How you can Plant, Develop, and Look after Heirloom Tomatoes

I’ll be the primary to let you know how a lot I like hybrid tomatoes, created in labs to assist growers produce these scrumptious fruits in an ever-changing local weather, struggle illness, and chase away pests. Nonetheless, I’m additionally a sucker for the old-timey look and taste of heirloom tomatoes. Nothing compares to those beauties on a Caprese salad with basil contemporary from the backyard and native mozzarella cheese. 

However what makes them so totally different, and why do some growers take into account them particular and invaluable? This text will discover all of that. 

Let’s talk about how you can plant, develop, and take care of heirloom tomatoes


An overhead view of a freshly harvested variety of Heirloom Tomatoes, which includes large, ribbed fruits with thin, shiny skins in bright red, green, purple and yellow, and clusters of cherry tomatoes in bright red, yellow and green.

Botanical Title  Solanum lycopersicum

Plant Kind  Annual fruiting vegetable

Particular Traits Open-pollinated 

Native Space  Mexico and Central America 

Solar Publicity Full solar  

Watering Necessities Average

Soil Kind  Nicely-draining, fertile, loamy

Pests  Tomato and tobacco hornworms, flea beetles

Illnesses Wilt, mosaic virus, leaf spot, blight, anthracnose

Days to Maturity About 60 to 90 days

What’s a Heirloom Tomato? 

A garden bed with different types of heirloom tomatoes producing clusters of large yellow, green and red tomatoes, as well as clusters of small round cherry tomatoes in purple and red.
Heirlooms boast a wealthy historical past and numerous, distinctive traits.

Specialists have outlined heirloom tomato varieties by manufacturing, age, and custom. 

  • They aren’t hybrids and are open-pollinated, that means you may plant a seed from the mom plant, leading to a clone. 
  • Specialists have differing opinions on how outdated a seed should be earlier than receiving heirloom classification, starting from 25 years to pre-WWII
  • Heirloom seeds have been handed down household traces for over 100 years. People have reported members of the family taking heirloom tomato seeds with them as they fled their international locations years in the past, passing down seeds every era.

Heirloom tomatoes supply distinctive marbling, each externally and internally. Shapes, colours, and sizes differ throughout varieties and are sometimes inconsistent all through the rising season or yr to yr. They might look a bit totally different every time they’re grown and have a shorter shelf-life, which is why they’re not normally present in grocery shops. They’re sometimes sweeter and comprise fewer seeds than hybrids. 

What’s So Particular About Heirloom Tomatoes? 

The Mexico midget heirloom tomato is a vigorous, sprawling plant that produces an abundance of tiny, round, deep red fruits when ripe.
Past customary grocery fare, these varieties supply distinctive tales and flavors.

Whereas a few of us have solely ever skilled basic, purple, spherical tomatoes from the grocery retailer, previous generations skilled daring flavors, thrilling colours and textures, and distinctive household tales from their backyard crops. 

We like heirloom tomatoes for his or her distinctive flavors, funky shapes, and, most significantly, the extraordinary familial tales you may’t discover on the grocery retailer—the ‘Amish Paste’ plum tomato dates again to the 1870s, originating from Wisconsinite Amish farmers. And ‘Mexico Midget,’ whose seeds we imagine to be collected from wild tomato crops in Mexico by a truck driver headed to California. Every heirloom tomato seed has an equally enjoyable and thrilling story connected to it. 

How you can Develop

Let’s talk about the fundamentals and some variations that will help you produce the most effective heirlooms this season. 


Close-up of a garden bed with ripening clusters of large, round, smooth-skinned green and orange heirloom tomatoes under full sun.
For optimum development, present a spot in full solar with afternoon shade.

Heirloom tomatoes will carry out finest in full solar and profit from dappled afternoon shade, particularly in excessive summer season temperatures and harsh, direct daylight. Six to eight hours of full solar is an efficient customary to go together with.


The beefsteak tomato covered with drops of water, features robust, irregularly shaped red fruits, with broad, lush green leaves that are deeply lobed and slightly fuzzy.
Keep soil moisture to keep away from cracking.

Water persistently so the soil is moist however not soggy. Heirlooms function skinny pores and skin, which makes consuming them pleasant but in addition makes them extra vulnerable to cracking. Irrigate them continuously however for shorter durations than non-heirlooms. Heirlooms can shortly turn into waterlogged, which causes cracks of their skinny skins.

