Gardening Basics

Planting the Top Tomato

From hybrids to heirlooms, find the right variety of tomatoes for your garden patch.

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Many Varieties of Tomatoes

Gardeners who love tomatoes dream of the ultimate tomato sandwich, the best tangy salad tomato, the most succulent spaghetti sauce. Their yearly quest seeks the ultimate in taste and timing. And gardeners who already have favorites love to try out new ones. Which varieties produce the most flavorful tomatoes, the most abundant crops, the earliest fruit or the most colorful flesh? Those are the red-hot questions.

So what varieties to choose? The choices seem endless. And if you wait until the last minute to get transplants, you might be stuck with what's left on garden center shelves.

Besides pleasing your palate, the variety has to do well in your climate. Gardeners in northern climates need varieties that require the fewest days to maturity. Pacific Northwest gardeners choose plants that tolerate relatively cool summers, while those in the Deep South need varieties that can take the heat. And then there's the resistance-to-disease issue.

"If you grow tomatoes in the same spot every year, you get a buildup of wilt spores and nematodes," says Doug Dalton, extension agent for Knox County, Tenn. "So I always steer people toward wilt- and nematode-resistant varieties."

Then you have to factor in hybrid vs. open-pollinated, indeterminate vs. determinate. First, some quick definitions:

Hybrids are the result of a cross between two different varieties; seeds of hybrids usually produce inferior, off-type plants.

Open-pollinated varieties reproduce true from seed, retaining the same characteristics from one generation to the next.

Determinate tomatoes usually have compact plants that bear fruits at about the same time.

Indeterminate plants continue to grow and set fruits until frost. Staking is a must.

In the past, hybrids usually meant thick-skinned tomatoes with only good - but not great - flavor. A tomato had to withstand early picking, shipping, and long storage, and that often meant putting taste last. If you wanted superior flavor and color, you had to look at the heirloom varieties. These open-pollinated plants continue to offer some of the best possibilities for great taste.

But concern for flavor returned to hybrid breeding programs in recent years, and now, thankfully, it's possible to wed flavor and good performance in hybrids as well as heirlooms. Here are only some of the noteworthy varieties in both categories. Before you select though, check with your local extension office to make sure a particular variety is suited to your area.

Hybrids

  • 'Celebrity'. When an extension agent says this is one of the varieties he plants in his own garden, you know it's an enduring winner. "It's one of our top choices for homeowners," Dalton. "It performs well and is really good-tasting." An All-America Selections winner in 1984, 'Celebrity' even beat out one of the most popular heritage varieties ('Brandywine') in a taste test. Fruits are red, firm and range from 7 to 8 ounces. Very productive, 70 days from transplanting. Plants are said to be determinate, but many gardeners report them to be indeterminate.

  • 'Sweet 100'. A "grape tomato" (more oblong than a traditional cherry tomato), this exceptional plant comes in either a hybrid or an open-pollinated form and both are exceptional. "I've just not found anything else that can beat it," says Julia Laughlin, head of the horticulture department at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City and a vegetable judge for All-America Selections. "The production is so high, the flavor is so good, that I can always count on it."


Heirlooms (Open-pollinated)

  • 'Brandywine'. This pink tomato (and red strains are available, too) has become one of the quintessential champion for its old-fashioned, rich taste. The Sudduth's strain has more rounded fruit and fewer knobby shoulders, plus there's less cracking, so there's less waste. 90 days after transplanting. Indeterminate.

  • 'Stupice'. Gardeners searching for a short-season heritage tomato might want to try this Czech variety. Fruits are small (2-1/2 inches) but very flavorful, and yields are heavy. Depending on how warm the days are, this plant can mature in as little as 55 days (up to 70 days in cooler weather). A good tomato for northern climates. Indeterminate.

  • 'Cherokee Purple'. This 12-oz. dark mahogany tomato is said to be as good as 'Brandywine' and extremely sweet. 80 days. Indeterminate.

  • Other great hybrids: 'Better Boy', 'Big Boy', 'Sunmaster', 'Jet Star', 'Golden Girl', 'Early Cascade' (extra early)

  • Other great heirlooms: 'Arkansas Traveler', 'Yellow Pear', 'Gold Medal', 'Green Zebra', 'Big Rainbow', 'Black Krim'


These varieties can make great starting points for your tomato garden. But you'll also want to try others. Ask friends and neighbors what varieties they like to grow. "I always stick with my favorites, but you'll also see a sprinkling of new ones," Laughlin says.

As any gardener knows, only through experimenting will you find the tomato of your dreams.

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