Tomatoes are a favorite crop among gardeners and for good reason. Tomatoes offer delicious flavor and come in various colors, shapes and sizes. They’re also quite versatile in the kitchen, from eating fresh in salads to simmering into tomato sauce or canning for the winter.
There are hundreds of tomatoes you could plant, so choosing the right ones for your garden can be difficult. To simplify the selection process, there are at least four factors to keep in mind:
Length of the growing season
- Fruit type
- Vine type
- Disease resistance
- Length of Growing Season
Every tomato plant needs time to grow and produce fruit, and that time to maturity varies depending on the tomato variety. Some tomato varieties can be ready to harvest in as little as 50 days; others may take 100 days. The time to maturity information is an estimate of the amount of time from when you plant your tomato transplants to when the first ripe fruit is ready to pick.
To make the most of your tomato crop, start by selecting tomatoes by their time to maturity dates. Smart gardeners know that planting tomatoes with a range of maturity dates is a way to ensure there will be tomatoes to harvest even if the weather for planting and growing is unpredictable (as it usually is in our region).
- Early season tomatoes mature in as little as 50 days. Early tomatoes are specially bred to withstand some cooler temperatures early in the season and can include varieties like ‘Early Girl’ (52 days), ‘Fourth of July’ (50 days), and ‘Better Boy’ (52 days).
- Mid-season tomatoes mature in about 70 days. Good mid-season tomato choices include ‘Big Beef’ (73 days), ‘Celebrity’ (70 days), and ‘Mountain Pride’ (77 days).
- Late-season tomato varieties can take 80 days and longer to mature. Examples of late-season tomatoes include ‘Beef Master’ (80 days), ‘Black Krim’ (80 days), and ‘Beefsteak’ (96 days).
When it comes to fruit type for tomatoes, consider the size of the fruit, fruit color, and how you’ll use the tomatoes in your cooking.
Size of Fruit. Tomatoes can be grape-size or cherry-size fruits or they can grow so large they weigh several pounds.
Fruit Color. Tomatoes can be any of a rainbow of colors including red, orange, yellow, green, indigo, white, black and striped. Color has a lot to do with flavor, so read tomato descriptions carefully to find tomatoes to your taste whether you prefer a smoky flavor, fruity flavor, tart or melon-like flavor.
Tomato Uses. Different tomatoes serve different purposes in the kitchen. If you grow tomatoes to make tomato sauce, you’ll need to plant paste-type varieties. Large, fresh slices for a sandwich come from larger beefsteak tomatoes; cherry tomatoes make for excellent eating right off the vine.
Hybrid versus Heirloom Plants
When deciding on tomatoes, you’ll also have your pick of hybrid or heirloom varieties.
- A hybrid tomato plant is a new plant that was created by crossing two different plants. If you saved the seeds of a hybrid to plant, you wouldn’t get the same plant, but one of the original parent plants.
- Heirloom plants are those that have been grown in the same way for many years and may have been passed along among family or friends. If you saved the seeds from an heirloom tomato to plant, you’d get the same plant as the parent plant.
Some gardeners prefer one kind of plant over the other – or they grow both types. In some cases, the hybrid plants have been bred to be more disease resistant and are easier to grow. For gardeners who want to save their tomato seeds, heirloom varieties would be their choice.
Tomatoes are also classified by one of three vine types:
Indeterminate: Tomatoes that are classified as indeterminate have vines that continue to grow and produce fruit all season. These tomato vines require a large tomato cage or staking because they can grow over 10-feet long. The fruits on indeterminate tomato plants are generally larger than determinate tomatoes.
Determinate: Tomatoes classified as determinate are those in which the plant grows to a predetermined size, usually smaller. Patio, container or bush tomatoes are all determinate types because they produce fruit all at the same time over a couple months and then stop producing. Most determinate tomatoes need only some staking or a small tomato cage.
Semi-determinate: Tomatoes classified as semi-determinate are those with growth habits that fall between the other two. They typically will grow larger than determinate tomatoes, but the vines won’t get as long as indeterminate varieties. They may need a tomato cage or staking and they’ll usually produce one main crop of tomatoes that ripens at the same time, but will continue to produce some fruits until the end of the season.
When shopping for tomatoes, whether reading seed packet descriptions or plant tags, you’ll see the variety name followed by a list of letters, something like VFNTA. These letters are important indicators for that variety’s resistance to common plant problems.
Here’s how to decipher those letters:
V: Verticillium Wilt is a soilborne disease that starts in the roots and can result in little or no fruit. It shows up when leaves suddenly wilt and turn brown.
F: Fusarium Wilt is another soilborne fungal disease that cause problems with the tomato plant’s vascular tissues. Look for plants that start to wilt in the middle of the day, even when the plant’s been watered.
N: Nematodes are microscopic soil pests that affect plant roots and stunt plant growth.
T or TMV: Tobacco Mosaic Virus is a plant disease that causes leaves to pucker or twist. The virus causes stunted plants that may not produce tomatoes.
A: Alternaria Leaf Spot is a fungal disease that usually develops on young plants. Alternaria shows up as dark brown or black spots on leaves.
Tomatoes are a rewarding crop to grow, if you plan for a long growing season and maintain good gardening practices. Take time to select the tomato varieties that best match your growing season, garden conditions and taste. Then give your plants plenty of sunshine, water, fertilizer and care.