Since I LOVE tomatoes so much and am trying to grow all of my own plants this year, I am becoming a bit of an expert on the subject. I want to pass on some of what I have learned, so here are some things you should know when choosing tomatoes for your garden.
First off you need to know what the terms “determinate” and “indeterminate” mean. Determinate tomato vines grow to a size, determined by their ancestors. This is usually 2-4 feet tall. All of their tomatoes will ripen at about the same time, giving a nice crop for canning all at once. They are sometimes called bush tomatoes because they stay a small bush unlike indeterminate varieties. Indeterminate tomatoes will keep growing and producing fruit until the cold kills them in the fall. If your area has a long growing season you can harvest tomatoes from the same plant for months and months. They will need some sort of trellis to hold them up, unless you have the space to allow them to vine along the ground. They look really cool when grown in hanging baskets and allowed to vine over the sides too. People usually remove any extra side branches and grow one main vine, which can grow to over 20 feet in length. Old heirloom varieties are usually indeterminate and most modern varieties (including hybrids) are usually determinate. There are some exceptions to this rule so if you are unsure read the label or ask the seed dealer or nurseryman for help. Sometimes you will see a tomato variety described as “semideterminate” and those will usually get about 6 feet tall and require some trellising or a good cage, but nothing as elaborate as the indeterminate varieties.
There is nothing wrong with choosing hybrid plants or seed as long as you do not care about saving your own seed. Seeds saved from hybrid tomatoes will not usually produce plants similar to the parent plant and may grow into a plant with little fruit or have some other problem. A hybrid is not a GMO. I could, and maybe should, write a whole other post on that subject alone but for now I’m just going to tell you to google it. I would like to try saving my own seeds so I am growing heirlooms this year.
Another thing to keep in mind is climate tolerance. Tomatoes are a warm weather plant but certain varieties are more tolerant of cold or fluctuating temperatures than others. If you have hot days and cold nights, a short growing season, or just want to get some tomatoes extra early or extra late look for varieties like Glacier and Gregory’s Altai, normally describer as cool climate or extra early. Some catalogs will have a seperate section just for these more cold tolerant varieties. There are also early, midseason, and late varieties. If you have a short growing season you do not want to get late season plants that are going to need 3 months to start producing fruit so make sure you buy a type that is appropriate for your growing season.
There are also tomatoes known for making paste out of and also for drying purposes. A couple of well known examples are Roma and Amish Paste. If you want to make your own paste and sauce or give drying a try, starting with the right tomato for the job will help your chances of having good results.
There are also cherry tomatoes to be considered. In my opinion every gardener should have atleast one cherry tomato plant. These rarely make it into the house with me around. Just like larger tomatoes, there are determinate and indeterminate varieties. The heirloom, open-pollinated varieties are usually indeterminate varieties but there are exceptions. If you want an heirloom cherry tomato for your patio or hanging basket, give Whippersnapper a try.
Once you have made it this far in the selection process there is still one VERY IMPORTANT thing to consider and that is disease resistance. Some varieties will have a cluster of letters after their name. These letters stand for the diseases that variety is known to be resistant to. The Roma VFN is an example of this.
I suck at remembering what all the letters mean so here is the cheat sheet.
Beyond this you may want to consider the mature color of the fruit or other special properties. This shouldn’t be your first consideration but hey, who wouldn’t want a rainbow of delicious fruit to impress the neighbors and draw attention at the farmer’s market?
This is really just the basics here but I hope it helps you navigate your way through the seed catalogs and nursery plants with a little less confusion.