Hybrid vs. Heirloom Tomatoes, What's the Difference?

A ripe tomato on top of a wooden fencepost in the garden.

Should you heirloom or hybrid tomato plants? What are heirloom tomatoes? And what are the differences between hybrid and heirloom tomatoes anyway? You'll find all the answers in this post.

The differences between hybrid and heirloom tomatoes

Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable grown by home gardeners.

In response to their popularity, there are thousands of varieties of tomatoes, from small cherry tomatoes to huge beefsteak varieties. 

I've broken down all the sizes and shapes of tomatoes, and the difference in the growing habits of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes in this post.

There is one more classification of tomatoes, and it’s a big one: the difference between heirloom tomatoes and hybrid tomatoes.

If you don't plan to ever save seeds from your tomatoes to plant again the following year, this difference might not be that significant for you, but I think it's important to know the difference anyway.

Just so you know, this post may contain affiliate links, which means I receive commissions for purchases made through those links, at no cost to you. You can reamy disclosure policy for more info.

Heirloom tomatoes and hybrid tomatoes

All seeds, whether they are tomato seeds or not, are either heirloom or hybrid. (Or GMO, but we'll talk about that later.)

Heirloom tomato seeds

Heirlooms are vegetable varieties whose seeds have been passed from one generation of gardener to another for many years. These seeds will always produce vegetables like the parent plant that the seeds came from. 

These seeds are sometimes called heritage seeds, legacy seeds, or vintage seeds.

However, even though these seeds produce vegetables like their parent plants, they can also be selected to preserve certain traits as well. In other words, if one heirloom tomato has a deeper flavor that you really like, you can save the seeds from that plant or that tomato in particular to grow again next year.

By saving seeds from the first tomato that ripens in your garden, you can encourage your seeds to produce early. Save the largest tomato, or a tomato from a particularly stellar plant to encourage those traits. 

This is called selective seed saving, and is not the same as breeding two different varieties of tomatoes to produce a new hybrid variety.

Also, heirlooms that you plant, then save the seeds and plant again the next year will adapt to your garden, your climate and your soil. 

The bottom of an heirloom tomato
Sometimes heirloom tomatoes aren't as "pretty" as hybrid varieties, but they more than make up for it with their unique flavors!

But these are still the same variety of tomato, they are not hybrids.

However, if you plant heirloom tomatoes next to another variety of heirloom tomato, you may end up with hybrid seeds. The two plants can cross-pollinate and result in a cross. 

So if you want to save seeds, you should grow heirloom varieties. And if you grow more than one variety of heirloom tomatoes, you should plant the different varieties far enough away from each other that it will be difficult for them to share pollen and produce hybrid seeds.

Read this post for more information on gardening with heirloom seeds, not just tomatoes, but all vegetables and fruits.

Get your free Tomato Tips cheatsheet so you can grow incredible tomatoes!
Click here!


Hybrid tomato seeds

Hybrid tomato seeds have been crossed with other tomato varieties to produce a flower or a vegetable that has certain characteristics of both parent plants. 

The characteristic might be a certain color, level of sweetness vs acidity, or disease resistance, but basically these tomatoes are crossed with another variety - cross-pollinated - to create a new variety of tomato.

A woman's hand holding cherry tomatoes fresh-picked from the garden.

Hybrid seeds, when planted and grown, don’t produce plants that are the same as the plant the seeds came from. Instead, those seeds might take after one of the parent plants, or even be something completely different. 

Last year I had quite a few volunteer tomato plants sprout and grow in my garden. Volunteers are plants that grow from seeds that you didn't plant this year. Perhaps a tomato rotted and fell to the ground, and the seeds inside sprouted the following spring. 

Volunteer plants often grow at the edges of a compost pile too, from seeds in tomatoes that were tossed on the compost pile last summer. I usually keep volunteers if I have enough room for them or can transplant them to a better spot.

