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).
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:
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:
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!