The Best Heirloom Tomatoes

Last summer was the first year The Deer Hunter and I tried growing heirloom tomatoes. The term-heirloom-refers to tomatoes that are non-hybrid-meaning their seeds are open pollinated and stay true to form. In other words-if you save seed from your heirloom varieties and plant them-the tomatoes you grow will be just like the one you saved the seed from. If you save seed from a hybrid variety and plant it-the tomatoes grown will revert back to one of the ‘parents’ used to make the hybrid. The word ‘heirloom’ also points to the tradition of families handing down seeds to the next generation.

Till last summer we always planted hybrid varieties like Big Boys or Better Boys. I kept hearing folks talk about how much better heirloom varieties tasted and decided I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I don’t remember the names of the ones we grew last year. The tomatoes did indeed taste better-but the production was lousy. I think we got a whole 4 tomatoes off of the yellow variety we planted.

This summer our goal was to give the heirlooms another chance-but with a little more homework put into the process. We tired to look for varieties that produced high quantities as well as high quality. We ended up with 8 different varieties-here’s what we learned about each of them:

Black Prince is a small sized tomato-but it packs a lot of punch in the flavor department. The skin color is a deep red with blackish green tints to it-and the flesh is a deep dark color as well. The Black Prince was a good producer.

Cherokee Purple Tomato
Cherokee Purple is one of the most common black tomatoes-and it happens to be The Deer Hunter’s favorite. The flavor is very similar to the Black Prince. We only had one Cherokee Purple plant-and it didn’t produce very many tomatoes.

Bonny Best
Bonnie Best was the only Heirloom Tomato offered by Hometown Seeds-who sponsored my garden this year. Even though I had never heard of it-I decided to give it a try-and I’m glad I did. The plants produced bookoos of tomatoes-no giant beefsteaks-but tons of small red tasty ones. When I think of a text book tomato-the look and taste of Bonnie Best comes to mind.

yellow pear tomato


Some friends gave us several Yellow Pear plants-the tomatoes are tiny but very flavorful. And the plants produced so well that it was almost impossible to eat them all.

striped german
Striped German was very flavorful-and so pretty on the inside-but the plant we had only produced 4 tomatoes.

Now for my 3 favorite Heirlooms:

cream and sausage
I heard a local ministry was selling heirloom tomato plants early in the summer-when I got a chance to stop by I ask them if they had a yellow variety that produced well. The gentlemen suggested Cream Sausage-he said they produce bumper crops of roma shaped tomatoes-he was right. On each plant the tomatoes hung like grapes. The flavor was sweet-and has they got riper the sweeter they got. The only problem we encountered was a few of the first fruits had blossom end rot. If at all possible-every garden I plant in the future will have at least a few Cream Sausage plants in it.

Yellow Brandywine
Yellow Brandywines were also a huge winner for us. Wonderful flavor and a great producer. The only downside I can see-was after you picked the tomatoes they needed to be eaten or put up fairly quickly.

german Johnson tomato
I feel like I should do a drum roll for this one-German Johnson. Oh my the taste was outstanding, it produced great, and maybe it’s cause I’m a girl-but I found the delicate pink color lovely.

I realize the growing conditions at my house will vary from where your at-so if you’ve grown any of the varieties above-please leave a comment and tell how they did for you. If you have experience with other heirloom varieties-I’d love to hear about them too.

Taste wasn’t the only reason we wanted to try heirlooms-the seed saving aspect was also one of our reasons. Having the ability to keep your own seeds from year to year is especially attractive to us. Coming up in a few days-a post about ways to save heirloom seeds for next year.



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  • Reply
    September 10, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Hey Tipper! I brought back some Oxheart tomatoes from NC that Peggy Poe Stern gave me and they were huge, red and delish! I saved the seed as she said their heirloom.

  • Reply
    September 9, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    We used to plant bonny best every year. I didn’t know they were an heirloom. They produced well for us too, I’ll have to look for them again next year.

  • Reply
    September 9, 2010 at 11:37 am

    I tried growing some heirloom seeds this year for the same reason. They did not do well. But most of my garden didn’t either. I will try again next year.

