There are hundreds of tomato varieties. From marble-sized grape or cherry tomatoes, to juicy salad tomatoes, meaty paste tomatoes, and huge, sweet, beefsteak tomatoes. Their colors range from deep crimson to orange, yellow, green, purple, and chocolate.
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Determinate Tomatoes are bush types that grow 2-3 feet (60-90cm) tall, then the buds at the ends of all the branches form flowers instead of leaves. They flower all at once, set and ripen fruit, then die.
Indeterminate Tomatoes are vining types that need caging or staking for support, but will continue to grow and set fruit until frost kills them. They’re generally later than determinate tomatoes, and produce larger crops over a longer period.
Indeterminate tomatoes set flowers on lateral shoots off the main stems. If trained to a single or double leader and given support, many indeterminate tomato varieties can reach 8-10’ (1.5-3m) tall.
For the home gardener, mixing types of tomatoes spreads the fresh tomato harvest over the longest possible season. Plant determinate or early indeterminate tomato varieties for early summer tomatoes, and salad or beefsteak tomatoes for mid- and- late-summer harvest. If you like thick, rich tomato sauces, be sure to include some paste tomatoes in the mix.
Cherry and Grape Tomatoes
‘Sweet 100’ © Steve Masley
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If you’re growing tomatoes for the first time, or growing tomatoes in pots, Cherry Tomatoes are a good place to start. Cherry and grape tomatoes are small, usually less than 1” (2.5cm), and grow in large clusters.
Cherry tomatoes are generally the best choices for cool, alpine, or short-summer gardens, and small fruit size means they’re more suitable if you’re growing tomatoes in containers. They tend to have better disease resistance than larger tomato varieties, and they're more forgiving of drought stress and poor soil.
They’re also a hit with toddlers and kids, so if you’re trying to instill an appreciation for fresh foods in your kids, growing cherry tomatoes is a good start.
‘Sweet 100’ (F1 hybrid, Indeterminate, 65-70 days) is a great-tasting, prolific cherry tomato. The vigorous indeterminate vines produce dozens of irresistibly sweet, bite-sized tomatoes on long trusses.
‘Sungold’ (F1 hybrid, Indeterminate, 65 days, resistant to verticilium and fusarium wilts 1 and 2) produces sweet, orange, 1” (2.5cm) tomatoes that are perfect for salads. Its vigorous, indeterminate vines start producing early, and keep producing till first frost.
‘Black Cherry’ (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, Indeterminate, 70 days) has large clusters of 1”, deep purplish-red fruit with true tomato taste, not just sweetness. Great resistance to diseases for an heirloom tomato.
'Sunrise Bumble Bee' is a beautiful orange cherry tomato with red streaks through the flesh, a perfect addition to a colorful summer salad.
Romanesco’ © Steve Masley
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Salad Tomatoes form 2-3” (5-7.5cm) diameter fruit, perfect for slicing on sandwiches or chopping into salads. They’re usually a little tarter and juicier than cherry tomatoes or beefsteak tomatoes, with some acid to balance their sweetness. Some have undertones of tropical fruits.
Salad tomatoes make a great, quick tomato sauce, but if they're really juicy you'll have to cook them down to the right consistency.
Salad tomatoes have more cultivars than any other type of tomato. Here are a few favorites:
‘Pantano Romanesco’ (Heirloom, Indeterminate, 70-75 days) became one of our favorite red slicing tomatoes after our first season growing it. Pantano Romanesco has the perfect balance between sweetness and citrussy tartness, a wonderful tomato.
‘Green Zebra’ (Heirloom, Indeterminate, 70-75 days) is a tart, pale green 2-4" (5-10 cm) tomato with darker green stripes that's among the best heirloom salad tomatoes. Tomatoes are ripe when the shoulders have a yellowish cast. Fast-growing indeterminate vines.
‘Black Zebra’ (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, Indeterminate, 75-80 days) is similar to 'Green Zebra', but with deep, purplish-black flesh with red streaks, and great flavor. Vigorous indeterminate vines have good disease resistance for an heirloom.
