The seeds of success with tomatoes

Experts advise keeping your natural seed options open for best results

By: Brian Louwers | C&G Newspapers | Published February 25, 2020

 Heirloom varieties, which are open pollinated, are typically more than 50 years old and the seeds are often preserved by growers, having been saved at the end of the season and handed  down over the years.

Heirloom varieties, which are open pollinated, are typically more than 50 years old and the seeds are often preserved by growers, having been saved at the end of the season and handed down over the years.

Photo by Brian Louwers

 Natural, non-genetically modified seeds and  their resulting plants can  be found with a variety of  labels, including hybrid, heirloom and open pollinated.

Natural, non-genetically modified seeds and their resulting plants can be found with a variety of labels, including hybrid, heirloom and open pollinated.

Photo by Brian Louwers

WARREN — For many, the thought of heirloom tomatoes conjures up sunny memories about a grandparent’s garden and the fantastic flavors found ripe on the vine.

And while the thought of revisiting that magic might prove irresistible for growers looking to add the fruits of yesteryear or the latest “must have” tomatoes from some far-flung region to their family garden, there are choices that can be made to ensure you’ll have something to harvest and enjoy throughout the summer.

Natural, non-genetically-modified seeds and their resulting plants can be found with a variety of labels, including hybrid, heirloom and open pollinated. When selecting this year’s tomato seeds, it’s important to know the difference and what each selection could mean for your garden bounty.

Unlike genetically modified, often called “GMO,” seeds, which are ultimately the result of genetic processing and biotechnology, hybrid varieties are bred naturally through controlled pollination to achieve the best combination of desired characteristics. Heirloom varieties, which are open pollinated, are typically more than 50 years old, and the seeds are often preserved by growers, having been saved at the end of the season and handed down over the years.   

Karl Eckert, the owner of Eckert’s Greenhouse & Perennials in Sterling Heights, said there are things to like about both hybrid and heirloom plant varieties.

“There’s always two sides, and people are quite passionate about heirloom things that they can remember from back when, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Eckert said. “Mainly, I believe, it’s more of a taste issue. Heirlooms are popular for their taste.”

Among the biggest draws of hybrid tomatoes are an increased resistance to disease and a potentially bigger yield. Those traits, after all, are why the plants were hybridized in the first place.

“You’ve got different things going on now — disease pressures. Airborne diseases are a little more prevalent now than they were 30 to 40 years ago,” Eckert said. “The other thing is the produce volume. With some of the new varieties, you get more per plant than the older varieties,” Eckert said.

When choosing, Eckert said, “It’s a tightrope.”

He advised planting a mix of heirloom and hybrid varieties to ensure success in the event that environmental, disease or pest-related stressors affect some plants more than others in any given season.

“When we grew vegetables in the field, we never grew one variety. In any given year, you have plus or minuses in weather. Have a few of each. Enjoy them,” Eckert said.

Michigan State University offers vast resources for growers on its website at www.canr.msu.edu.

Under a subsection for the Center for Regional Food Systems and the Michigan Organic Farming Exchange, a list of “farming practices” features a section of seed resources that further explains the difference between hybrid, open pollinated, heirloom and GMO seeds. The section also includes lists of seed sources and seed databases, reports on seed variety trials and a list of seed companies (including those selling GMO-free seeds).

According to a Michigan State University Extension bulletin by Laura Anderson, a nutrition and disease prevention and management educator, published in January 2018, tomatoes are a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K , as well as potassium.

“Phytonutrients such as carotenoids are found in tomatoes,” Anderson wrote. “Research shows that these carotenoids, combined with a fat source such as olive oil, provide greater health benefits, especially in the area of cardiovascular health.”

Additional resources for those interested in growing tomatoes or other plants are available through the MSU Extension at migarden.msu.edu. The MSU Extension also has a lawn and garden hotline at (888) 678-3464.