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Klee Lab

Klee Lab

Thank you to everyone who participated in our 2021 Citizen Science Initiative!
See the 2021 CSI data.

What is an "heirloom" tomato? There is no legal definition of an heirloom cultivar. Anyone can call anything an heirloom, if they want to. However, we loosely define an heirloom as "old" and open pollinated (i.e., seeds from the fruit breed true). Everyone loves the taste of their favorite "heirloom" tomato. But let's be honest, heirlooms are really cultivars that have been superseded by something better. Passionate individuals save these cultivars because they have great flavor. They are willing to put up with plants that have low yield or are susceptible to multiple diseases because the fruit have fabulous taste or are visually appealing.

We've taken a step back to exploit the natural diversity in heirloom tomatoes to understand the chemistry of a great tasting tomato. We've grown hundreds of them – some going back to the 19th Century. Kind people have sent us seeds of cultivars they love. Others we've purchased from various sources. In our large-scale consumer trials, many do not do well. Some don't give us enough fruit for 100 people to taste them. Others turn to mush within 24 hours of picking. Others leave us wondering why someone bothered to save them at all. But a few just shine. They make you realize what a tomato should taste like. Inevitably, the plants aren't easy to grow, so we asked ourselves whether we could capture the best of both worlds - flavor and performance. The answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

We screened hundreds of heirloom tomatoes, using a large consumer taste panel run by our colleagues in the UF Food Science & Human Nutrition department to identify the varieties with the best taste. We screened modern lines that have high productivity and shelf life, but just didn't excite our taste buds. We produced and extensively tested dozens of hybrids for performance and flavor. Many didn’t have the taste or performance we desired. But a few were remarkable. The taste panels told us that they were just as good or even better than the heirloom parents. Yields far exceed those of the heirlooms in our North Florida fields. While yields are not quite good enough for large scale commercial producers to adopt them (that's another story altogether), they are ideally suited for home gardeners. Heirloom taste without the heirloom challenges. We think they epitomize what breeders call hybrid vigor; the best of both worlds. They're not true "heirlooms" and yes, because they’re hybrids, you will need to buy new seeds each year. We hope that you'll think it's worth it.

Want to get seeds? Choose to donate to our project and become a part of the data collection.

Please note that we cannot send seeds to Australia, New Zealand or Germany due to customs restrictions. Please allow a minimum of 2 weeks for delivery in the continental United States, since a week can pass between the time a donation is made and we receive your information.
Due to the coronavirus, shipping of tomato seeds may be delayed by a week or two.
We thank you for your patience in these uncertain times.

Improved Garden Gem and Garden Ruby. If you've tried these hybrids, (described below) and liked them, you'll appreciate that we couldn't "improve" on their flavor. What we did is to introduce added disease resistance. They now contain a higher level of resistance to common strains of late blight (Phytophthora infestans).

Donate to Our Citizen Science Initiative

For a minimum $25 donation, you will receive R Hybrid, BC Hybrid, Improved Garden Gem, Improved Garden Ruby and Better Boy Hybrid.

  • R Hybrid
  • BC Hybrid
  • Improved Garden Gem
  • Improved Garden Ruby

In previous years we have distributed Garden Gem and Garden Treasure seeds. We are thrilled to tell you that both are now available online and in garden centers through Proven Winners. Since they are now available in the marketplace, we have decided to replace them in our donation gifts to offer our donors the chance to try some of our new varieties and provide valuable data on them. Now, you will have the chance to get two new varieties and the "new improved" versions of Garden Gem and Garden Ruby (formerly W Hybrid). The new versions have resistance to many strains of late blight, a disease often found in northern gardens. While these varieties are experimental, we believe the flavor and yield are just as good as in the originals. For people in cooler climates, the addition of disease resistance is a major step forward.

We have distributed our first hybrids to over 14,000 individuals in all 50 U.S. states and over 40 countries since 2015. Many of you have provided us with your evaluations and the feedback has been both immensely useful and incredibly rewarding. That feedback made us realize that we should be using this network of gardeners to help us develop even better hybrids. We’re excited to launch a new program to evaluate the next generation of varieties. We love them but they haven't been widely grown outside of Florida. We want you to participate in our citizen science initiative. Become an amateur horticulturist and help us evaluate our best candidates. We'll send you seeds of four different experimental varieties along with a "control" for comparison purposes. The control is the most widely grown home garden variety, Better Boy. The four varieties, described above, are a large slicer-type tomato, Garden Gem and Garden Ruby with improved disease resistance, and a cherry-type tomato. Of course, all four have been grown multiple times in Florida and have done exceptionally well in our consumer panels.

In order to submit data, you will visit an online survey and enter a password that you will receive through email where you can then enter your results from the season. If you prefer, you can print out the Data Collection Sheet Example and mail it to us at the address below:

Klee Lab
2550 Hull Rd
P.O. BOX 110690
Gainesville FL 32611-0690

By submitting your data, you will be able to tell us how our varieties did in your part of the world. We’ll use that information to decide whether each variety deserves to be released. We hope that the flavor and performance exceed that of Better Boy across the nation (and world). If the variety is popular enough to be released, you can suggest a name and vote in a naming contest.

First and foremost, we want to acknowledge the support of the National Science Foundation that was essential in putting together the framework of this citizen science initiative. Educating our citizens about the importance of science in our lives has long been a part of their mission and we’re excited to involve you in our work. To support the recurring costs of making and distributing the seeds, we ask for a $25 donation. Every penny goes back into our research and your donation is tax deductible. Because these varieties are experimental and not yet released, we have to ask that you agree to certain terms before you can make your donation. In a nutshell, the agreement says you won’t sell the material, and you won’t use it in your own breeding program. UF requires that we have this agreement to maintain ownership of our varieties. You can still plant extra seeds and give them to your friends. In fact, the more data you and your friends and relatives can generate, the better the experiment.

A Guide to Growing the Perfect Tomato

For growing tips based on your zone, check out your nearest agricultural University Extension Office!