By Kathy Bond-Borie, Guest Columnist
Store-bought tomatoes are nearly devoid of flavor, so growing your own is the best way to truly savor the taste of this fruit, which captures the essence of summer.
But with thousands of organic varieties available—from cherished heirlooms to the hottest new hybrids—how do you narrow your choices?
If you’re buying seeds to start your own plants, read catalog descriptions carefully to find out “days to maturity.” This indicates approximately how soon you can expect ripe fruit once you’ve transplanted seedlings to the garden.
Plants sold at garden centers are often labeled “early,” “midseason” or “late” to indicate when the variety should start ripening.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate
Determinate plants stop growing once flower buds emerge. Because of their more restrained size, many determinate varieties require no staking or caging, but providing support can improve fruit quality. All fruit ripens within a relatively short period—usually about a week to 10 days. This can be a boon if you’re canning.
If you prefer to have fewer tomatoes over a longer period of time, indeterminate varieties are a better choice. Vines continue to grow and set fruit throughout the season and won’t quit until the weather turns too hot or cold to sustain fruiting and growth.
How Will You Use the Fruit?
When selecting a tomato variety, keep in mind how you plan to use the fruit.
There are tomato varieties suited for just about every purpose: eating fresh, making tomato paste, canning, drying and even grooming for county fair competitions.
Seeds or Transplants?
The easiest way to start your tomato patch is by purchasing young plants, also called transplants or starts. They’re available at garden centers or online catalogs.
That said, starting your own seed gives you an almost endless list of varieties to choose from, allowing you to select tomatoes that best suit your growing conditions and tastes. Starting seeds also provide a chance to exercise your green thumb earlier in the season, and nurturing plants from seed to harvest is a rewarding experience.
Plant seeds 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date for your region, and place them under fluorescent lights. Contact a nearby Extension Service office or your local weather service to find out your last spring frost date.
By planting tomato varieties with built-in resistance to diseases, you can have a bit more control over your garden’s success.
For instance, many tomato varieties are resistant to soil-borne diseases like Verticillium and Fusarium wilts and nematodes. Most seed catalogs indicate resistance to these diseases by putting F (Fusarium), V (Verticillium) and N (nematodes) after the variety name. You’ll also find varieties with resistance to viruses like tomato mosaic virus (T), and Alternaria (A), the fungus that causes early blight.
Talk to a nearby Extension Service office or to other home gardeners to find out if specific tomato diseases are common in your area.
A former floral designer and interior plantscaper, Kathy Bond-Borie has spent 20 years as a garden writer/editor, including her current role as horticultural editor for the National Gardening Association. She loves designing with plants and spends more time playing in the garden—planting and trying new combinations—than sitting and appreciating it.
Photo courtesy of the National Gardening Association