Understanding and Choosing Tomatoes for the Home Garden

Well its already June here in Western Oregon.  We have had a handful of days pushing 90 degrees, and all signs point towards the beautiful sunny season ahead.  There are many treasures to be anticipated in our vegetable gardens in the summer months, but perhaps none hold such promise, and such delicious anticipation as home-grown tomatoes.  In fact, I know plenty of gardeners for whom the prospect of tomatoes alone could keep them gardening each year.

Heirloom Tomatoes at Market

Tomatoes are indeed some of the most sublime offerings from our gardens.  Their cultivation and care are a matter of much discussion, many strong opinions, and plenty of posturing (as far as gardeners could be said to posture).  And indeed, tomatoes are a unique vegetable (and fruit, yes) with plenty to teach us.  But the truth is growing your own tomatoes at home is easy and fun.  Anyone who has harvested their own ripe tomatoes on a beautiful August evening has likely had the distinctive sensation that these must be the best tomatoes in the whole world.  And in that moment they are!  This is the beauty of the beloved tomato.

So lets cast aside the high-mindedness and talk about tomatoes plainly and simply!  Everyone in this climate should have the opportunity to grow and eat their own tomatoes and if you follow a few basic steps, you should find yourself in tomato heaven come August.

There is a lot to talk about when it comes to tomatoes and so this blog will come out in two parts.  But, whatever you do, don’t get bogged down in the many details!  The most important thing is to buy some tomato starts and stick them in the ground.  As long as you keep an eye on them, you will have tomatoes!  I promise. 

In part one of The Tomato Chronicles I am going to discuss the different “types” of tomatoes that can be grown in your garden. I will talk about the difference between “determinate” and “indeterminate” varieties, “open pollinated,” “hybrid,” and “heirloom” varieties, and how to select the right tomatoes for your space and taste. In part two I will talk about the timing for planting (Now-soon!), methods of planting (location, spacing, depth)  and how to care for your plants throughout the season!

So lets dig right in...



Sliced Tomatoes


There are many ways to classify and categorize plants, and tomatoes are no exception.  Some of the ways we separate categories of tomatoes include “type” (roma/sauce, cherry, beefsteak…) “indeterminate” vs. “determinate” (ongoing fruit set vs. single fruit set) and “open pollinated” vs. “hybrid” vs. “heirloom” (Refers to history and method of cultivation/breeding).

All of these categories can be overwhelming, but a basic understanding of these differences can help us choose the right tomatoes for our needs and tastes.  And if it all feels like too much, your local nursery can generally help demystify the situation.


"Open Pollinated" vs. “Heirloom” vs. "Hybrid":

“Open pollinated” tomatoes (and other vegetables) are varieties whose seeds can be saved and planted the following year, yielding the same variety again.  These are varieties that have evolved over time, and have been selected, and improved upon by the decisions of seed savers all over the world.  If you want to save your own seeds, it is important that you plant open pollinated varieties.

“Heirloom” is a term which foodie culture has embraced with zeal.  Every consumer wants heirloom tomatoes and every restaurant touts them on their menu.  There is disagreement as to what exactly constitutes an heirloom variety but in general they are old open-pollinated varieties that were grown before world war II.   Or as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary states “a horticultural variety that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals”  In general heirlooms are touted for their superior and complex flavors and equally for their fragility and perishability.  For this reason they are best eaten straight from the garden

An Interesting article about heirlooms from Burpee Seeds:  http://www.burpee.com/heirloom-seeds-and-plants/what-is-an-heirloom-article10162.html

“Hybrid” tomato varieties stand in contrast to open pollinated tomatoes.  They are generally newer varieties that have been carefully bred by selective crossing of different varieties to achieve a desired quality be it flavor, storability, disease resistance, or higher yield.  Think of a mule which is the offspring of a horse and a donkey.  Despite the favorable qualities of the mule, they are infertile and cannot breed with other mules.  They can only be created as the offspring of horse and donkey.  The same holds true for tomatoes, and unlike open-pollinated varieties the seeds of hybrids cannot be saved and replanted.  Hybrid tomatoes are always notated with “F1” following the variety name i.e. “Sungold F1”


“Determinate” vs. “Indeterminate”

“Determinate” tomatoes are varieties that grow and ripen one set of fruit, often over a 2-4 week period.  These plants tend to be more compact in size and more bush-like in form.  For this reason they require less in the way of support.  They also should be pruned less aggressively, if at all, since they have a limited potential to set fruit.  Most roma/paste tomatoes are determinate varieties as well as many standard red “slicer” varieties.

