Tomato Variety Shakedown

Posted: January 28, 2013

I could start this entry waxing philosophical about the multitude of characteristics a homegrown tomato possesses; characteristics that drive sane humans to extreme efforts in their pursuit of a single perfect fruit.  Because so many share this passion for the ‘Apple of Love’, it’s likely your mouth is already watering at the mention of such a gem.  Indeed, mine does.  So, without further ado- let’s talk tomatoes.

The tomato, whose ancestors still grow in the dry highlands of coastal Peru, was once thought poisonous.  Indeed its cousin Atropa belladonna, or belladonna, is highly toxic.  It was several hundred years after the tomato’s introduction to Europe in 1544 that it became widely accepted as food. (HOLY TOMATO, that’s tragic!)  As recently as 1900 the tomato was regarded as poison by some people.

Tomato-ethusiasts and growers worldwide have identified and helped develop appropriate varieties for every need: kid’s garden, patio container garden, large scale production, fresh eating, canning or drying.  Name your desire and you can find it.

Growth Habit

Selecting varieties based on the plant’s growth habit may be pertinent to you if you have a particular staking system or you have limited space or time.

Determinate tomato varieties grow to a set (or determined) height usually about 1-5’ and they set all their fruit in a short amount of time.  Determinate varieties aren’t usually pruned above the 1st tomato cluster.

Indeterminate varieties grow up to 8’ tall will flower and set fruit until frost but, of course, require more space and tending throughout their longer fruiting period. Indeterminate varieties can be pruned with a heavy hand to help prevent disease problems and make the plants more manageable.

Fruit Type

Fruit type or shape may be important to your selection.  Slicers or beefsteak tomatoes are for slicing or eating and include the varieties Mortgage Lifter, Homestead, Rutgers VF and Mountain Princess.  These tomatoes have different growing habits and disease resistances so read the descriptions and pick one good for your situation.  Sow True Seed also offers green slicing tomatoes, one of which, Aunt Ruby’s German Green has the been designated to the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Ark of Taste is a global catalogue of unique tasting and endangered heritage foods.

Cherry tomatoes are usually indeterminate and are prolific producers of small, sweet fruit, great for kids or garnishing salads.  If you have a sweet tooth check out Cherry Sweetie or Brown Berry.  If you are more interested in a complex, deep flavor try Black Cherry and Chadwick Cherry.  Tiny Tim is an unusual cherry variety that is actually determinate, making it an excellent option for urban or patio gardening.  For milder flavor, there are pear tomatoes including our Yellow Pear variety with small yellow mild flavored fruit.  Finally, there are plum tomatoes referred to as paste in many catalogs and references.  These tomatoes are elongated fruits, more oval than round, that usually lend themselves to processing due to their thicker walls and fewer seeds.  More about these in the ‘Culinary Use’ section.

Fruit Color

Like the rainbow tomatoes are diverse in their colors.  Heirloom varieties are amazing when it comes to color selection.  When you begin to realize the diversity of colors available in the tomato, it makes you wonder why red became the cultural norm.  The Sow True Seed catalog organizes tomatoes by color so you can plant your own rainbow of varieties.

From Green Zebra to the old standbys Cherokee Purple and ‘Pink Brandywine’ the selection is exciting.  Black from Tula provides impressive yields and color and Indigo Rose boasts high anthocyanins (healthy antioxidants) due to its dark purple color.  If your diet requires lower acid foods you might try the orange Persimmon or the bicolor tomato Hillbilly which are both low acid varieties.   A colorful plate is a healthy plate and these tomatoes make that easy to achieve.

Culinary Use

For you cooks out there these are the tomatoes to use for canning, drying or making sauce.  There are some wonderful heirloom varieties long used for their utility in the kitchen.  Paste tomatoes have thick walls, few seeds and lower water content than some of the big slicers.  This makes paste tomatoes perfect for cooking down into sauce or catsup. (READ: Less time in the hot kitchen!)   Amish Paste has been around for generations for just this use earning itself the Slow Food Ark of Taste designation.  Opalka is a meaty variety that lends itself to sauces and the fruit are large, which makes processing more efficient. Perhaps a dual use tomato would suit patio or urban gardeners that only have space for a few plants.  Both Principe Borghese and Speckled Roman can be used for fresh eating or processing.  In addition, Principe Borghese makes a great drying tomato.

A Note about Disease Resistance

It is all well and good to dream about tomatoes ripe from the vine, however, those of us who have lost whole crops of tomatoes to various diseases know that planning our tomato crop sometimes requires us to use more than just our stomachs!  If disease resistance is a concern for you there are many tools at your disposal from organic cultural to biological techniques.  A plant with disease resistance is a great help when you are fighting the good fight in the garden.   For example, Cherokee Purple has good late blight resistance while Rutgers VF and Yellow Pear have resistance to the soilborne fungi Verticillium and Fusarium.   In addition, Arkansas Traveler is renowned for its disease and heat/drought resistance.  Homestead is a slicer known for good disease resistance as well.

When choosing a variety based on disease resistance remember that resistance is not foolproof, it is resistance, not immunity, and it should be used with a program of organic cultural and biological techniques.  Of course, the best tool for preventing disease in a tomato crop is to grow healthy vigorous plants!

So the next time you see the description “large paste tomato determinate variety” you should be able to get the general idea of what the tomato will be like.   There is no substitute for the experience of growing a variety yourself and getting to know it.  Enjoy the plethora of choices you have, it will be an adventure every time!

Post & photos by Sow True Seed Blogger Megan Schneider

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