With the hundreds of wonderful and reliable tomato varieties that are known to do well in California and other Mediterranean climates, in an astonishing diversity of colors, sizes, shapes and uses, it may take time and research to select varieties that best meet your needs.
For help with making your selections, GardenZeus expert Darren Butler offers this introductory guide to tomato selection. Here are 7 steps to selecting tomato seed (or transplant) varieties:
1) What are your needs and purposes for tomatoes?
What do you want from your tomatoes? Do you want a variety that’s vigorous and disease-resistant? Or is flavor more important than anything else? Look for varieties that match your style of cooking and eating. Options to consider include fresh use versus cooking, how large and consistent a harvest you want, and how many different kinds of tomatoes you want to grow. Salad, slicing, and many heirloom tomatoes are good for general and fresh use, while plum or paste tomatoes are generally preferred for cooking.
2) What are your growing conditions and challenges?
Gardeners in California will want varieties that do well in low humidity, and varieties that are known to be generally vigorous and productive. Heat-tolerance is important in many of California’s warm to hot inland valleys; the ability to pollinate in cooler temperatures is important in some of California’s cooler coastal climates.
3) Choose the type(s) of tomatoes that you want and think about fruit size.
See The GardenZeus Guide to Four Basic Tomato Categories to understand the main types of tomatoes.
4) Think about indeterminate versus determinate.
Do you prefer to harvest a tomato here and there for fresh eating, or would it be better for you to harvest many tomatoes at once to process for sauce or preserves?
Indeterminate tomato varieties are those that continue growing after flowering, and that set fruits steadily rather than in one large crop. They tend to produce longer vines and sprawling plants, which may be unattractive or difficult to manage for some gardeners, and often need stronger or more elaborate staking. Most of the famous heirloom varieties are indeterminate. It can be more difficult to obtain good yields, especially under challenging soil and environmental conditions, with indeterminate varieties, but they can also produce indefinitely and over long periods of time, generally with small and sporadic yields after the first season. Indeterminate varieties are often favored by home gardeners for cooking and fresh eating, and anyone who wants staggered or slow-but-steady harvests of tomatoes.
Determinate tomato plants are usually more compact than indeterminate varieties; they grow until they flower and then set a single heavy crop. They are generally a bit easier to grow successfully to a reasonable harvest and often requiring less-elaborate staking. Determinate varieties are often favored by cooks who want to make one large batch of sauce for catsup or sauce for preserving, and also by commercial farmers and anyone wanting a large harvest of tomatoes all at once.
5) Choose heirloom or hybrid, and think about space and productivity.
There isn’t exact agreement on what makes a tomato variety an heirloom; generally heirlooms are old varieties, usually in cultivation for at least 40 to 50 years, although purists might require pre-1920 or even older; and are open pollinated, which means that when pollinated by themselves or by other plants of the same variety, they will come true from seed.
Heirloom tomato varieties tend to be less productive per plant and produce a smaller quantity of tomatoes overall for a given planting area than hybrids. Their skins are usually thinner so that they crack and bruise more easily; some heirloom varieties may bruise if stacked on top of each other when harvesting. Despite these challenges, GardenZeus considers growing heirloom tomatoes to be one of the greatest joys of gardening and recommends that all tomato lovers give heirlooms a try for their dazzling and rich flavors, variable colors, and other unique and diverse qualities. GardenZeus generally recommends organic, open-pollinated and heirloom seed varieties.
If you want a constant supply of tomatoes throughout the growing season, GardenZeus recommends growing at least few to several (about 5 to 10) individual plants from a few different heirloom varieties per family member or enthusiastic tomato eater. You may also want to grow one or two hybrid plants per person to help ensure a steady supply of tomatoes.
Hybrid tomatoes result from the crossing of 2 or more known varieties, and generally will come true only in the current generation; seeds saved from hybrid varieties generally produce tomatoes that are different and usually less desirable than the parent plant. Hybrid tomatoes tend to be more vigorous, more productive, and more resistant to diseases than heirloom and open-pollinated varieties. If you have done your best to provide reasonable environmental conditions and soil for open-pollinated tomato plants and still have had disease issues or poor yields, you may wish to try a hybrid variety.
It’s important to select tomato varieties that are resistant to disease(s) or pests that are prevalent in your local area or that have affected your tomato plants in the past. Some heirlooms are disease resistant, but hybrids are more commonly planted when disease is a concern. Examples of tomato diseases are Fusarium or Verticillium wilts; and an example of a common tomato pest is nematodes.
6) Review the details of your short list of choices, including growth habit, plant size, and fruit color. Don’t forget about taste!
Some tomato varieties grow into monster-sized plants, in some cases outgrowing even the largest tomato cages or staking baskets that are commonly available, particularly some hybrid varieties.
Smaller tomatoes, especially cherry and grape tomatoes, are often but not always sweeter than larger-fruited varieties. Generally the lighter the fruit color, the sweeter the tomato, so orange and yellow to creamy-colored “white” tomatoes are sweet, while the dark-red to black tomatoes tend to have a richer, and often more acidic, tart, or complex flavor.
Most gardeners agree that heirloom varieties are generally more flavorful and sweeter than hybrids; this may have to do with the priority on breeding many hybrid tomatoes to withstand bruising and to look perfect on supermarket shelves rather than for flavor. Many hybrid tomato varieties bred for growing in home gardens are flavorful.
7) Plant tried-and-true tomato varieties along with those that are new to your garden to help ensure a consistent harvest.
Regardless of the varieties you choose, home-grown tomatoes are likely to be among the most rewarding and delicious vegetables in your garden.
Do you prefer a simple road map to good tomato varieties for your climate zone? GardenZeus has complete growing instructions for tomato and specific suggestions for varieties that will thrive in your area. To get started, enter your zip code here. Then, refer to “Recommended Varieties/Cultivars” in the GardenZeus section “Getting Started” for tomato.
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