Growing Together: How to choose the best tomato variety
In this week's column, gardening columnist Don Kinzler talks about selecting the right tomato variety, or cultivar, for this area.
Did you hear about the gardener who has a vast collection of herb plants? They’re all in mint condition.
Herb gardening may have increased in popularity, but tomatoes are still the favorite vegetable grown by home gardeners in the United States. Even apartment and condo dwellers can grow great tomatoes in containers on balconies and decks.
There are over 10,000 varieties of tomatoes available worldwide, so how do we know which are the best? The “best” tomato is open to interpretation, of course, but there are definite characteristics that can help sift through all the cultivars, which is the more accurate term for what we loosely call “varieties.”
By examining the traits of a tomato cultivar, we can decide if it’s a good fit for our own garden or patio. The decision isn’t just about flavor and size, a tomato’s traits can impact whether it will grow well in our location, or whether it will succumb to common diseases.
Taste is definitely among the top criteria for most of us. How should a tomato taste? That’s hard to describe, but in seed catalogs it’s often called “old-fashioned tomato flavor,” having just the right balance of acidity and sweetness. One might describe a tasty tomato as anything that’s opposite the flavor of a store-bought tomato.
Tomato taste will always be subjective, based on individual taste buds. Taste is further complicated because it can depend on growing conditions. A great-tasting tomato variety can turn bland during a cool summer.
When reading tomato descriptions, we encounter certain terms, and understanding their meaning can help us decide between cultivars.
“Hybrid” tomatoes were first developed in 1945, and are formed when two parents are cross-pollinated to combine the desired characteristics of both. For example, disease resistance of one parent can be combined with the preferred flavor or growth habit of another. Hybrids can occur in nature when bees travel between plants.
“Open-pollinated” tomatoes are any varieties that weren’t formed by intentional hybridization. Open pollinated tomatoes that existed before the dawn of hybrids in 1945 are called “Heirloom” tomatoes.
“Determinate” tomato cultivars have a bush-like habit and tend to consolidate most of their fruit ripening in mid-summer, which is helpful for canning, since many tomato fruits will be ready at one time. “Indeterminate” cultivars continue to produce longer vine growth throughout the season, usually requiring staking or cages, and fruit ripening is less consolidated, often extending later in the season.
“Disease resistant” means the cultivar is less susceptible to common diseases. Resistance to certain diseases is often designated on tags or descriptions by letters such as A,V,F,N or T. The more letters, the more resistance to various diseases.
“Days to maturity” indicates the average number of days from transplanting starter plants into the garden until first ripe fruit. The actual number of days depends greatly on the warmth and conditions of each growing season.
The number of days to maturity gives an important guideline for categorizing varieties as early, mid, or late-season. Early varieties are listed as 45 to 65 days; main season are 65 to 78 days; late tomatoes are 80 to 110 days. Although it’s nice to have some early and some late tomato cultivars, most gardeners prefer to have most of their tomato plants in the main season 65 to 78-day category.
For those who wish to grow tomatoes in containers on decks or balconies, look for bush-type or determinate varieties that specifically indicate wording such as “Does well in containers.”
North Dakota State University recommends the following tomato cultivars for 2023: Big Beef Plus, Bush Early Girl, Celebrity Plus, Early Girl, Goliath, Mountain Fresh Plus, Mountain Merit Red Deuce. Paste variety recommended are Roma VF and Viva Italia. Heirloom-type recommendations are Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Striped German, Stupice, Wisconsin 55.
Among my own personal favorites are Big Beef, Celebrity, Parks Whopper, Beefy Boy, Fantastic and Mountain Fresh. And the wonderful golden cherry tomato SunSugar. I also enjoy two cultivars developed by NDSU that I’ve grown since I was a boy: Cannonball and Sheyenne, although they’re getting harder to find.
For those who wish to start their own tomato plants from seed indoors, the preferred seeding date is around April 1. Tomatoes started too early can become tall, lanky and weak by May planting time.