Present one to 2 inches of water weekly. If in case you have obtained rainfall, use a moisture meter to find out in case your crops want irrigation. Keep away from overhead watering and go for deep root watering to assist maintain foliage dry and crops hydrated. 


Close-up of a gardener's hands with a trowel planting a young tomato seedling in loose, well-drained, dark brown soil.
Optimize tomato development with nutrient-rich, well-draining soil and compost.

Present loamy, fertile, well-draining, nutrient-dense soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. Earlier than transplanting, add a layer of compost to your backyard mattress to assist retain moisture, cut back weed stress, and add natural matter. 

Local weather and Temperature

Close-up of stunning heirloom tomato bushes with clusters of oval, oblong fruits with slightly pointed tips and thin, shiny, bright red skin.
Transplant when temperatures are secure, looking ahead to fungal dangers.

Earlier than transplanting exterior, daytime temperatures needs to be between 70 and 80°F (21-27°C). Monitor in a single day lows and canopy your crops in the event that they anticipate dipping under 50°F (10°C). Whereas they might look superb within the morning, it’s finest to keep away from stressing crops out, because it may have long-term results. 

Humid circumstances improve the chance of fungal illness spreading, so search for signs and take swift motion. 


Close-up of a tomato plant with clusters of ripening oval fruits of bright red color on a raised bed with granular fertilizer.
Take a look at soil, alter vitamins, and fertilize properly for optimum tomato development.

Carry out a soil take a look at earlier than planting to get a baseline and amend as wanted. Add a basic (5-5-5 or 10-10-10), well-balanced fertilizer or a tomato-specific fertilizer on the time of transplant except your plot is already excessive in nitrogen. An excessive amount of nitrogen will trigger your plant to look very wholesome and stuffed with lush, inexperienced foliage, however it is going to lower the fruit yields. 

If utilizing liquid fertilizer, apply when the primary flower seems and weekly or bi-weekly afterward. Some growers choose granular fertilizer, which you’ll side-dress with. Switching to a high-potassium choice when your crops set fruit will encourage extra blooms, leading to extra fruit! 


A close-up of a gardener's hand harvesting a ripe heirloom tomato, which is large, slightly flattened, with distinct ribs and smooth shiny orange skin with a greenish tint on top.
Harvest heirloom tomatoes early to stop cracking and sunscald points.

As heirloom varieties are extra vulnerable to cracking and sunscald than hybrid tomato varieties, harvest them a couple of days sooner than you’d a hybrid. Additionally, take into account your watering schedule and work your harvest days round it. Should you water close to or at their water content material capability, they’re very more likely to crack, so stroll your plot the night earlier than or the morning of watering to keep away from this. 


Close-up of garden pruners trimming tomato suckers from a young plant growing in a sunny garden.
Prune frequently for optimum development and illness prevention.

Pruning is crucial in rising any sort of tomato, however heirlooms can turn into particularly wild if left to their very own gadgets, making this job essential to their success. Take away suckers and pointless leaves and empty trusses frequently to open up house for airflow, lowering the chance of foliar illness. All the time use clear, dry snips to attenuate the chance of spreading illness. 


Propagating heirloom tomatoes is straightforward. You can begin them from seed or take stem cuttings from established crops. 

From Seed

Close-up of young tomato seedlings in a black plastic seed tray in a sunny garden.
Begin tomato seeds indoors utilizing high quality, well-draining soil.

Like different varieties, growers ought to begin heirloom tomatoes from seed indoors. The soil needs to be high-quality and well-draining. Seed corporations advise beginning seeds indoors six to eight weeks earlier than the final anticipated frost date to keep away from leggy or rootbound crops. To search out this date, work backward utilizing a calendar. 

Discover your final frost date, then rely the weeks till the advisable sowing date. That is typically 4 to 6 weeks earlier than the final frost. Sowing instances will differ relying on rising zones, setups, and whether or not heated house is on the market. 

From Stem Cuttings 

Close-up of a woman's hand holding a rooted tomato plant cutting on a blurred background of a tomato greenhouse.
Propagate tomato crops from suckers for extra prolific yields and crops.

