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The Great Competition

Those of us who enjoy growing open pollinated (non-hybrid) vegetables are constantly bombarded with warnings of the doom and gloom that will inevitably strike our gardens. The words shriek at us from articles in newspapers, seed catalogs, nurseries, and even some of the popular gardening shows on television. “In order to have reliable yields, high quality and the best flavor, you must grow hybrids!” “It is foolhardy, and a total waste of time, to grow varieties in your gardens that have been surpassed by such obviously superior varieties!” Alas, it must be true. Just go to the local nursery and see what sort of tomato seedlings, or even seed packs, they carry. Or, take a trip to the local farmer’s market in the summer, and check out all of the carbon copy, perfect looking red globes that are masquerading as tomatoes! They can fill a basket with ‘em, and days later, even the bottom ones are as shiny, pretty and perfect as can be!

But, as is the case with many things that are pleasurable to the eye, it is what you cannot see that counts the most. Buy some of those prize winning tomatoes, bring them home, slice them down, and take a bite! What sort of adjectives come to mind? The ones that I use most frequently are dry, bland, tasteless, worthless, and even dangerous (I am sure that, if hit with one of those hybrid commercial tomatoes, severe damage would occur!). Well, this was my mindset back in 1986, when I finally grew tired of my hybrid-infused garden plot. Sure, there are good hybrid tomatoes available, ones that are more succulent than the types that the local farmers and other commercial growers seem to need to grow. They have to be able to sell them to a public that has been programmed to expect its tomatoes scarlet, round, firm and perfect. But, this did not satisfy my yearning for better tasting, more interesting looking vegetables.  Isn’t it ironic, then, that it is the past, not the high technology future, that provided the answer to my search. It was when I joined the Seed Saver’s Exchange, and started to dabble in the multitude of treasures that they made accessible, that my gardening experience became one of fulfillment, wonder and excitement. Needless to say, I jumped right in with total abandon; no looking back for me. Ah, but there were all of those warnings to be concerned with. Could I possibly grow these disease-prone, obsolete, low yielding varieties successfully, and have anything to show for my efforts aside from some blemished, misshapen fruit on spindly, disease-ridden vines?

Being a scientist, I felt that the best way to approach this issue was to carry out an experiment. So, in 1987, I grew, side by side, some of the most popular hybrid tomatoes with a few of the more highly regarded and “famous” heirlooms. Records were kept with regard to maturity dates, yields, fruit size, flavor, and observations about how each variety held up to disease. When all was said and done at the end of the growing season, I could compare the total number of tomatoes and total weight of fruit per plant, and develop a feeling for the performace of each variety with regard to flavor and visual interest. The results were so fascinating that my original one year experiment with a limited number of varieties was expanded to three years, and eventually involved lots of different tomatoes of all sizes, colors, and shapes. The best way to judge the results is to look at where my garden efforts have become focused, as I have now moved almost exclusively into growing open pollinated varieties. There is simply very little, if any, reason for the home gardener to restrict themselves to hybrids.

Since I have never shared the results of this experiment with anyone (except my family), I feel that this is a good time to do so, in hopes that it will have several effects on the readers. If you had doubts about delving into the world of heirloom tomatoes, maybe this will persuade you to join in the fun. If you are already a convert, then this will just confirm what you already have discovered. And, it also gives you a good idea about what to expect from many tomatoes that you may have been interested in, but have never grown.

Are you ready? Here goes! (By the way, the majority of the varieties are indeterminate, and were grown on stakes and pruned to 2 or 3 main stems. The determinate varieties  (“D” in the table) were not pruned).


Variety

Days

Total number

Average wt., oz.

Total wt., lbs

Flavor

1987  (Garden in Berwyn, Pennsylvania)

Open Pollinated

Yellow Cherry

63

773

0.2

9.25

A-

Tiger Tom

64

172

2

21.5

A-

Czech’s Ex. Yel.

71

141

3

26.5

B+

Sugar Lump

72

581

0.5

18.1

B+

Fireball (D)

68

58

5.6

20.6

B-

Veeroma (D)

80

220

2.5

34

B-

Super Marmade (D)

79

81

5.5

28

B+

Nepal

82

60

7

26.5

A

Pineapple

85

23

14.6

22.3

B+

Persimmon

86

39

13.5

33

B+

Ruby Gold

83

30

16.6

31.3

B+

Brandywine

77

32

8.4

16.7

A-

Abraham Lincoln

63

69

5.2

22.2

B+

Hybrids

Better Girl

65

49

6.5

19.7

A

Moreton

80

40

5.6

14

B

Lemon Boy

89

58

6.9

25.2

A

Ultra Boy

83

35

9.7

21.3

A-

Supersteak

85

13

13.5

11

B+

 

1988  (Garden in Berwyn, Pennsylvania)

Open Pollinated

Hungarian Ital. (D)

78

24

3.5

5.1

B-

Bisignano #2

67

45

8.2

23.1

A-

Glesener

85

25

9.9

15.6

A-

Brandywine

89

16

10.8

10.8

A-

Abraham Lincoln

67

57

6

18.7

B+

Sabre

82

34

9.9

21.1

B

Ponderosa

80

22

8.1

11.2

B

Yellow Brimmer

101

8

16

8

B+

Valencia

74

33

8.2

16.9

B+

Peron

74

17

7.5

7.9

A-

Oregon Spring (D)

70

63

3.2

12.8

B

Rutgers

87

33

9.8

20.1

B+

Wayahead (D)

66

35

2.5

5.6

B-

Hybrids

Big Pick

72

44

6

16.4

A

Early Cascade

66

90

3.3

18.8

B-

Whopper

73

49

6.2

18.9

A-

Better Boy

67

47

7.1

20.8

A

Firebird

68

50

6

18.8

A-

Gurney Girl

67

34

6.5

13.9

A

Big Girl

73

57

6.6

23.5

B

Ultra Sweet

67

44

6.7

18.1

B

 

1989  (Garden in West Chester, Pennsylvania)

Open Pollinated

Ester Hess Yel. Ch.