When my tomato crop began to ripen that summer, I discovered some delicious red pear-shaped tomatoes on one plant. 

But I've never planted red pear-shaped tomatoes. I can only guess that this volunteer was either 

  • seed from a hybrid variety that I had planted, and it reverted back to one of the parent varieties
  • or a tomato blossom was pollinated by wind or a bee with pollen from another variety, and the resulting tomato escaped my notice and fell to the ground where the seeds sprouted the following spring.

As good as these pear-shaped tomatoes were, if I'd saved the seeds and planted them this year, they probably wouldn't have produced red pear-shaped tomatoes. That's the nature of hybrid tomatoes, whether they are grown on purpose or by accident (a volunteer).

Grow heirloom seeds if you want to save tomato seeds to plant next year

If you want to grow the same variety of hybrid tomato next year, you’d have to buy more of the hybrid seeds, since the seeds from the tomatoes you grew last year won't produce the same tomatoes this year. They will likely produce tomatoes that resemble one of the original "parent" plants.

Obviously, if you do want to save tomato seeds and plant them the following year, you should plant heirloom tomato seeds, which will produce the same tomatoes year after year. 

Many of the transplants you find at the store - those ready-to-plant-in-your-garden plants - are hybrids rather than heirlooms. 

Big Boy, Better Boy, and Early Girl are hybrid varieties you can easily find in stores. 

The plant identifying tag or marker in the pot should tell you whether a plant is a hybrid or heirloom. Hybrids are often designated on the tag as an F1 variety.

You might have to look a little harder to find heirloom varieties at the store or nursery, but heirloom seeds are readily available online. 

Most of my vegetable seeds come from Mary's Heirloom Seeds, with a few more from Baker Creek

Get your free Tomato Tips cheatsheet so you can grow incredible tomatoes!
Click here!


GMO tomatoes

"GMO" stands for genetically modified organism. 

Are there GMO tomatoes? Yes, there are.

Is there a difference between GMO and hybrid tomatoes? Yes, there certainly is!

Hybrid tomatoes are a cross between two different tomato varieties, but both are tomatoes. GMO vegetables are a cross between tomatoes and some other plant, a non-tomato. 

Until recently we didn't have to worry about GMO tomato seeds, although farmers and commercial growers have been using GMO food crop seeds for several years - GMO corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers and more.

GMO seeds (also called GE, genetically engineered seeds) have been genetically modified - in other words, its genes have been spliced with other non-tomato genes to develop plants with certain characteristics that aren't "native" to that species.

The first GMO tomato, called the Flavr Savr, was introduced in the 1980s and then removed from the market in 1997. 

But now, the FDA has approved a genetically-modified purple tomato, and the seeds are now available to the public. Norfolk Plant Sciences added DNA from snapdragons to tomatoes to achieve the deep purple interior flesh of this tomato.

The developers worked for about 20 years to isolate the purple DNA in snapdragon flowers and insert it into tomato DNA. The new plant is named simply "The Purple Tomato."

This is very concerning, in my mind. I don't grow plants from GMO seeds, including tomatoes. Occasionally I'll grow a hybrid variety, but I do not grow GMO plants.

That choice is up to you, of course, but I hope you will research the subject first and make an informed decision.

The Food and Drug Administration reports that these seeds are "carefully studied and are as safe as the other foods we eat." 

On the other side of the coin, the Center for Food Safety states that GMO foods can cause toxicity, allergies, immuno-suppression, cancer, loss of nutrition, and more. You can read more about these concerns here.

The best way to ensure that the food you eat is organically grown and as healthy for you as possible is to grow it yourself, and tomatoes are no exception. 

You'll find my growing guides for many vegetables and fruits right here. Take back control of your food supply and grow your own!

A variety of cherry tomatoes in many colors. TEXT: Hybrid vs heirloom tomatoes: what's the difference?

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About the author, Kathi Rodgers


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