How to Select the Right Tomato Variety

For most gardeners, just any old tomato won't do

Cherry tomatoes

A bowl of several kinds of small tomatoes: cherry-, plum- and pear-shaped.

Striped tomatoes

Two varieties with unusual striping.

From North to South, and coast to coast, tomatoes are consistently the most popular vegetable in American gardens. But for most gardeners, just any old tomato won't do.

Some like them red, some like them yellow, orange or even purple! Some prefer tomatoes as tiny as a dime and some want them as big as a melon. Some like them juicy, some like them dense and pulpy. Fortunately, there are almost 700 different tomato varieties in cultivation today. Plenty of choices for everyone!

If you've been gardening for many years, you probably already have a few favorite tomato varieties that you plant every year. In my own garden, I've tried at least two dozen different varieties over the years. When spring comes and it's time to decide which tomato varieties to grow, here's what I think about: fruit characteristics, time to maturity, growth habit and disease resistance.

Disease resistance is important, because tomatoes are vulnerable to a number of diseases that can weaken the plant and reduce yields. Look at the catalog description, seed packet or plant label to see if that variety has resistance to verticillium and fusarium wilt, two very common soil-borne diseases that affect tomatoes. Resistance to these diseases is designated by a V or F after the variety name. If tomatoes in your region suffer from root-knot nematode (N), Tobacco Mosaic virus (T) or Alternaria (A), look for resistance to these diseases as well. Late blight has been a problem in recent years. Do what you can to understand the disease and prevent it.

Growth habit is important to consider because to get a bumper tomato crop, you need to provide enough room for the plant and adequate support. Tomato plants have one of two growth habits. Determinate (bush) varieties grow to a certain height (usually 2-3 ft), set fruit, and then concentrate on ripening that fruit. Indeterminate (vine) varieties keep growing taller and taller, setting and ripening fruit until they’re killed by frost.

If you have a limited amount of growing space or will be growing tomatoes in a container, you should probably select a determinate (bush) variety. Determinate varieties are also good for cold climate gardeners who need to harvest their whole crop within a couple weeks. If you have plenty of space, prefer to pick your tomatoes over several months, and are prepared to provide sturdy support with stakes, cages or ladders, select an indeterminate variety.

Heirloom, Open-Pollinated or Hybrid?

If you want to save your own seeds from one year to the next, you should plant heirloom or open-pollinated varieties. Seeds collected from these plants will "come true", meaning they will grow into an identical plant the following year. Heirloom tomatoes such as 'Brandywine', 'Red Calabash', 'Mortgage Lifter' and 'Arkansas Traveler' are all open-pollinated varieties that have been passed on from one generation to the next.

Hybrids are a cross between two genetically different varieties that have been selected for certain desirable traits. Hybrid varieties often offer better disease resistance or higher yields, but they will not come true from seed.

Most varieties of paste tomatoes are determinate. Because most of the fruit ripens within two or three weeks, I spend those couple weekends canning, making sauce for the freezer, and running the dehydrator. Then it's over! Because these determinate plants only get about 2 ft high, they do fine without any support. I just use plastic or straw mulch to keep the fruit off the ground.

Most cherry and beefsteak tomatoes are indeterminate. This means the plants get huge, but it also means they produce fruit continuously from early July right to frost.

Time to maturity is important if you have a short growing season. Where I live, I need to harvest my tomatoes by early September, before the light fades and frost comes. So I look for tomato varieties that will start ripening fruit in less than 75 days. Many of the really big beefsteak varieties require a full 90 days to mature.

Fruit characteristics are what I care about most. I use tomatoes in salads, on sandwiches, and just to eat out of hand. I dry them, can them and also use them in fresh and frozen sauces. So I select tomato varieties based on how well they're suited to these uses. Here are three of the varieties I've been planting lately:

  • Sun Gold is a 65-day, indeterminate golden-orange cherry tomato. The plants are big and rangy, so they need to be well staked, and should be surrounded by a strong cage, such as the Tomato Tower. Support them well, and they'll produce an incredible abundance of 1" diameter ultra-sweet fruit over a full 3 months. If you live where summers are hot, you probably don't have much trouble growing sweet, flavorful tomatoes. But in areas where summer is short and nights are cool, tomatoes never get very sweet. I have been so spoiled by Sun Gold's dependable super-sweet flavor that I now add them to my tomato sauces and slice them onto my sandwiches. I even dry them to toss into winter salads and pasta dishes.
  • Big Beef is another indeterminate tomato, but it produces big, 4 to 6" diameter fruit that are great for tomato sandwiches. At 80 days, this variety is early for a beefsteak-type, so I usually get a couple weeks worth of ripe fruit before frost. Tomato Ladders work well for this variety.
  • Juliet is a 60-day indeterminate that produces a huge crop. The fruit is oval and it's about 2" long. It's firm, glossy and quite dense, like a miniature paste tomato. Juliet ripens fast and furious, and I use it for soups, sauces, salsas and cold salads. They also get stewed whole for canning, and get halved for drying.

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