'Costoluto Genovese' (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, 80-85 days) is so heavily ribbed that it looks misshapen, but these are some of the juiciest, best-tasting tomatoes you’ll ever grow. These twisted, deep red tomatoes have orange shoulders when they’re ripe, so don’t leave them on the vine too long—usually not a problem since they’re so good! A client favorite in spite of relatively low yields.
'Sweet Clusters' (F1 hybrid, Indeterminate, 65-75 days) is one of the hothouse tomatoes you see in big, pricey clusters in the middle of winter. Vine-ripened in the summer, it’s almost like a different fruit. Perfect balance between sweetness, tartness, and tomato flavor. The vigorous vines are easy to train ‘Italian Grandfather Style’
'Valencia' (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, Indeterminate, 76 days) is a 2-3” (5-7.5cm) orange tomato with the texture—and flavor!—of a sweet, ripe mango, with a citrussy edge. Not too juicy, very few seeds. Indeterminate vines are shorter than most, so plant in front of taller varieties.
'Carmello' (F1 Hybrid, Indeterminate, 65-70 days) is a midsize, 3-4” (7-10cm) tomato with a nice balance between acidic and sweet. Very productive, indeterminate vines produce late into the season.
'Stupice' (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, Indeterminate potato-leafed, 60-65 days) produces deep-red, 2” (5cm), oblong tomatoes. Starts early and produces continuously for the whole summer, even in cool-summer gardens.
'Early Girl' (F1 hybrid, Indeterminate, 80 days) is a great tomato for early harvest and northern or cool-summer gardens. It produces clusters of 1½-2” (4-5cm) deep-red fruits with just the right combination of sweetness and true tomato flavor.
'Enchantment' (F1 hybrid, Indeterminate, 72 days, resistant to verticilium and fusarium wilts 1 and 2, nematodes, and tobacco mosaic virus) is a 3” (7.5cm), oval salad tomato that grows in fat clusters spiraling around the vine. One of the most versatile tomatoes you can grow, it has great flavor, but is not so juicy that you can’t make a quick sauce without having to cook off a lot of water. One of the best varieties for making oven-dried tomatoes. Vigorous indeterminate vines. May be susceptible to Blossom End Rot in hot or under-watered gardens. Seeds are getting hard to find.
© Steve Masley…Click IMAGE to Enlarge
Beefsteak Tomatoes produce large, heavy fruit. These are the big, thick, meaty tomatoes that are so prized for sandwiches—and one of the main reasons for growing tomatoes. Some varieties reach 6” (15cm) in diameter, and can weigh in from 1-3 lbs (0.45-1.4 kg).
Beefsteak tomatoes need a longer growing season and more heat than smaller varieties, so they may not be suitable for short-summer or cool-summer gardens.
‘Big Beef’ (F1 hybrid, 75-80 days, resists verticillium and fusarium wilts 1 and 2, nematodes, and tobacco mosaic virus) is an early beefsteak variety that’s a good choice for growing tomatoes in cooler climates. 4-6” (10-15cm) tomatoes, firm texture, good tomato flavor. Good performer in most areas.
‘Brandywine Pink’ (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, Indeterminate potato-leafed, 85 days) is a classic beefsteak tomato. They have great flavor and consistently win tomato tastings, but they’re not very productive.
‘Cherokee Purple’ (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, Indeterminate, 85 days) has a smokey sweetness that makes it a client favorite year after year. Plants are not as productive as other beefsteak varieties, but even clients with limited space request this variety.
‘Caspian Pink’ (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, Indeterminate potato-leafed, 85 days) is a classic beefsteak tomato, juicy and sweet. My wife's favorite tomato.
‘Hillbilly’ (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, Indeterminate, 85 days) is an orange heirloom beefsteak tomato with red streaks through its flesh, almost like a peach. Beautiful sliced on a sandwich or cut in large wedges.
‘Black Krim’ (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, Indeterminate, 85 days) is one of the most flavorful heirloom beefsteak tomatoes. Large, sweet, reddish-purple fruits are beautiful sliced or cut in wedges. Clients request this variety year after year.
