How to Choose Tomato Varieties to Grow
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
We offer 125 varieties of heirloom and specialty tomato plants every spring at our garden shop. With that many varieties it can sometimes be a little overwhelming for customers to decide which varieties to purchase. Customers often ask what our favorite varieties are when they are deciding which tomato plants to purchase for their gardens. I like to ask customers many of the following questions to determine which varieties will work best for them. I will share some of our favorites in a bit but here are a few considerations when deciding which varieties to grow.
Are you growing in containers, a raised bed, in the ground outside or in a greenhouse? Many varieties do terrific in containers and raised beds like the dwarf and determinate varieties. If space is not an issue and you don't mind staking a 6-8' plant then there are many indeterminate varieties. Most of the heirlooms fall into this category.
Red, yellow, orange, purple, green? We love the rich flavor of the black tomatoes but some customers just can't get past the color. The yellows tend to taste sweet. Some consider them to be low acid but in fact all tomatoes have similar acidity. The yellows are higher in sugar content
so they taste sweet.
Days to Maturity
In general the smaller the tomato, the quicker it will produce ripe fruit. That is why I plant a Waimea Wild Cherry and a Sun Gold in the greenhouse in February:-) When planning your garden it makes sense to select a few early, a few mid and a few late varieties. This will give you a steady supply of fresh tomatoes for the entire season.
Size of Tomato
Aside from the fact that the smaller tomatoes usually ripen sooner I like to have a number of different sizes. The cherry tomatoes are great to eat right off the plant in the garden or use in salads. A cocktail tomato, or a 2-bite, 2 oz. tomato, is perfect for cutting in quarters for a salad or stuffing. Instead of cutting into a large slicer for a tossed salad for 2 people, I like to use the cocktail tomatoes. I find that 1 large tomato is too much. Once you slice into the tomato the leftover part just doesn't taste as good the next day. Plum and paste tomatoes are also great for salads and for processing into sauce. They tend to be firm with few seeds and are also great for dicing for tacos or bruschetta. The medium and large tomatoes are great for sandwiches, BLTs, hamburgers and slicing on a plate with fresh mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, salt, pepper, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate
A determinate tomato plant sets all of it's fruit over a few weeks and is typically not a very large plant. The plant dies off after the fruit is produced. Many are hybrids. They are great varieties for commercial production with succession planting. If you are processing tomatoes this is a good choice too as you will have a large harvest in a short time. Heirloom varieties are usually indeterminate so the plant continues to set and produce fruit until the frost kills the plant in the fall. The plants get very large, need staking and are sometimes a little unwieldy. The upside is that you will have tomatoes over a long time period.
Hybrid vs. Open Pollinated
Hybrids are intentional crosses of 2 varieties. If the seeds from a tomato harvested from a hybrid variety are planted the plants will produce fruit resembling each of the parents and not the fruit that it came from. An open pollinated variety is suitable to save seeds and plant the following year. The fruit is true to type. The heirlooms are all open pollinated and this is how they have been passed down through generations. We find that the heirlooms are usually very flavorful compared to hybrids but there are a few hybrids that stand out for flavor. Hybrids are often bred for disease resistance and high production having uniform fruit.
That covered the basics on variety selection. There is a lot of information on the varieties on our website where you can sort them by different criteria. Here are a few of our favorites:
Waimea Wild Cherry - Grows wild in Hawaii. The plants are very large and they produce hundreds of small, sweet, red cherry tomatoes. This type is considered to be a currant style tomato. They may be small but the flavor is the best.
Black Cherry - Rich, earthy flavor in a dark purple 1 oz. tomato. Just love them off the vine.
Sun Gold - Yellow cherry tomato with amazing flavor and production. Gotta have one in the garden every year.
Sweet 100s- Go-to proven red cherry tomato that is prolific. My mother always had one in her garden and so do we.
Flamme and Clementine - These 2 are similar. Flamme is an heirloom and Clementine is a hybrid. They both produce 2 oz., bright orange tomatoes with terrific flavor. Both are indeterminate with a long season.
Violet Jasper - Interesting purple and green striped tomato. It is almost iridescent. Very juicy and makes nice presentation. Beautiful on the plant too.
Moneymaker - Love this one! This plant is so prolific with small, red tomatoes that are nearly blemish free and it is also an heirloom.
Bush Beefsteak - This plant always catches my eye when I am in the garden. It is a determinate so does great in a container or raised bed. The tomatoes are consistently sized and have few blemishes. Great choice for red slicer in a container or in the ground.
Persimmon - This is an absolutely beautiful persimmon colored tomato. It is a very old heirloom dating back to 1781. Sweet but has firm flesh and has hints of citrus. We grow one every year.