Patrick Dunn - Jul 05, 2016

Tomato Culture: All You Need to Know About Growing Tomatoes

Photo Credit to Patrick Dunn - La Honda Farmers Market

Tomatoes are by far one of the most prized and valued vegetable crops on the market these days. The mere number of varieties, types and growth techniques are head spinning. From heirloom to hybrid, beefsteak to paste, hot-house to dry-farmed, and the ever more popular grafted tomatoes, it’s hard to keep up with what’s what these days. This is the first in a series of articles that will try to alleviate the ails of understanding tomato culture and describe the most popular growth techniques as well as get to the bottom of what all the hype is about.

Heirloom vs Hybrid

First let’s start with the basics. What is the difference between an “heirloom” variety and a “hybrid” one?

Heirloom - A plant variety that is open-pollinated (meaning it is pollinated naturally by wind, insect, human or other natural mechanisms) and has been passed down through generations.

Hybrid - A plant variety that has been naturally or artificially cross pollinated using controlled pollination methods. This can occur naturally through cross pollination, but hybrid varieties are typically created in a controlled field or lab setting.

There are many pros and cons to both types of tomato. Many farmers choose between the two based on their marketing structure, growing techniques and season. Also, if a farmer is interested in saving seed from their tomato crops it is extremely important to understand the difference and plan accordingly. Saving seeds from hybrid types will not produce the same tomato the following year.

Photo credit to Emily Parson of Everett Family Farm



  • Low Productivity - Many heirloom varieties take quite a long time to mature and produce fewer fruits. Your climate and growing conditions also play a big role in heirloom productivity.
  • Inconsistent fruit - Heirloom tomatoes are known for their unique shapes, sizes and colors. That uniqueness translates through to each tomato produced by each plant. So if you want consistent perfect red tomatoes, heirlooms aren’t for you.
  • Climate - Because of the generational nature of heirlooms, often times growing zone information is unavailable. You may not be able to grow certain varieties in your climate, though this is rare.


  • Taste - Most people would claim that the #1 reason to grow heirlooms is taste. Typically heirlooms have exceptional taste and texture. That is why they have been saved and passed down for so many years!
  • Open-pollinated - Heirlooms are easy to save seed from. They also produce prolific amounts of seeds and have stable genetics, so year after year you will get the same tomato.
  • Looks - Heirlooms are gorgeous. Walking up to a farmer’s market table covered in countless types of heirloom tomatoes is a wonderful site. Their individuality and unique colors and shapes are often eye-catching and intriguing.
  • Marketability - Customers love the idea of heirlooms. Telling the story of an heirloom can be fun and interesting as well. Also, typically heirloom varieties can be priced higher than their hybrid friends because of their low productivity and uniqueness.

Photo credit to Patrick Dunn - Benaroya Family Farm



  • Flavor - Typically hybrid varieties are less flavorful than heirlooms since they are often bred for productivity and disease resistance than for flavor. This isn’t always true though, some seed companies try to develop hybrids that are more flavorful as well, like the Early Girl or the Sungold, and more and more are being developed.
  • Seed Instability - Since Hybrids are cross pollinated, saving seed is not recommended and will most likely not produce plants similar to the mother plants. There are many people who have been trying to de-hybridize some varieties, by selecting from saved hybrid seed but this is a lengthy process.
  • Bio-tech Industry - Many hybrid seeds are owned and produced by the large Biotech companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. If you are highly opposed to their practices and philosophies, make sure you research varieties before buying them. Many of the common hybrids are owned by these large companies and a quick Google search can help you understand this.


  • Productivity - Most hybrids are developed specifically for productivity. So if you are wanting to ship out large quantities of beefsteak or cherry tomatoes from a small area, hybrids are your ticket!
  • Disease Resistance - Hybrids are great if you have disease issues. Many varieties are bred with specific blight and fusarium wilt resistance, two of the major diseases associated with growing tomatoes.
  • Uniformity - Hybrids are incredibly uniform. They are bred to produce consistently shaped and colored fruit. It is rare that they stray from their specific qualities.
  • Storability and Transportability - Hybrids typically have a longer shelf life and have stronger cell walls and thicker skin than their heirloom relatives, making it easy to store and transport them.
  • Culture Specific - Many hybrids are bred for specific growth cultures. Look for varieties that are specific to your needs - hoop-house, aeroponics, home garden or field production.

Perhaps these lists didn’t make it any easier to choose the best since they both have such wonderful positive attributes and are accompanied by some drawbacks. As always, it is important to understand the farm’s specific needs, growth culture and marketing structure in order to choose what type of tomato is best. The endless pages of tomato varieties in seed catalogs is always the best place to start, and have fun experimenting with the myriad of juicy summer yumminess!

If you liked this article, and want to see more like it, enter your email in the subscribe box to the top-right of this page and we'll send you new blog articles as we publish them.

Patrick Dunn has been farming for over 9 years and his experience ranges from production scale market farming to community based urban agriculture. He studied at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UCSC and co-founded Emerald Street Community Farm and Master Street Farm in Philadelphia, PA. When Patrick isn't farming, you can find him dangling from ropes high on the granite walls of Yosemite or jetting off to the mountains for solitude in the wilderness.


peter buckley

Dec 1, 2016 at 9:04 PM

concise article...thanks.

Powered by Tend™