Should You Grow Hybrid or Heirloom Tomatoes?

Updated: May 08, 2024

Do you know the difference between hybrid vs heirloom tomatoes? The great tomato debate has been going on for years.

Full Frame Shot Of Tomatoes For Sale At MarketUma Shankar sharma/Getty Images
Ripe red tomatoes at a farmers market

Summer is the sweetest season for the tomato lover, but with so many types and varieties available, it can be hard to know which ones are best for your garden. Terms like ‘heirloom’ and ‘hybrid’ are often used to describe tomato varieties, but what do they mean and is one type better than the other? Below we explore the pros and cons of both hybrid and heirloom tomatoes and spotlight six outstanding varieties.

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Heirloom Tomato Pros and Cons

Huge red beef tomato in hand of child isolated on greenery garden background. Big ugly freshly picked brandywine heirloom tomato. Family farm vegetables and fruit, harvest food. Banner, copy spaceElkhophoto/Getty Images
Brandywine tomato
  • There is some debate on what makes an heirloom. Most sources agree that it has been passed down at least 50 years, often within families or communities
  • Are open-pollinated which means they are pollinated naturally by wind or insects
  • Saved seeds produce the exact same tomato from year to year
  • Come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors
  • Are known for having exceptional flavor
  • Generally produce fewer tomatoes per plant
  • May be more prone to tomato diseases, but this also depends on cultural factors like soil fertility, spacing, and variety selection
  • Heirloom tomatoes are often later to mature than hybrid varieties

Hybrid Tomato Pros and Cons

A bowl of Mountain Magic variety of Tomatoes, UKCaronB/Getty Images
Mountain Magic tomatoes
  • Are the product of two different parent plants that have been cross-pollinated under controlled conditions
  • Seeds saved from hybrid tomatoes aren’t stable and won’t produce the same tomatoes the following year
  • Hybrids are bred to have improved traits like disease resistance, earlier maturity, higher yields, or better uniformity
  • Typically perform and yield better under environmental stresses like drought
  • Many hybrid varieties are early to yield making them a reliable choice for short season gardeners

Hybrid vs. Heirloom Tomatoes

Costoluto Genovese TomatoShoemcfly/Getty Images
Costoluto Genovese heirloom tomatoes

Both types of tomatoes offer advantages to the gardener. Craig LeHoullier, the author of Epic Tomatoes and the co-leader of the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project has spent decades growing hundreds of heirloom varieties in his garden. “I love heirlooms for their ability to grow true to type from seed, their storied histories, and the incredible diversity of fruit sizes, shapes, colors, and flavors,” he says. “With so many choices—heirlooms and hybrids—it’s up to the gardener to pick appealing varieties, grow a selection, and see how they do in their region.”

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Are Heirloom Tomatoes Organic?

Heirloom tomatoes can be grown organically or conventionally, depending on the goals of the gardener. To be considered organic, tomato plants must grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Basic principles of organic gardening include building soil, providing ideal growing conditions, and using natural solutions to pest and disease issues.

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Are Hybrid Tomatoes GMO?

Hybrid tomatoes are often confused with GMO varieties, but they are not the same thing. Hybrid tomatoes are the result of cross-pollination and have not been genetically engineered. GMO crops contain genes from other species.

The Best Heirloom and Hybrid Tomato Varieties

Cherokee Purple tomatoCourtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company
Cherokee Purple tomato

To help jump-start your tomato garden, we’ve gathered six outstanding heirloom and hybrid varieties. Find them in your favorite seed catalog or at your local nursery.

Heirloom Tomatoes to Grow

  • Cherokee Purple – Craig played an important role in not only preserving this treasured heirloom but also in making the seeds available to gardeners around the world. “It never fails to excel in vigor, yield, and flavor, and the dusky rose color certainly catches the eye,” he says.
  • Lillian’s Yellow – This potato-leaved heirloom variety produces a bumper crop of large yellow fruits perfect for summer sandwiches. “The flavor is simply incredible,” says Craig.
  • Brandywine – Brandywine is perhaps the most widely grown heirloom tomato beloved for its jumbo-sized richly flavored fruits that can weigh over one pound.
  • Also try Black Cherry, Big Rainbow, or Costoluto Genovese.

Hybrid Tomatoes to Grow

Sungold tomato
  • Sungold is one of the most popular hybrid cherry tomato varieties grown by gardeners and for good reason. “There simply is no tomato with the particular complexity of flavor that Sungold possesses,” says Craig. “It’s truly addictive!”
  • Lemon Boy – This reliable yellow hybrid produces delicious medium-sized fruits with a pleasing balanced flavor.
  • Galahad is an award-winning hybrid beefsteak with medium-large, bright red fruits. It offers excellent resistance to early blight as well as many other common tomato diseases.
  • Also try Mountain Magic, Defiant, or Juliet.

Which Tomatoes Are Best?

galahad tomatoVia All-America Selections
Galahad tomato

Can’t decide? Try growing both and see which you prefer. Both heirloom and hybrid tomatoes make excellent garden plants. Heirlooms have unbeatable flavors while hybrids offer improved traits like better disease resistance, increased yield, or earlier maturity.

About the Expert

Craig LeHoullier, also known as the NC Tomatoman, is a lifelong gardener, the author of the book Epic Tomatoes and the co-leader of the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project.

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