Finally! Tomato season is back! Caprese salads, fresh tomato sauce, refreshing cherry tomatoes. We’ve all been waiting for that delicious, and somewhat elusive, taste of a fresh, homegrown tomato. If you want that real homegrown tomato taste you have two options: buy some from a local farmer at a market or grow your own. This article focuses on the helping you get started with the second option.
Selecting a Tomato Variety
Buying tomato transplants at the nursery can seem overwhelming with so many varieties and types to choose from. With names like Black Krim, Green Zebra, and Governor Pennypacker how can you decide? Outlined below is a simple guide to the terminology and characteristics of the different tomato types to help you narrow down your selection.
Indeterminate vs Determinate
Tomato plants are actually a vine in the wild and can grow in excess of ten feet in their native climate, where it stays warm most of the year. This being said, some cultivated varieties have been bred to be shorter, bushier plants.
Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow until they are killed by a frost, disease, or pulled, their length is indeterminate. These tomatoes will get very tall in a season, over 6 feet tall at least. They also bloom and fruit continuously throughout the season, giving you a constant supply of tomatoes.
Determinate tomatoes are the opposite. They stay much more compact, ranging from 2 feet to around 5 feet. They also yield their fruit at a more concise period of time, producing most of their fruit during a 2-4 week period. This is great for people who wish to can or process tomatoes all at once. Also, because they stay smaller, they are better suited for container gardening.
Heirloom vs Hybrid
Heirloom tomatoes are varieties which have been cultivated for at least 50 years. Many times they have a unique cultural importance or story connected with them. They tend to have robust and delicious flavors compared to some commercial hybrids since they were selected for taste rather than shipping qualities. However, they also tend to be more vulnerable to diseases and other problems (such as cracking and splitting).
Hybrid varieties are the result of crosses between two different cultivars. While hybrids can get a bad rap, mostly because of the tasteless commercial varieties found in the supermarket, there are many modern hybrids being developed that hold their own at the table. The obvious advantage of hybrids is their more robust disease and pest resistance, as well as their aversion to splitting.
Tomatoes come in a few different shape and size categories that affect their flavor and use. I’ve used just three general categories to describe the gamut of types so I’ll try to explain where they all fit in.
Slicers can range from the giant 2-pound beefsteak tomatoes to the smaller racquetball-sized saladettes. These are usually the tastiest (in terms of tomato flavor) of all the types. This is the tomato for sandwiches, burgers and the like. They generally produce the least amount of fruit in terms of quantity and take the longest to ripen.
Paste tomatoes, or Roma types, are the go-to for making sauces and salsas. They are meatier, have thicker walls, and less liquid. They are usually oblong-shaped fruits that can range in size from large San Marzanos to the petit Juliets.
Cherry tomatoes are, as the name implies, small, round fruits that are usually the sweetest of the tomato types. The combination of their size, tougher skin, and high juice content lead them to burst in your mouth is a most refreshing way. They are great in salads, processed into sun-dried tomatoes, or simply eaten chilled as a refreshing snack. They tend to produce a great abundance of fruit all season and ripen quickly. They range in size from large ping-pong size fruits to the tiny, pinky nail size currant-type.
One of the reasons people are so fascinated by all the varieties of tomatoes is due to the fact that they come in a myriad of colors. Blues, reds, pinks, yellows, blacks and even striped. Just to name a few! These colors are not only beautiful but also influence the taste of the tomato, mostly based on ratios of sugars and other compounds. While there are many, many colors and variations, I’ve listed the three main colors you’ll encounter.
Red tomatoes are the classic tomato. Just seeing the red fruits on the plant is enough to make one’s mouth water. They have a great balance of sweet and acidic, with the best of them possessing that classic tomato taste. They may seem standard and boring compared to the many other options, but don’t discount the possibilities of flavor. Colors ranging from deep red to pink fit this profile.
Yellow tomatoes have most of the acidic tastes removed, leaving a sweeter and lighter tasting fruit. These are great for people who have issues with the high acidity of some tomatoes. The lighter the mature tomato, the less acidic with orange tomatoes falling somewhere between the reds and yellows.
Black tomatoes, ranging in color from reddish brown to midnight black, have a taste that is unique and somewhat indescribable. When I had my first Black Krim, I was hooked. Black tomatoes became, and have remained my overall favorite. They have a rich taste that possesses both a sweetness and acidity, but with a dark smokiness mixed in. Or is it an earthiness? Or a hint of merlot? Like I said, indescribable. But certainly tasty and worth checking out.
Hopefully, this article equips you with a better understanding of how to choose a tomato variety to grow. If you have space, try growing a few different kinds to see what works best for you. Good luck and have fun!