Summer in the garden would be incomplete without homegrown tomatoes. The wide variety of tomato plants available to today's gardeners has both an upside and downside. Breeders have developed varieties that grow in containers, on decks, in tight spaces and on balconies. Short-season and late-ripening types take advantage of local weather conditions, and sizes and shapes abound. The proliferation, however, means gardeners need more information than was the case even 20 years ago. Knowing what makes different varieties of tomato plants distinctive from each other will let you choose the varieties right for your garden.
Plant Growth: Determinate vs. Indeterminate
Plant size, which is closely related to growth habit, is the first choice that will help organize the proliferation of tomato choices. Determinate plants are thus-labeled because both the term and size of their growth is predictable from the beginning. Flower clusters, and therefore fruit, appear at the ends of stems. Plants are programmed to finish producing tomatoes before warm weather ends and usually bear and ripen all fruit within a two- to three-week period. Indeterminate plants grow, flower and bear as long and abundantly as weather permits. (Some gardeners insist that indeterminate plants gain their greatest height in the years when the tallest stakes sold out early at the garden center!) These are plants that need cage-, stake- or trellis-support.
Consistency: Open-Pollinated vs. Hybrid
Seed-savers and traditional gardeners love open-pollinated tomato plants. From one generation to the next, plants are true-to-type, and the special characteristics of a variety--deep color, thin skin, thick walls and, especially, distinctive flavor--shine through from plant to plant. Recently, renewed interest in old "heirloom" varieties has made open-pollinated types very popular. Again, though, with the ups come the downs: disease-resistance may be poor, even though flavor may be great. Hybrid varieties can answer special needs like cold-tolerance and wilt-resistance. They are created by crossing two or more different varieties of plants, to preserve the most wanted qualities from each.
Sadly, though, each generation must be created by breeding. Saved seeds may reflect the best or worst of the characteristics of parent plants, or differ entirely.
Fruit Varieties: Size vs. Number
Part--and the most fun part--of your plant choice will be based on the kind of tomatoes you will harvest. Consider your major uses when selecting tomato varieties--frequent salads, sauces to freeze for winter, pickles, drying and preserves, or just plates and plates of sliced, fresh tomatoes. Cherry-, grape- and other small-cluster types make great fresh eating on a frequent basis, but can be watery when cooked. Look for thick-walled, low-seed-content tomatoes for sauces. Choose at least one early-season type with small to medium fruit, a mid-season bearer and a late-season giant heirloom to stretch your fresh-tomato season as long as possible.
Your Tomato Garden: This Year vs. Next Year
Much as you may love a particular tomato variety, keep an open mind about others. (Experienced gardeners say that's why seed catalogs come so close to winter holidays--it takes from then till early spring to make new choices!) Look hard at some early-maturing varieties if you have had to leave ripening tomatoes in the garden because of vacation travel (late-season varieties fit in well with early-summer vacations). Try determinate plants on the deck the year you need to move your old garden bed out of growing shade. Take a flyer on an old, rare variety, even if yield is likely to be lower than your hybrids. Follow the gardener's first article of faith: yes, it's good, but next year . . .