67

739

0.6

27.7

B

Yellow Bell

70

245

3

45.9

A-

Hunt Family Fav.

57

57

8.1

28.9

A

Fritsche

71

56

5.8

20.3

A-

Lillian’s Red

70

45

7.1

19.5

A

Sutton

58

44

8.1

22.4

B+

Banana Legs (D)

59

43

3

8.1

B

Viva

78

39

10.9

26.5

B+

Hugh’s

81

35

19.5

42.7

A-

Holy Land, yel.

71

32

10.3

20.5

B

Anna Russian

68

34

8.4

17.9

A

Rockingham

67

28

6.5

11.3

A-

Firesteel

73

34

7.2

15.4

B+

Wolford Wonder

67

28

15.9

27.8

B

Polish

73

23

15.5

22.3

A

German Gar. Time

80

23

14.6

20.9

B-

Believe it or Not

71

21

19.2

25.3

A-

Georgia Streak

68

21

16.1

21.1

B+

Goldie

70

27

14.9

25.2

B+

Golden Oxheart

77

27

8.9

15

A

Tappy’s Finest

72

23

16

22.9

A-

Old Brooks

69

19

10.7

12.7

A-

Pruden’s Purple

72

18

13.6

15.3

A-

Mort. Lift., Pesta

75

17

22.1

23.4

B+

Tice Yel. Bet. Boy

67

13

9.4

7.6

B+

Yellow Oxheart

79

16

10.9

10.9

A

Lillian’s Yellow

103

11

16.7

11.5

A-

Yellow White

70

13

17.6

14.3

B+

A. Rahart Jum. Red

87

10

12

7.5

A-

Hybrids

Sweet Million

59

1045

0.5

32.5

A

JSS361 (D)

62

22

6

8.3

A-

Jumbo Tom

80

15

19.5

18.3

A-

Valley Girl (D)

74

52

6.7

21.8

B

Granted, there is ALOT of data in these tables. To get you started on the key points of the data, here are some of the highlights:

  • The idea was not to show necessarily that all heirlooms or open pollinated tomatoes are superior in all respects to hybrids. In truth, the data shows that there are excellent and average examples in both categories. In fact, the data shows perhaps how variable the open pollinated varieties are when compared to the somewhat more consistent (in terms of yield) hybrids. This, along with the fragile, relatively higher perishability, is probably why hybrids will always be more popular to commercial growers. Home gardeners do not have these concerns, however.
  • The gardens in 1987 and 1988 were more concerned with comparison growing, as can be seen from the numbers of hybrids in the trials. By 1989, I had become convinced that open pollinated was the way to go, so had fewer hybrids in the trials. To be fair, with the exception of Moreton, Supersteak, Early Cascade, Big Girl, and Ultra Sweet, the hybrids did very well in terms of yield and flavor. However, none of the hybrids were superior to the best of the open pollinated varities Nepal, Brandywine, Anna Russian, and Polish, to name but a few of the superb heirlooms that were tested.
  • None of the hybrids came close to the yields from Ruby Gold, Yellow Bell, or Hugh’s. On the flipside, none of the hybrids yielded as lightly as some of the heirlooms such as Ponderosa, Yellow Brimmer, Rockingham or Tice’s Yellow Better Boy. There are indications that the hybrids may be less fussy about the weather conditions of a particular gardening season, or the local climate. 

I was delighted with the first heirlooms that I grew, especially Tiger Tom, Nepal, Ruby Gold, Persimmon, Pineapple, and Brandywine. Even after growing hundreds of other heirlooms, these varieties have found a permanent place in my gardens.

In general, 1987 and 1989 seemed to be much better seasons for growing open-pollinated varieties than 1988, since the hybrids were more consistent that year in terms of yield. One possible problem was that Wayahead was diseased (it looked like tobacco mosaic virus), and the surrounding plants did not fare well.

Some generalizations from the data:

  •   The open-pollinated tomatoes did not in general show any more liklihood to become diseased as the season progressed, and bore fruit until killed by frost.
  •   The condition of the foliage was comparable, even for the VFN hybrids, by the end of the growing season.  .
  •   There are some very good hybrid tomatoes, such as Better Girl (Northrup-King), Lemon Boy (widely available), Big Pick, Whopper, Better Boy (well known), and Gurney Girl. However, aside from the lovely canary yellow Lemon Boy, there is little in the way of diversity of color or flavor.
  •   In contrast, there is alot of variability in the open-pollinated tomatoes, from the very bland (but produced for commercial growers) Fireball to the exquisitely rich flavor of Brandywine, and from the tiny Yellow Cherry to the huge Hugh’s or Ruby Gold. And the colors!!

Since 1989, I have grown hundreds of other open-pollinated tomatoes in my garden, and this year will continue the experiment. I have convinced myself that there is really no need to confine my gardening choices to the hybrid varieties, and perhaps, convinced you as well!