University of Vermont Extension
Winter, Spring News
Department of Plant and Soil Science
TOMATOES TO GROW
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
Winter and spring months are the times
gardeners face a seemingly endless list of tomato varieties in seed
catalogs. An interactive listing with
consumer ratings from Cornell University
(vegvariety.cce.cornell.edu) has over
800 varieties which you can sort various ways! Even if you don’t
grow your own,
you may face a large selection at garden stores in spring. Rather
than end up with a variety that may
not suit your tastes or needs, and to make your selection process
are a few traits to keep in mind when choosing tomato seeds or
plants. Plant habit, fruiting season, fruit shape and
color, use, and disease resistance are five main traits to consider.
are four main growth habits for tomato plants—determinate,
compact, and the rather new hanging or “tumbling”. The latter
include cultivars (cultivated
varieties) such as ‘Tumbling Tom’ which are mainly for hanging
hanging over sides of containers or raised beds. Compact cultivars
such as ‘Patio’ are good
for small spaces and containers. There
are a few cultivars such as ‘Celebrity’ that are semi-determinate,
in between the other types.
or “bush” tomatoes grow to a certain point, then produce a fruit
cluster and sideshoots.
Usually the typical tomato wire cage
suffices for support, and you won’t need to prune off any shoots.
cultivars usually bear fruit early, and over a shorter period of 4
weeks. This is helpful if you want to
pick lots of fruit at the same time for sauces or canning, or want
tomatoes keep on growing like a vine, hence the term you may see for
them is “vining.”
Fruit clusters on indeterminate are spaced farther apart along the
(often every third leaf) than determinate, and often produce more
fruit, and over a longer period. With
more leaves, it may take diseases (if present) longer to affect all
of them. The more leaves often result in more sugars
and so sweeter fruit. Indeterminate
definitely will need staking, usually with 5-foot supports, and
pruned so there
are no more than four main stems.
Fruiting season, often seen as “time to
maturity”, is the “approximate” time from sowing or planting out
description to see which it refers to), until first fruit ripen.
Often in cold climates with short growing
seasons this is important, since a long-season cultivar such as ‘Big
days, determinate) may not have enough time to ripen many fruit (or
need to start them earlier indoors to get a jump on the season).
‘Early Girl’ (59 days, indeterminate) and ‘Fourth
of July’ (49 days, indeterminate) are a couple of good early
are really all about their fruit, which range in shape, size, color,
uses. They vary from large rounded to
small cherry or pear shapes. Colors
range from the typical red to pinks, yellow (such as the small
Gold’—65 days, indeterminate), orange (such as one of my favorite
Flammée’—80 days, indeterminate), striped (as with ‘Green Zebra’—78
determinate), even black (as with ‘Cherokee Purple’—85 days,
indeterminate). Yellow and orange tend to have less acidity
and a milder flavor than others.
addition to aesthetics, an important fruit trait to consider is the
use. “Slicers” such as ‘Big Beef’ (75 days,
indeterminate) have large fruit 4 to 8 inches across, good for
eating fresh or putting on sandwiches.
“Cherry” or small-fruited cultivars (some have pear-shaped fruit
‘Yellow Pear’—75 days, indeterminate) have many small fruit, often
wide, in clusters. These are great eaten
alone or in salads. Then there are a
range of sizes in between for all manner of fresh eating and with
sauces, try the popular ‘Roma’ (75 days, determinate). Making
sauce, and then canning or freezing it, is a great way I’ve found to
up an overabundant harvest, such as from
planting many varieties. You’ll get some wonderful and
unique flavors from such a mix.
can get several serious diseases, so look for cultivars with some
with letter symbols the catalogs define, such as V for Verticillium
wilt or LB
for late blight. A couple of newer
cultivars with excellent resistance to several diseases are
(75 days, indeterminate) and ‘Defiant’ (70 days, determinate).
are a few other traits you may see mentioned.
Some seeds and plants are produced organically, and are so noted. A
rather new concept is grafting, as is done
with fruit trees, to attach a desired cultivar on top (scion) to
(understock) for benefits of the latter such as vigor and disease
want to choose hybrids, created from crossing two or more parents.
This often gives benefits, such as more or
larger fruit. But, to be able to collect
and sow your own seed, you’ll need “open pollinated” selections.
Many heirlooms are open-pollinated. This latter group—heirlooms, or
cultivars—have become quite popular, with some claiming they have
flavor, and they often have uniquely colored fruits. ‘Brandywine’
(90-100 days, indeterminate) and
its several strains and colors is one of the most popular heirlooms.
after considering all these traits, you’ll learn through trial which
best to you—something quite subjective that will vary with each
person. By growing your own tomatoes, particularly
from seeds, you can try many that are not available otherwise.