Growing tomatoes from seed: Knowing your tomatoes

Heirloom tomato on cutting board on black background. Cooking process. Fresh ripe organic tomato
Why start your own tomato seeds when you can pop into your local nursery and buy ready-to-plant seedlings? The most important reason is variety!

What you should know about the varieties of tomatoes

Why start your own tomato seeds when you can pop into your local nursery and buy ready-to-plant seedlings? The most important reason is variety! Your local nursery may have a dozen just about varieties of tomatoes, but growing your own tomatoes from seed allows you to pick from thousands of heirloom, hybrid, and open-pollinated varieties available through seed catalogs. Plus, starting your own tomatoes can economize, especially if you have got a large garden.

Starting your tomato transplants from seeds is fun and straightforward.

Growing tomatoes from seed: Types of tomato seeds

When flipping through your favorite seed catalog, you’ll probably notice descriptions like ‘heirloom’ (or sometimes ‘heritage’), ‘open-pollinated’, and ‘hybrid’. Understanding the various types of seeds will help you pick the proper tomato varieties for your garden.


An heirloom tomato is an open-pollinated variety that has been passed down through generations. The main reason to grow heirloom tomatoes is flavor! The fruits are full of mouthwatering flavors that are seldom matched by hybrid varieties. Of course, heirlooms offer diversity, too — fruits in an assortment of sizes, shapes, and colors. Popular heirlooms include Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Pineapple, and Big Rainbow.


Open-pollinated seed is pollinated by insects, wind, or even gardeners. When the seed is saved you can expect the seeds to come true. The exception to the present is when cross-pollination from other varieties has occurred. If you’re growing over one variety of open-pollinated cucumber or squash, for example, they are likely to cross-pollinate. If you only grew one variety, your open-pollinated seeds are safe to avoid wasting. All heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated varieties are heirlooms. Dwarf Sweet Sue, Dwarf Caitydid, and Glacier are examples of open-pollinated tomatoes.


Hybrid seeds are the result of controlled pollination where the pollen of two varieties or species is crossed by plant breeders. These are often listed as ‘F1’ varieties in seed catalogs. Generally, the seed of hybrids cannot be saved as they won’t come ‘true to type. So, why grow hybrids? Most hybrids offer improved traits, like disease resistance, vigor, higher yields, earlier harvest, and uniform ripening. Sun Gold is a very popular heirloom tomato with golden, cherry-sized fruits.
It’s easy to grow your own tomatoes from seed.

Sun Gold tomatoes are one of the most popular hybrids grown and yield a significant crop of super-sweet, cherry-sized fruits.

Pretty Young Female Farm Worker Picking Fresh Tomatoes

Choosing the best tomato seeds to grow

Now that we’ve gotten some background on the varieties of tomatoes seeds, it’s time to crack open those seed catalogs. Be prepared to encounter dozens, if not hundreds, of tempting varieties. To learn more about the numerous awesome tomato varieties available to grow in your garden, look at Epic Tomatoes, the award-winning book by Craig LeHoullier.

But, with so many varieties to pick from, how do you pare down your list and decide what to grow? Consider these three questions:

How much space do you have?

The growth habits of tomatoes are broken down into two categories: determinate and indeterminate.

Determinate varieties are best for small spaces and container gardens. They grow two to 3ft tall with fruits that mature around the same time (perfect for canning or sauce!). They also mature earlier than many indeterminate tomato varieties.

Indeterminate varieties, also called vining tomatoes, are the big guys. They can grow six to eight feet tall, and continue to grow and fruit until frost. You’ll need to stake or support the vigorous plants. You can grow them in containers, but I’d suggest finding a large pot and supporting them securely with stakes or a trellis.

How long is your season?

As you flip through seed catalogs, notice that tomatoes are categorized by how long they take to mature — early, mid-, and late-season. I find it more helpful to refer to the ‘days to maturity, which is how many days a variety needs to produce fruit once they are transplanted (not needed!) in your garden. In short-season or coastal gardens, opt for fast-maturing, early tomatoes, like Moskovich (60 days), Northern Lights (55 days), or Sun Gold (57 days). If you’d like to figure out the length of your growing season, check out this handy calculator on the National Garden Bureau website.

How are you going to use your tomato harvest?

There are so many different types of tomatoes to grow: slicing, cherry, paste, cocktail, and grape, for example. When I’m trying to decide what to grow, I find it helpful to consider how I want to use my harvest. I like to make several batches of sauce, but most of our tomatoes are enjoyed fresh from the garden in sandwiches and salads. Therefore I plant a mixture of types, including those for sauce, some super-sweet cherry or grape varieties, and beefy heirlooms for slicing.

Growing tomatoes from seed allow you to grow a rainbow of colors, flavors, and sizes.
What’s the biggest reason to grow your own tomatoes from seed? Variety! These are some of the heirlooms and hybrid tomatoes Niki grew in her garden last more

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