Selecting Tomato Plants for Your Garden

Whether you're new to the joys of growing tomatoes or a long-term tomato aficionado, choosing from among the thousands of varieties is tough. Here's how to make sense of all the options.

Tomatoes and Basil Taste and Look Great Together

Lots of choices. Besides the obvious variation in size, shape, color and intended use of tomatoes, the plants that produce them vary in life cycle, growth habit, time to maturiy, disease resistance and special characteristics such as tolerance to heat or cold. And every category of tomato includes those differences.

Garden Full of Tomato Plants

Indeterminate tomatoes continue to grow, flower and set fruit through the entire growing season, extending the harvest over many weeks or months. Their stems may reach to 15 feet or more (though they're usually more like 6 to 8 feet) and get heavy, so they need a very sturdy cage or trellis. The majority of tomato varieties fall into this category. A few examples: 'Big Beef', 'Husky Gold', 'Razzle Dazzle'.

Determinate varieties grow until they reach a certain height (typically about 3 feet), then produce flowers at the shoot tips and stop growing. The fruits all set around the same time and ripen over a period of a few weeks, which is great if you want a lot of tomatoes at one time for preserving. Examples: 'Legend', 'Marglobe', 'Taxi'.

Beefsteak tomato

Vining or climbing types produce relatively slender vines reaching 3 feet or more. You could let them sprawl, but harvesting is much easier (and the fruit stays cleaner) if you give them support, such as a sturdy stake, cage or trellis. Most tomatoes are vining types. Examples: 'Beefsteak', 'Brandywine', 'Climbing Triple Crop'. By contrast, bush tomatoes have shorter stems (to about 3 feet), so you can use a light stake or trellis to prop them up or leave them unsupported. Examples: 'Bush Champion', 'Super Bush', 'White Bush'.

So-called patio: tomatoes such as 'Patio' and 'Patio Princess' are bushy and compact, usually good for container growing. Instead of growing up, basket tomatoes tend to branch out and produce trailing side stems, so they're perfect for growing in hanging baskets. Examples: 'Tumbler', 'Tumbling Tom Yellow' (pictured).

Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirlooms are varieties that people have saved from year to year and passed down from generation to generation. Heirlooms may not be as productive or uniform as hybrids, but they have other traits that gardeners prize, such as outstanding flavor or exceptional adaptability to regional growing conditions. Examples: 'Aunt Ruby's German Green', 'Cherokee Purple', 'Mortgage Lifter'.

Ripe Yellow Pear Tomatoes

Tomatoes come in a lot of shapes, of course, and go by types such as currant (very tiny), cherry, grape and plum. Pictured here is the pear type, which along with plum tomatoes are often called paste tomatoes because their meaty texture and low percentage of juice make them perfect for sauces and for canning. Examples: 'Red Pear', 'Yellow Pear'.

Unique Green Sausage Tomato

The sausage types are medium-sized tomatoes with a cylindrical form, tapering to a point at the bottom. Examples: 'Cream Sausage', 'Green Sausage' (shown here).

Black Krim Sungold Yellow Zebra tomato

Tomato varieties range from black to white, and include pink, orange, red, yellow and green. Shown here: 'Black Krim', a Russian beefsteak heirloom; 'Sungold', an orange hybrid cherry; and 'Yellow Zebra', a beefsteak heirloom.

Early Girl tomato

Short-season tomatoes are a good choice if you want to harvest your first tomatoes as soon as possible, or if you live in an area where the growing season is short. Their fruits are usually ready 55 to 65 days from the day you transplant your tomatoes to the garden. Examples: 'Early Girl', 'Polfast', 'Sub Arctic Early'.

Gardeners in areas with late spring frosts, cool summers or even too-hot summers reach for tomato varieties like 'Oregon Spring' that don't depend on pollination to produce fruit. — image courtesy of Tomato Fest

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