Tomato Varieties Demystified

Tomato Varieties Demystified

It’s true what they say. Money can’t buy home grown tomatoes. That means you need to grow your own! Whether you start from seed or buy plants from a greenhouse, finding the right variety is crucial. But where do you start? Let’s begin with hybrid vs. heirloom varieties. What’s the difference?

Hybrid tomatoes are varieties that have been intentionally crossed from two parents. The offspring have specific and desirable traits like disease resistance, uniform fruit size, and setting fruits all at once for easier picking. Hybrids are desirable for commercial growers for these reasons, but sometimes, flavor is sacrificed for production. A few exceptions to that rule are Sun Sugar, Super Sweet 100, and Juliet. One other thing that sets hybrids apart is if you collect the seeds from a ripe fruit, they will not grow the same variety as the parent plant, which means you’ll need to buy new seed or new plants every year.

Heirloom tomatoes are funky, colorful, and often very flavorful. The fruits don’t typically ripen all at once and some varieties are prone to diseases like blossom end rot. Heirloom tomatoes can be found at farmer’s markets and specialty grocery stores during the growing season, but you’ll pay a lot for them. The beauty of heirlooms is if you collect seeds from a flower you’ve self-pollinated (a pipe cleaner wrapped around a sonic toothbrush does the trick) that has grown into a ripe fruit, those seeds will grow into plants very similar to the parent. Seed collecting is a great way to keep your seed stock fresh from year to year. A few of my favorite varieties are Green Zebra, Black Krim, and Brandywine.

Another key word you’ll come across as you peruse tomato catalogues is indeterminate vs. determinate. Determinate plants grow to a determined size and stop. These varieties typically set fruit all at once and are better for growing in limited spaces like hydroponics or container gardens. Indeterminate varieties will grow continually. Their fruit production is staggered and they need a lot of support. These are best in a big garden where you can cage them or provide a fence for them to lean on.

I group tomatoes into three categories: cherry, beefsteak, and roma. They are all very different in flavor and texture and all have different applications in your kitchen. These are all available as hybrids, heirlooms, indeterminate, or determinate. Now you know the basics, let’s dive into cherry tomatoes.

Cherry tomatoes are small, have many seeds, and are tangy and sweet. They typically have a thin skin and are best eaten fresh. I like to grow a few cherry varieties for snacking and salads.

Beefsteak tomatoes are large, have some seeds, and a flavor that ranges from mild to tangy. These are excellent for sandwiches and if the seeds are removed, are a great addition to sauces.

Roma tomatoes are medium, have few seeds, and a mild flavor. These have a thick skin, which makes them easy to blanch for processing and keeps them fresh longer. Roma tomatoes are the most versatile in cooked dishes, so if you like fresh sauces and soups, these are the tomatoes for you.

With all this information, you should be able to find a variety you love. Happy gardening!