomatoes

Open-Pollinated Historical Tomato Varieties in Every Color of the Rainbow!

Do you remember Pinky Tuscadero from the hit television show “Happy Days?” As a kid, she was one of my favorite characters, with her bright pink jacket and sassy attitude. So when one of my favorite growers arrived at the nursery for our weekly growing bazaar with a tomato labeled Pinky Tuscadero, I was hooked. Here was a variety that I had never seen anywhere else, and that’s not all. Flats of tomato starts came in through the door with names like Black Sea Man, Taxi, Dwarf Roselle Purple, Pink Berkeley Tye Dye, and Coyote.  All of the varieties were open pollinated, meaning that they were pollinated without human assistance, and many of the varieties were also heirloom tomatoes. The tomatoes flew off the shelves and the nursery buzzed all day with wonder and the promise of a harvest of tomatoes in every color of the rainbow!

What is an heirloom tomato? Just as heirloom furniture is passed down for its sentimental or antique value from one family member to another over a period of years, an heirloom tomato variety is one that has been passed down, through several generation, because of it’s beneficial characteristics. All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, meaning they are pollinated by natural means. Tomato experts, Craig LeHoullier and Carolyn Male of the “Off the Vine” newsletter, have classified heirloom varieties into four categories:

Commercial Heirlooms: Open-pollinated varieties introduced before 1940, or in circulation for a minimum of 50 years.

Family Heirlooms: Seeds that have been passed down for several generations via a particular family.

Created Heirlooms: Crossing two known parent varieties and dehybridizing the resulting seeds for many years to stabilize the desired characteristics. This process can take 8-10 years, or even longer.

Mystery Heirlooms: Varieties that are produced via natural cross-pollination of heirloom tomato varieties.

All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated and are great for home gardeners who save seed as heirloom tomato seeds will produce the same tomato when planted for the next season. Note that all heirloom tomatoes are open -pollinated, but not all open-pollinated tomatoes, such as Pinky Tuscadero, are heirlooms.


Growing heirloom tomato varieties has its benefits, as well as its drawbacks.


Heirloom tomatoes are selected for their exceptional flavors. Many of them that are highly pigmented also have high nutritional value. The varieties are diverse, unusual and interesting, adding “wow” to your garden spectrum. Some varieties have been saved from extinction, and others have been passed down through families, adding a sense of heritage and history to their cultivation.


Most heirloom varieties are not as disease resistant as hardy nursery stock varieties, and should not be grown in the same garden patch in consecutive years to prevent the spread of blights, leaf spots and Verticillium wilt. They are also favorable to pests, which tend to prefer heirloom varieties. Though many are good producers, their yields tend to be smaller than nursery stock varieties.

Many gardeners who love to grow heirloom varieties for their unique characteristics also grow standard hybrids to improve their yields in a kind of “best of both words” situation. I personally grow both. I am willing to fight diseases and pests to have lovely and unique heirlooms in my garden, but I also grow some proven winners to ensure that I get a bountiful harvest for canning.

Overcoming Heirloom Tomato Drawbacks

Heirloom tomatoes are delicious, gorgeous and stunning in the garden. But they tend to be more fragile than hybrids, both on and off the vine. To maximize your harvest success, follow these guidelines.

1. Plant heirloom tomatoes in a different garden area in successive years to prevent the spread of diseases that can attack and kill your valuable tomato plants. Preferably, if you have planted tomatoes in a particular garden area, it is best to avoid planting tomatoes in that spot again for two more years if you have enough garden space to create a three-year rotation.

2. If you soil is calcium deficient, add some crushed eggshells to the planting hole to help prevent blossom-end rot. Tomatoes also benefit from organic fertilizer that contains phosphorous and potassium.

3. Provide nutrient-rich soil amended with compost and an even watering schedule to keep your plants healthy. Healthy tomatoes resist disease and pests better than weak tomatoes.

4. Watch tomatoes closely and harvest as soon as the fruit is ripe. Plan ahead to eat, cook or preserve heirloom tomatoes quickly once they are harvested.

5. If a ripe tomato spoils or falls from the vine and is inedible, save the seeds! Seeds from heirloom tomato varieties will produce the same plant for you the next season. No need to purchase seeds again next year.

By following these guidelines, you can maximize your harvest and reduce waste in the garden.

Natural Control of Verticillium and Fusarium Diseases

Many of the hybrid tomatoes on the market today have been bred for their resistance to common tomato root diseases caused by Verticillium and Fusarium pathogens. Most heirloom varieties do not share this resistance, and are susceptible to root rot. Actinovate organic treatment can help. Actinovate for Lawn & Garden provides a beneficial microorganism that grows on the plant’s roots and leaves, crowding out and attacking harmful pathogens that can cause disease. When applied to leaves or soil, Actinovate naturally and effectively suppresses many diseases, including spots, blights, rusts, molds and mildews.

A little goes a long way! A 2-oz bag can treat a 5,000 sq, ft. lawn or 550 plants. For best results, reapply as a root drench monthly and as a foliar application every two weeks throughout the growing season.