You’ll have stem cuttings after performing weekly pruning and suckering of your crops. Suckers are certainly one of a tomato plant’s makes an attempt to breed. The extra stems, the extra flowers and fruits, resulting in extra seeds to unfold! 

Fill a pot with contemporary potting combine and deeply bury a sucker within the pot as you’d transplant a tomato plant. The crops’ adventitious stem will start to produce a brand new root system. Optionally, use root-stimulating hormone to assist the sucker develop roots. Put your pot in a semi-shaded spot for a number of days because it settles in. When roots have developed, your sucker ought to resemble a brand new tomato plant that may be transplanted or given as a present to a gardening good friend. 


Plant your tomatoes out after the chance of frost has handed or right into a protected house with non-obligatory overlaying if wanted. Spacing will depend upon the variability, rising zone, and setup. 

Hardening Off

Woman gardener holding tomato seedlings in crate in a sunny garden to harden them before transplanting.
Progressively harden off tomato crops for resilient, profitable transplanting.

I typically hear gardeners skipping this step, however I strongly advocate taking it critically to your crops’ finest curiosity and long-term success. Slowly permitting crops to acclimate to direct solar, rain, wind, and cooler in a single day temperatures will have an effect on how resilient they’re when transplanted into the bottom. Stress-free, wholesome crops are much less more likely to expertise transplant shock and can stay more healthy and extra productive lives. 

Begin the method 5 to seven days earlier than you wish to transplant them. Don’t go away them exterior till temperatures are persistently above 50°F (10°C), however 60°F (16°C) is most popular. 


Young tomato seedlings have slender, green stems with a slight fuzziness and delicate, bright green, oval-shaped leaves with jagged edges.
House crops adequately for optimum air circulation and illness prevention.

Keep away from pushing the boundaries with heirloom tomato spacing to attenuate the chance of bacterial and fungal illness. Whilst you may plant them a foot aside, illness and pests will shortly unfold, and so they could not have ample respiration room. 

Since heirlooms lack the added layer of illness resistance that some hybrids supply, permitting crops to dry out and obtain ample air circulation is essential. House them at 18 to 24 inches for finest efficiency. 


Close-up of a gardener's hands in white gloves transplanting a tomato seedling into loose, gray-black soil in the garden.
Guarantee thorough watering and correct planting depth for profitable transplanting.

Water your crops nicely earlier than transplanting. Utilizing a trowel, create a gap barely bigger and deeper than your tomato plant by a few inches. Take away any decrease leaves and bury the plant deeply. Encompass it with soil and gently tamp it down for good root-to-soil contact. Water them instantly and optionally cowl them with shade material to assist with transplant shock in scorching climates. 

With so many choices, it’s exhausting to select favorites, however listed here are a couple of varieties you may take into account including to your backyard this season. 

‘Cherokee Purple’

‘Cherokee Purple’ heirloom tomatoes have large fruits with a rich, dusky purple color and green stems.
Develop ‘Cherokee Purple’ for its wealthy taste and historical past.

This tomato is all the time flying off our tables on the farmers’ market, and residential gardeners like to convey house crops within the spring to allow them to develop their very own. Fruits are 10 to 12 ounces with a wealthy burgundy shade and inexperienced shoulders. The inside flesh is juicy and brick-red in coloration. 

The flavour profile is unbeatable, complicated, candy, acidic, and considerably smoky. You possibly can nearly style the historical past! Apparently, ‘Cherokee Purple’ will develop a deep, vigorous root system with out a lot water. As soon as established, crops are drought-resistant however ought to obtain constant and common water when crops start to flower and set fruit. 

Professional tip: Harvest fruits about three days shy of full maturity to keep away from cracking. Set them shoulder-side down and allow them to totally ripen on the counter out of direct daylight.


‘Beefsteak’ heirloom tomatoes covered with drops of water, feature massive, meaty red fruits with a ribbed surface.
Select ‘Beefsteak’ for juicy, two-pound tomatoes, good for summer season dishes.

You possibly can’t go fallacious with ‘Beefsteak’ in case you’re searching for a big, juicy tomato to your summer season burgers and sandwiches. It’s a basic vibrant purple, and fruits can weigh as much as two kilos. 