  • Reply
    September 8, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Warren-I didn’t even realize cross pollination was a problem. This is only the 2nd year we’ve grown heirlooms. I’ll let you know what I find out about the issue-so far it seems some folks worry a lot about it and others don’t think it matters much.
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at

  • Reply
    September 8, 2010 at 10:50 am

    I tried the Cherokees this year too and my luck was not so good either. I had the typical Romas and Mortgage lifters and big boys and they all did great…not so much on the cherokees though. Anyhow, I love your varieties.
    Do you ever worry about cross pollination? I’d love to see a post on your thoughts about that topic. Is it even an issue?

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    September 7, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Tipper: The bounty of the earth is certainly shown in all you have grown. Next Tuesday I will show what I have grown.

  • Reply
    September 7, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    somehow i missed this post on your tomatos, these are beyond wonderful to me, all shapes and sizes and colors, i wish i had that biggest one to put on my burger tonight. these are beautiful. i have close friends who live in Dahlonega. i did not know about the gold rush. I am putting it on this post because i kept getting the dratted error thing on the other one.

  • Reply
    September 7, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    Those pear ones look really neat! Our neighbor plants heirloom tomatoes every year. I don’t know what kind they are, but they are huge! They call them Engle tomatoes, because that is their name and they are the ones they grew when he was a child.

  • Reply
    Stephan Bottine
    September 6, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    Hi, the Striped German is one of my favourites. They’re dense, with moderate seed and good texture – both soft and firm.

  • Reply
    September 6, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    I’m wreckless at gardening and planting and even if I had a garden, I wouldn’t know how to plant a flower! Your tomatoes look gorgeous! I wish I could use them in my Greek salad tonight!!! 🙂

  • Reply
    September 6, 2010 at 10:50 am

    Tipper, the only problem with our tomatoes is that I failed to use strong enough supports for them. Next year I will go back to using steel t-posts. But as far as OP varieties: Because of our lack of heat we have to stick with early tomatoes And once again the best for producing good tomatoes early and plentiful all through the season – Stupice. Right behind them is a new one for me this year – Beaverlodge Slicer. Beaverlodge is great, not super large but two slices fit nicely over our lamb burgers and tastes divine. For a mouth full of flavor, Chocolate Cherry! Yes, when I think about it I do expect it to taste like chocolate and quite frankly the actual flavor doesn’t disappoint. And talk about abundance! I am still waiting for my Legends to ripen. But it has been an exceptionally dismal tomato weather year this year. Ate one of my first Heinz and I have to say the skin was tough but then I didn’t grow them with fresh eating in mind.
    I have another variety – Gills, produced well but weird shapes nice flavor.
    We will be making sauce today and tomorrow, looking forward to having my shelves full.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 6, 2010 at 8:08 am

    I think the Cherkoee Purple were my favorites this year. I ate some from your garden and I bought some from a stand in Swannannoa. These make mighty fine M & M sandwiches!
    I dont recall ever canning yellow tomatoes but since the Cream Sausage were so prolific seems like canning could be a good option for them. Although I remember hearing that Yellow tomatoes have less acid so they might not preserve as well.
    The bottom line for me is…..I’ve never met a home grown tomato that I didn’t like!

  • Reply
    September 5, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    We tried heirlooms this year too. We had Black Oxheart,Homestead, Purple Russian and Black Cherry.
    Our plants like your, didn’t produce very many per plant. But the taste was unbelievable. Homestead or Purple Russian were my favorite. Now if I had only saved some fo the seeds!

  • Reply
    September 5, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    This makes my mouth water! My grandpa used to grow heirloom tomatoes. I don’t know what variety he grew, and they were an ugly fruit, but I’ve never had anything to match them for taste and succulence. Grandpa survived the depression, when if your garden didn’t do well you went hungry during the winter, and he sure knew what he was doing! Here is Grandpa’s tip for preventing blossom end rot; put a handful of crushed egg shells in each planting hole before you put the tomato plants in. I have always used the egg shells (wash and save them all year ’round) and have never had any trouble. Decades later I read a gardening book that said calcium is key to preventing blossom end rot. Grandpa didn’t need a laboratory to figure it out! I suppose there are commercial calcium preparations at the garden center, but I like doing it the old fashioned way; you get double duty out of the eggs, no part gets thrown away! Hope this helps!