“Indeterminate” tomatoes ripen their fruits continuously and can typically produce many more fruits than their determinate counterparts.  They also tend to be more vigorous and vining in their growth requiring more support and more pruning.  Most heirloom and “cherry” varieties are indeterminate.  Their fruiting period in our climate is generally limited only by our weather, ending in the fall when precipitation and cooler temperatures compromise their fragile fruits.


“Types” of tomatoes

“Cherry:” Indeterminate plants that are generally the earliest to produce and yield many small fruits ranging in size from currant up to ping pong ball size and spanning many colors.  These are among the most reliable producers in our climate.


"Slicer:”  Round, red, classic tomatoes can be determinate or indeterminate, often hybrids.  Great for sandwiches.  Generally heavy bearers with less complex flavor than heirlooms


“Beefsteak:” Large, meaty, juicy red tomatoes.  Often taking interesting shapes.  Generally excellent flavor.


“Oxheart:” Heart-shaped fleshy tomatoes with excellent flavor.  Generally heirlooms.


“Roma/Paste/Plum:"  Generally compact determinate plants producing thick skinned, fruits with high flesh/pulp ratio.  Excellent for processing, and making tomato sauce.



***Reality Check***:

We live in the Willamette Valley.  For all of its magic and mystique, and for the incredible variety of things we can grow here, we still live in a maritime climate with moderate summers and 40 inches of the annual rain we love to hate to love.  Tomatoes are still a bit of a stretch in our climate and so we need to do everything we can to make them feel at home here.  The easiest thing we can do besides making sure they get in on time and have full sun, is choose varieties that are early to mature.


Now that we have touched on the overwhelming variety of tomatoes available, its time to make some decisions!  When choosing tomatoes for your garden you should think about your growing conditions (a.k.a. amount of sunlight/heat), your intended use of tomatoes, the quantity desired, and of course your personal taste.

If you have limited sun/heat, or have never grown tomatoes before: start with cherry tomatoes!  I always plant at least one cherry tomato plant in my garden.  They are delicious, and they are the earliest to bear.  Besides, nothing is worse than watching your neighbors feast on their tomatoes while you wait the unbearable days (or weeks!) for your first ripe fruit.

If you want to grow tomatoes with superior flavor for fresh eating: choose heirloom varieties.  Heirlooms are often the slowest tomatoes to mature, so choose heirlooms with fewer days to maturity to ensure an extended harvest.

If you want to do a lot of processing/canning: choose sauce/paste tomatoes.  Keep in mind that it takes a lot of tomatoes to make tomato sauce, so if your space is limited, I recommend leaving the canning to someone else.  Fresh tomatoes are just too good to miss out on.  But if you have the space and the time, grow 5-10 plants just for sauce and you will enjoy the tastes of summer in the darkness of winter!

The best approach, in my opinion, is to grow a diversity of different tomato types and choose early to mature varieties.  This will give you the best range of experience and will also help you learn what you most like!  If I could only plant 5 tomato plants I would choose: Cherry Tomato: “Sungold F1” Plum Tomato: “Stupice” Slicer: “Celebrity F1” Heirlooms: “Ana Russian,” and “Paul Robeson”

I Will

So there you have it.  Get on down to the nursery and pick up your tomato starts, before it's too late to plant!!  You now understand different kinds of tomatoes, what to look for, and how to choose the right tomatoes for your space.  Keep an eye out for my next post, Part 2: Planting and Caring for Tomatoes in the Home Garden!!