This selection would require caging or trellising to help the burden of the fruits. Its title comes from a seed catalog’s comparability to an precise beefsteak courting again to 1869. You possibly can’t get historical past like this with hybrids! 


‘Pineapple’ heirloom tomatoes display large, yellow fruits with red marbling and a slightly ribbed appearance.
Get pleasure from ‘Pineapple’ tomatoes with their tropical taste and gorgeous look.

‘Pineapple’ is probably going simply what you’re imagining from the title. Lovely on the skin, candy, acidic, and juicy on the within. The flavour is barely tropical, and the beautiful orange, purple, and yellow marbling may have you reaching to your digital camera. 

Widespread Issues

Heirloom tomatoes are simple to take care of as soon as you recognize what to search for and what your crops want. Right here are some things that might go fallacious. 


Tomatoes affected by cracking exhibit splits in the skin, radiating from the stem.
Stop cracking in tomatoes by managing water rigorously.

Cracking can happen when crops obtain an excessive amount of water and excessive temperatures, and it’s extra widespread in heirloom tomatoes resulting from their skinny skins. Confer with the “Water Necessities” part above for recommendations on how you can water whereas avoiding cracks and splits.  

Low Productiveness 

Close-up of a female gardener's hands picking Cherry Heirloom tomatoes in a sunny garden.
Graft for improved illness resistance and better fruit yields.

Research present that grafting successfully permits growers to plant tomatoes in the identical plot yr after yr, notably in protected rising areas like excessive tunnels. Grafted crops turn into extra proof against soil-borne illness, extra tolerant of fluctuating temperatures, and produce extra fruit. Different methods to extend your plant’s productiveness embody making certain correct soil vitamins, minimizing stress, and stopping illness. 

Blossom-Finish Rot 

Close-up of a gardener's hands showing tomatoes affected by blossom-end rot. They have dark, sunken, leathery spots at the blossom end of the fruit.
Stop blossom-end rot in tomatoes with correct calcium and pH.

Blossom-end rot causes rotten black spots on tomatoes’ blossom ends. It might appear like a illness, however a scarcity of accessible calcium causes it. Easy cultural gardening hacks can remediate future points. 

First, guarantee your soil has no calcium deficiency, which might result in weak cell partitions and poor improvement. Second, test your pH ranges. A pH below 6.0 ties up calcium, making it unavailable to crops. And lastly, water stress and chilly soil can inhibit calcium absorption. The reason for blossom finish rot is most frequently associated to inconsistent watering.


Sunscald on tomatoes appears as pale, whitish patches on the fruit's skin, which becomes thin and papery.
Defend tomatoes from sunburn with afternoon shade or shade material.

Like people, tomatoes can turn into sunburned if not adequately protected against UV rays. Place tomato crops in areas the place they expertise some afternoon shade or use shade material to dam a number of the solar’s direct rays throughout extended intervals of warmth and solar to keep away from sunscald

Leaf Roll

View of a lush tomato plant with ripe, large, pear-shaped fruits with orange-red skin among curled green foliage due to thirst.
Water when leaves curl in scorching climate to stop dehydration.

Should you see leaves curling, particularly on scorching days, your plant could also be indicating thirst. It’s not essentially damaging; water as wanted, and maintain your eye on the plant. There are additionally viral illnesses that trigger leaf roll. We’ll talk about these under, however begin with a daily watering schedule to curb leaf roll.


A hornworm is a large, bright green caterpillar with white and black markings, diagonal white stripes along its sides, and a prominent horn-like projection on its rear end.
Management tomato hornworms with pure predators and proactive administration practices.

Pests love tomatoes, identical to we do! Listed here are some heavy hitters who may come to your scrumptious fruits. 

  • Tomato and tobacco hornworms: One of the harmful tomato pests, these caterpillars can develop to the size and girth of a grown man’s thumb, consuming their manner via your tomato (and pepper) patch in a single day. Scout early and take away any small hornworms you see (their grown kind, the Sphynx Moth, is a fairly cool pollinator!).

    Entice parasitic wasps, ladybugs, and lacewings by planting yarrow, fennel, dill, and cilantro. These predators feed on hornworm eggs. Plant candy alyssum or buckwheat close by to draw trichogramma wasps who will parasitically lay eggs inside hornworms. Depart them be in case you see this; the larvae will feed on the hornworm once they hatch. You may also hand-pick hornworms and transfer them to wild nightshades if you wish to help the grownup type of this insect: the sphinx moth.

