Choosing Tomatoes to Grow

Selecting Tomato Types and Varieties to Grow

Beginner gardeners often start with tomato plants that are widely available at garden centers in their area.  That is probably a wise starting point for since the garden centers tend to stock the old reliables that can be counted on to produce well in the region.   But even a small garden center will stock a lot of different tomatoes!  So where to begin?

First you need to understand the general types of plants you can grow.  The space you have available for tomatoes can guide you in selecting the type of plant, but harvest habits should also be considered. 

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  • Determinate plants will grow until a bud sets fruit at the top and then stops growing. The fruit matures and ripens all about at the same time. They are often called bush or dwarf varieties. Determinate tomatoes are easy to manage in standard garden center tomato cages and do not require pruning.

  • Indeterminate plants grow virtually continuously through the season. Fruit is produced successively right up until a frost, so you can harvest in batches. Because they can get so tall you will need tall stakes to support them. As you become experienced with indeterminate tomatoes you may decide to remove all side shoots and keep a single stem tied to a very tall stake. You can also allow them to grow bushy and prune the top growth to a shorter height.

  • Dwarf, or container tomatoes are widely available to grow in large containers on your deck or patio. Many are compact enough that you will not need to stake them. Fruits are generally on the smaller size but no less delicious.

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Your next decision might be to decide if you want to grow hybrid tomatoes or heirloom.  Remember that a hybrid is not genetically modified, but is carefully cross pollinated to create a plant that is superior in one or more ways.  Heirlooms tend to display superior attributes to a specific region, or native pest or problem, which is why the seeds are carefully saved and handed down generation after generation.  I prefer heirlooms because taste is probably the single most important thing that results in saving seed long enough to be considered an heirloom.  Hybrids are typically created to solve a perceived problem, such as disease.

In the short growing season of the North, and to lesser degree the Midwest, days to maturity is very important.  It will not do you any good to grow the most beautiful and delicious tomatoes if they cannot be harvested before frost.  There are many varieties to choose from for shorter growing seasons, and of course your local garden center prefers to stock the varieties that are ideal for your region.

With so very many types of tomatoes it is difficult to put them into simple categories.  But there are in fact a few basic types of tomatoes that they all roughly fit into.  How you want to use your tomatoes will determine which type of tomato you should grow.

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  • Cherry, or grape tomatoes are bite sized and perfect for tossing into salads or pasta.

  • Salad tomatoes are of medium size and great for just about anything you might want to use them for. Wedge them into a salad, slice them for a sandwich, just about any use.

  • Slicing tomatoes are large beefsteak type varieties. These are the great big juicy meaty delicious tomatoes that are oh so good no matter how you eat them. Eat these sloppy juicy beauties like an apple right out of the garden, cut thick slabs for your burger or BLT, or use for a lunch caprese.

  • Plum tomatoes are small to medium sized, generally oval shaped, and have few seeds. These fleshy tomatoes are perfect for canning, sauce, or soup.

One other thing to keep in mind, tomatoes enjoy lots of heat has well as sun.  As a general rule, a big beefsteak tomato will need more of both than a little cherry tomato.  Where summer is short and cooler in the north, that is something to keep in mind when selecting tomatoes to grow.

Like every gardener, I have some personal favorites.  But I always grow a variety for different purposes.  I prefer the grape tomatoes for salads and snacking because they last on long time on the vine and do not crack.  I absolutely love the heirlooms like juicy meaty Brandywine and the rich flavor of the dark tomatoes like Black Krim and Cherokee Purple.   I grow a couple of short season hybrids that produce quickly, and a couple of dwarfs for the straw bale garden.  And every year I like to try at least one new tomato.  Some years I think I am going to have way too many tomatoes, but I have learned that there really is no such thing as too many!

Sharon Dwyer