‘Mortgage Lifter’ (Heirloom—Open Pollinated, Indeterminate, 85 days) is a huge red heirloom beefsteak tomato that produces heavy yields on strong, indeterminate vines. Fruits weigh as much as 2 lbs.
Roma (Paste) Tomatoes are dense Italian plum tomatoes like San Marzano, with sweet, firm flesh, high pectin content, not much juice, and few seeds…the perfect sauce tomato, since it thickens naturally and needs less cooking time to evaporate off excess moisture.
Their low moisture content gives them extended fresh storage time, and they’re great for drying or topping pizzas.
‘Big Mama’ (F1 hybrid, Indeterminate, 80 days produces huge (3" x 5"–7 x 13cm), heavy paste tomatoes that make excellent sauce, especially if sliced in half and fire-roasted first.
‘San Marzano’ (F1 hybrid, Indeterminate, 85 days, resistant to verticilium and fusarium wilt 1, tobacco mosaic virus, nematodes, and bacterial speck) produces high yields of heavy, 1 ½ x 5” (4 x 12cm) fruits. Vigorous indeterminate plants.
‘Sweet Cluster’ © Steve Masley
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Buy 'Sweet Cluster' Seeds
Hybrid Tomato Varieties are bred for higher yields, disease resistance, ease of harvesting, or—in the worst case—extended shelf life.
Hybrid tomato varieties are crosses between different cultivars, and there’s little chance they’ll produce true to form from saved seeds—they usually revert to one of the parents, or some random combination of traits instead of the ones selected to increase yield and performance.
For decades, plant breeders and seed companies focused on producing tomatoes that work with large-scale, mechanized production. That meant determinate tomatoes, which are easier and more predictable to harvest, but they went a step further and selected for tomatoes with thick skins and less moisture.
The most egregious example is the “12-mile-an-hour” tomato. These “tomatoes” were bred to withstand the impact of the mechanical tomato harvester (12 miles per hour). They’re harvested just as they’re turning pink, and gassed with ethylene gas to give them a reddish color. Unlike any real tomato, these will last for months after harvest.
© Steve Masley…Click IMAGE to Enlarge
Such “tomatoes” are easier to harvest and get to market, so they gradually displaced better tomatoes in supermarkets, and consumers came to accept these mealy imposters because they had no other choice.
Fortunately, home gardeners have always had a choice. If a hybrid tasted great or produced prodigiously, they’d plant it, but if it was mealy and bland, they could ask Mrs. Potreli down the street for some seeds for those rambling, tasty tomatoes from her garden.
Heirloom tomato varieties, prized for superior flavor or excellent performance under local conditions, have been passed down through families or from neighbor to neighbor and saved for generations. Heirloom tomato varieties are “open-pollinated”, meaning they’ll reproduce true to form from saved seeds.
These juicy, thin-skinned beauties can’t be shipped long distances, so large-scale tomato farmers—and companies that supply them seed—ignored them. Fortunately, home gardeners and local farmers preserved many from extinction, and thanks to organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange, they’re now more widely available.
When I started growing tomatoes organically, farmers and seed companies were asleep at the switch, and we were losing tomato cultivars at an alarming rate. Planting hybrid tomatoes was considered immoral, a capitulation to agribusiness seed companies.
Now, with the rise of the chef-driven local foods movement and the revitalization of farmers markets and small-scale vegetable farming and gardening, heirloom tomato varieties are avidly pursued, not just preserved.
Some organic gardeners remain heirloom tomato purists, and turn their noses up at the thought of growing hybrid tomato varieties, or hybrid varieties of any vegetable.
I am not among them. I’ve always grown tomatoes in challenging, cool-summer climates, where a limited number of tomatoes will work. If an heirloom variety produces well in my climate, I’m happy to grow it, but I’m just as happy growing a hybrid tomato variety that produces bumper crops of delicious tomatoes.
These are the heirloom tomato varieties I’ve grown, and can recommend (by type of tomato):
Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes: ‘Black Cherry’
Heirloom Paste Tomatoes: 'San Marzano'.
Descriptions of these varieties are found under each type of tomato, above.
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