When it comes to tomatoes, it is clear that people love them. Tomatoes are the fourth-most-consumed fresh vegetable, and the average American actually consumes nearly 100 pounds of tomatoes per year. Yet this is not a large amount compared with Egypt and Greece, where eating more than 200 pounds per year is average. However, the United States is the second-largest global tomato grower, producing more than $2.5 billion worth annually.
Every vegetable grower knows that the flavor of a homegrown tomato is so superior to store-bought that any comparison is in name only. But which tomato is the best for your garden? Here I will discuss the attributes to look for when buying tomato seeds or starts. First, let’s make a quick distinction between the majority of tomatoes found in stores, hybrids, and what I recommend you give a whirl at home, heirlooms. For a complete list of gardening health benefits, check out this article.
If your main concerns are disease resistance and high yields, then of course, look to some of the wonderful hybrids developed with those qualities. Powdery mildew, the various types of wilt, and blight can devastate a tomato crop; if they can be avoided it is wise to do so. Many homegrown hybrid tomatoes are still significantly better than what you would find at the grocery store. Many are not only disease-resistant, but are also bred to be quite prolific. Furthermore, they are ready sooner. Early Girl and 4th of July are two cultivars that will get you some homegrown tomatoes earlier in the season. So if you are looking for hardiness, hybrid varieties will be much more vigorous, hands down.
Perhaps it is taste that is your top priority. In that case, most gardeners would agree that heirlooms far surpass their hybrid counterparts. Which cultivars have the best flavor depends on your climate and growing conditions, especially your soil and rainfall. Still, there are particular tomato varieties that receive the most favorable mentions from home growers.
In the Beefsteak category you will often hear the names Brandywine, Black Krim, Mortgage Lifter and Cherokee Purple. We have personally grown all of these, and if forced to choose it would be difficult. Okay, it would be impossible: they are all amazing!
My dad had always raved about the virtues of the hybrid Big Boy tomato: one slice was all you needed for a sandwich. That was until he tasted an heirloom Black Krim. Still one slice, but oh so much better flavor. Also, if for no other reason than the history of how the Mortgage Lifter came to be, you should try them at least once (Marshall Byles bred the heirloom cultivar during the Great Depression, paying off his mortgage with the profits).
Are we talking sauce and salsas? Then it is the Paste or Plum tomatoes you would be looking at. Plum tomatoes are classified as ‘Indeterminate’ tomatoes. Indeterminate tomatoes, whether hybrid or heirloom, produce fruit multiple times over the growing season until frost kills the plant. Indeterminates are great for canning and making sauces. Indeterminates need good staking, often growing north of 6 feet tall. This is compared with determinate tomatoes, which produce less fruit, but over a longer single period. Determinates, also known as bush tomatoes, mature and produce their fruit all at once, over a 1-3 week period, before the plant dies.
Here again there are a few varieties that are mentioned more than others. Roma might seem obvious; San Marzano is both delicious and meaty, and Amish Paste a wonderful choice especially for the northern regions.
Last and least (size-wise) are the snacking tomatoes, or cherry types. Black Cherry is a delightful heirloom that is so delicious to just grab and enjoy still warm from the vine. There are many others that gardeners favor, but in this category, there is just one hybrid that stands out: our personal favorite, Sungold. To be honest we have found few of the fruit actually make it into the house, they are just that good. And isn’t snacking on warm tomatoes while gardening the most wonderful perk?
These recommended varieties are all subject to your specific preferences. Whether you want saucy plum tomatoes, dense heirloom varieties for flavor, or the hardiness of hybrids, your homegrown tomatoes will undoubtedly be amazing.
Jeanne Hugenbruch is a Penn State Master Gardener with 30 years experience growing edibles. She is a former restaurant owner and has been published in Horticulture magazine and also writes for www.fix.com
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