Choosing the right tomato for your tastes, garden

By Diana Stoll
Posted5/19/2019 7:00 AM
  • Maybe a purple cherry-type tomato, such as Blue Berries, is perfect for you.

    Maybe a purple cherry-type tomato, such as Blue Berries, is perfect for you. Photos Courtesy of Diana Stoll

  • Indeterminate varieties like these growing at Chicago Botanic Garden must be supported by stakes or sturdy metal obelisks.

    Indeterminate varieties like these growing at Chicago Botanic Garden must be supported by stakes or sturdy metal obelisks.

Once the soil has warmed and the danger of frost has passed, it's time to plant tomatoes. Unless plants were started from seed several weeks ago, a trip to the garden center to purchase tomato plants is in order.

Independent garden centers have the best selection of different varieties but even box stores offer quite a few. How do gardeners know which types are the best for their gardens?

First, decide whether determinate or indeterminate varieties are the best choice. Determinate varieties grow to a height determined by their genetics, set their fruit and then grow very little. They tend to produce tomatoes earlier but bear fewer fruit over the entire season. Determinate varieties are ideal for growing in containers and may or may not require staking. They are also referred to as bush-type tomatoes.

Indeterminate varieties grow continuously throughout the growing season and will need staking or large cages. They produce tomatoes a bit later but continue to bear lots of fruit until frost. These may also be called vining tomatoes.

Next, consider the intended use of the tomatoes. Will they be sliced and eaten on hamburgers? Will they be eaten as a snack? Or will they be used in the family's favorite recipe for spaghetti sauce?

Cherry tomatoes, like Super Sweet 100 and Cherry Baby, are bite-size, perfect for snacking. Beefsteak types are best for slicing. Big Beef, Beefsteak and Mortgage Lifter are all examples. And paste varieties, like Roma and San Marzano, contain less water and are great for canning and making sauces.

If you have had trouble with disease when growing tomatoes in the past, look for varieties with better disease-resistance, denoted with initials on plant tags. The letter F on a tag alerts the purchaser the variety is resistant to fusarium wilt, TMV for tomato mosaic virus, V for verticillium wilt, T for tobacco mosaic virus and so on.

There may be a preference for growing an heirloom variety or a hybrid cultivar. Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated plants that have been grown for more than 50 years. A hybrid plant occurs when a plant breeder selects parents with specific characteristics to create a new improved plant, or hybrid, with the best traits of each parent.

The benefits of modern hybrids include stronger growth, better productivity, increased resistance to diseases, and consistency and dependability of the size and color of its tomatoes. A drawback of hybrids is the seed it produces will not grow into plants just like their parents, so new seed will have to be purchased every year.

The biggest advantage of heirloom varieties is exceptional flavor, and because it is open pollinated, the seeds can be saved to grow new plants the following year. Many heirlooms have amazing stories of coming to America or being passed down from generation to generation of a family of gardeners. The shortcoming of heirlooms is their growth and yield is less predictable. They also often take longer to mature and may produce fewer tomatoes.

If all that isn't enough to ponder, you can choose a tomato for its color. Red may be the traditional color of tomatoes, but there are yellow, orange, pink and even purple tomatoes. Imagine dipping your tortilla chip into a salsa made with all those colors!

• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist, garden writer and speaker. She blogs at

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