Professional tip: Put money into an affordable black mild and hunt for hornworms at night time. They’ll glow within the mild and be simply noticed!

  • Flea beetles: These metallic leaping beetles are small however mighty, inflicting mass destruction in a brief period of time. Cowl younger transplants with insect netting to stop them from being destroyed. Extra mature crops can take extra injury, however it’s best to keep away from it. Delayed planting can even deter flea beetles from selecting your backyard as their house.
  • Aphids: These sap-sucking pests are extra of a nuisance than a real risk to established tomato crops. Nonetheless, you wish to catch their first era as they’ll produce a number of generations in a single season. Not solely do they have an effect on tomato plant development, however the sticky honeydew residue they go away of their wake attracts ants, which might additional inhibit development.

    To take away aphids, blast them with water, prune the affected branches, or hand-pick them. Plant chives, echinacea, coreopsis, and yarrow to lure pure predators like hoverflies and ladybugs to your backyard.

Different pests embody cutworms, leafminers, tomato fruitworms, and tomato mites. As with all pest, it’s important to determine them early and take motion shortly. Begin with mechanical means after which transfer to natural pesticides if vital.


Tomatoes affected by septoria leaf spot display small, circular spots with dark borders and grayish centers on the leaves.
Stop septoria leaf spot with good pruning and fungicidal remedy.

Heirloom tomatoes can’t chase away illnesses like hybrids, so be careful for indicators of the numerous that may plague them. Appropriate identification is essential to deal with correctly!

  • Early blight: Search for brown spots on the leaves and stem simply above the soil floor line within the early season when circumstances are moist and temperatures are above 75°F (24°C). This illness will be fairly harmful to younger transplants. Signs in additional established crops could seem as brown and yellow bullseyes on leaves and leaf shrivel. You possibly can take away broken leaves as they seem to manage the unfold.
  • Fusarium wilt: This fungus impacts the vascular system of tomato crops, inflicting a scarcity of water stream, inflicting wilt and loss of life. It could unfold quickly, destroying massive plots in a brief interval. It begins with wilting leaves after which strikes to all the plant. There is no such thing as a treatment for fusarium wilt.

A number of soil-borne pathogens may cause this illness, which is difficult to deal with as soon as it’s current. Fungicides and mycorrhizal fungi could kill it. To scale back the chance, keep away from soggy water and observe correct crop rotation. 

  • Septoria leaf spot: This fungal illness seems after heavy rainfalls when circumstances are moist, scorching, and humid. Signs embody small, brown, round leaf spots that may ultimately yellow the entire leaf and trigger them to drop. Don’t confuse these completely spherical spots for the irregularly-shaped spots of early blight.

This illness assaults older, weaker leaves first, so to cut back this danger, prune decrease leaves, present good air circulation, and house crops appropriately. Use sulfur or copper fungicides to deal with this illness early and stop its unfold to wholesome foliage. Eliminate contaminated crops utterly, and don’t compost. 

  • Bacterial wilt: When circumstances convey scorching and humid air, micro organism within the soil shortly transfer via the tomato stems, killing your crops nearly immediately. Growers typically assume the recent climate causes this wilt and misdiagnose the difficulty. Take away contaminated crops and throw them away. 

Others embody noticed wilt virus, tobacco mosaic virus, Alternaria leaf spot, Cercospora leaf spot, southern blight, and anthracnose fruit rot. Preserve your backyard tidy and take away particles instantly to keep away from spreading illness which may be harboring on weeds or pruned cuttings. Some disease-causing micro organism can overwinter in particles, soiled instruments, and weeds. All the time follow correct crop rotation, clear instruments, and monitor your crops carefully. 

All the time consult with the product label and advisable dosage when utilizing sprays to deal with illness. 

Ultimate Ideas

The historical past of heirloom tomato varieties presents us a quick glimpse into the previous. Think about your ancestors sitting at a desk having fun with the identical deliciously juicy tomato you get pleasure from immediately. What a deal with! 

Whereas hybrids have their place within the gardening world, I like to recommend including an heirloom or two to your summer season lineup. You possibly can nearly style the historical past. 

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