  • Reply
    Julie at Elisharose
    September 5, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    I grew some purple Cherokee this year. My plants don’t get enough sun, but we still managed to get a few very large and very tasty fruits. I love the yellow pears. Never even heard of the cream sausage. Must check out those other cool sounding varieties.

  • Reply
    September 5, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve been wanting to try some different heirlooms and this is a great analysis of plants!

  • Reply
    kenneth o. hoffman
    September 5, 2010 at 12:41 am

    tipper; i ran all those brands by my neighbor phil, he recognized most of them ,but he failed to tell me what was under that tent. but as long as he brings me some over i’ll just be in the dark. but boy he raises some goodens . your friend k.o.h

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    September 4, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    Hey Tipper,
    I just love tomatoes…Wish in a way it was just now time to start planting them…LOL..
    We grew Brandywines..and they did well until the heat, drought starting hurting them some..
    We also grew Romas…not an heirloom but a favorite tomato for us for sauce…they did fairly well…
    We had yellow pears last year and when the freeze hit we still had tomatoes on the vines…
    We have grown German Queens…we love the big pink things eventhough they get a little bumpy for us…but WOW…one slice hangs over the bread edges…
    We didn’t fight the blossom end rot that we have had the past few years…just dry and hot I am convinced that real wet cool and then hot wet and then uneven moisture levels has an effect on spreading of the blossom end rot…

  • Reply
    September 4, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    They are all so beautiful, thanks for all the info because we did not grow tomatoes this year, but I think I need to try those cream sausage ones.

  • Reply
    Pat in east TN
    September 4, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    None of my tomatoes did well this year, mainly because of the heat and dryness, AND “Mr. Groundhog” who kept helping himself every night! I had only a few Cherokee’s and liked the taste.

  • Reply
    lynn legge
    September 4, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    gosh those tomatoes are gorgeous.. you did a great job.. and whether hybrid or heirloom.. they all looked delicious..
    makes me hungry for a blt
    hope you have a great weekend
    big ladybug hugs

  • Reply
    September 4, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Those tomatoes look so good! I’m going to try some heirlooms next year. Hubby always plants the same hybrids year after year, so I’m ready to try something new. Bet they taste good too!

  • Reply
    September 4, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Unfortunately the only homegrown tomatoes we got to eat was the ones that someone else gave us. All of ours didn’t do anything this year. It was such a big disappointment.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    September 4, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    An heirloom that we were given by Susan Coe has a color very much like your yellow pear variety – and is also a high-producing tommy toe. I unfortunately don’t know the name (Jim may). But they are excellent. I think the sweetest tomato – of the full size or tommy toe size – that I’ve ever had.

  • Reply
    Stacey Foran
    September 4, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Wow, I didn’t realize you had so many different tomatoes in your garden theis year. We buy already started plants at the nursery & never seem to pay attention to what kind they are. There are so many different varieties that I don’t know how I would decide. Would be nice if there was a website that listed every kind of tomato with a description.

  • Reply
    September 4, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Thanks for the feed back on how yours produced. The heat hurt our production and the Cherokee Purple didn’t function in 90 degrees. I will give your other varieties a try next spring. : )

  • Reply
    September 4, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Wow! Your tomatoes looked great, now I know what Miss Cindy was so
    excited about. My Rutger tomatoes
    really produced great quantities.
    I bought the plants at a nursery
    in town and a friend gave me a
    bunch of the yellow pear shaped
    and they were good eating too. The
    only problem I had was learning to
    tie them to my Adjustable Tomato
    Hangers. As my mom always said,
    “just wait till next year.” I’m
    going to use heirlooms too and I
    love those German Pinks. Was able
    to get 21 quarts canned for winter, so without chemicals, only
    salt, I can enjoy chili and homeade vegetable beef soup.

  • Reply
    Nancy Wigmore
    September 4, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Thanks so much for sharing this post. I tried the upside down tomato planting this year. The Roma tomatoes are not red yet, but the vine is loaded with green ones.Twill be tomatoes in October for us!

  • Reply
    canned quilter
    September 4, 2010 at 9:09 am

    Tipper I have grown heirlooms for years now and have never went back to hybrids. We plant three varieties. Our main crop are the Brandywines and most years we produce more than even I can handle. Big juicy and flavorful they are a mainstay for both production and taste. Every year we also grow Big Rainbow. This is a huge yellow slicer with red stripes but just unbeatable for flavor. I now have all the neighbors hooked on them also from sharing and I think half the community grows them. And lastly we grow the little yellow pear tomatoes same as you. My children take these home with them by the sack full. The grandchildren walk around the farm with their pockets stuffed full of them. These are our snack tomatoes and the ones we eat with sliced cucumbers in our salads. At the end of the season I pickle what is left on the vine before frost. They make wonderful pickled green tomatoes. I think I too would like to try the Amish Paste !

  • Reply
    September 4, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Hi Tipper. I was so glad to see you mention the black tomatoes. We haven’t tried them, yet, but have wondered about them. I haven’t raised any that you mentioned, but we did raise two heirlooms this year–Arkansas Traveler and Aunt Lena. I’m not sure of the spelling on Aunt Lena–a friend gave the seeds to us and she is from Kentuky-they’ve raised and saved seeds from them for years. They both did well, but it was so hot this year that many plants burned up.
    Of the two, I thought the Arkansas Traveler was the best–a medium pink tomato (like you-I like the pink color, LOL). This will be our first year to save seeds, so I’m looking forward to your next post.
    I also grew some Lemon cucumbers, which are heirloom. A very nice tasting cucumber.

  • Reply
    Vicki Lane
    September 4, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Well, I’m a gardener but not great — just persistent. And we had a bad bout with blight this year. The Yellow Pears were and are amazingly prolific; my Romas and San Marzanos were just okay. Cherokee Purples are my favorites for taste,with Brandywines second. I’ll have to try those Cream Sausages.

  • Reply
    September 4, 2010 at 8:34 am

    Jim-thank you for the tips. I’ll be sure to try them next year-and I’m going to look for the Amish Paste too.
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Music, Giveaways, Mountain Folk
    All at

  • Reply
    September 4, 2010 at 7:42 am

    We had just decided that next years garden was going heirloom and that we were going to do it all by the signs. Thanks, Tipper, for the varity suggestions. I am taking notes.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    September 4, 2010 at 7:38 am

    Tipper–I really enjoyed this because the subject is one of considerable interest to me. I would certainly add one recommendation to your list of heirlooms–Amish Paste. They are huge and tasty, but like many hierlooms, have a downside when it comes to not being heavy producers.
    To some degree, lack of production can be offset by hand pollinating. Use a Q-tip or something similar to “tickle” open blossoms one after another. Just look at youself as being a “bee helper.”
    Also, though you don’t mention it, a problem with a number of heirlooms is roughness on the blossom end. That can be alleviated in part by “slipping” the dead bloom after the tomato sets.
    Finally,I’m totally in The Deer Hunter’s corner when it comes to taste. A dead-ripe Cherokee Purple is a taste to tempt the gods, and I doubly enjoy it because of the mountain heritage links. Cherokee Purples first began making the rounds among heirloom tomato lovers when a leading heirloom seed producer got some seed from a Cherokee Indian. He was so pleased with both the color (wonderful hues of purple, magenta, pink, and green) and flavor he named it for the man who provided the seed.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    My Carolina Kitchen
    September 4, 2010 at 7:34 am

    Tipper, we’ve grown heirloom tomatoes for several years. We always buy plants from the Feed Store; never tried the seeds.
    Last year was our best year with quite a few Cherokee Purples and, like you, so many small yellow pears you didn’t know what to do with them. This year we only planted the Cherokees, but ended up with a Roma (not an heirloom), who must have been mis-labeled. The Roma did great; the Cherokee Purples not so good.
    We planted late and this summer was dry. Tomatoes need a lot of “babying” and we probably didn’t do a good job of that.
    I hope Vicki Lane comments. She is a great gardener and knows a lot about how to grow tomatoes. She gave us some good tips, including putting straw around the plants.

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