Tomatoes are the most beloved vegetable in the garden patch. They are easy to grow, but it’s difficult to decide which ones to plant.
A few basic tomato facts about the growing habits of tomatoes may help you to decide which varieties to choose based on the size of your garden.
Determinate tomatoes are sometimes called bush or patio tomatoes. They grow to a compact 2- to 4-foot size, and have an upright growing habit. Once they reach their genetically determined size, they stop growing and producing fruit. They do well in containers and small gardens. The majority of the crop will ripen within a two to four week period with a few fruits ripening both before and after the main harvest. They are very bushy and will have so many fruits ripe at one time that the branches can break from the weight. They may benefit from staking or caging. Pruning determinate tomatoes should be done very judiciously as it reduces yields. Common varieties include: Better Bush, Celebrity, Early Girl Bush, Legend, and Mortgage Lifter.
Semi-Determinate are taller than determinate, growing 5- to 8-feet tall, but with all the same growing habits. There are far fewer varieties of semi-determinate tomatoes than either determinate or indeterminate. Finding seedlings locally is often difficult. You may need to search the internet for seed and plan to grow your own seedlings. Common varieties include: Black Sea Man, Indigo Rose, Homestead and Ace 55.
Indeterminant or vining tomatoes are by far the most common and offer the greatest selection. The genetic trait for long vines is dominant. Indeterminant plants continue to grow and produce fruit until frost, disease or pests kills them. Indeterminant vines grow over 6 feet long, and in fact usually grow 12 to 15 feet in Yakima’s growing season. In the tropics where the growing season is longer, 60-foot vines are not uncommon. For obvious reasons, indeterminant plants require very sturdy staking or plenty of room to sprawl. They are challenging to grow in the confined spaces of small gardens. Varieties include: Super Fantastic, Early Girl, Better Boy, Black Cherry, Cherokee Purple and Roma.
Dwarf tomatoes are small and bushy. They are a true indeterminant plant that is intentionally bred for the recessive trait of dwarfism. Dwarf tomato plants are rarely found in nature. They nearly always result from intentionally cross-pollinating two different varieties. The offspring from the cross need to be stabilized over six to 10 generations to create a new open pollinated variety. The process sounds complicated, but these tomato plants are not genetically modified. Dwarf tomatoes are the result of a plant breeding project carried out among a handful of hobby gardeners in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Dwarf tomatoes are hard to find even on the internet. If you want to grow them, you’ll need to start from seed. Varieties include: Sweet Adelaide, Perth Pride, Dwarf Wild Fred, Iditarod Red, Yukon Quest and TastyWine.
Regardless of their growing habits, all tomatoes are available in a wide range of colors and flavors, which explains, at least in part, their beloved status among gardeners. The most common colors of tomatoes are described as red, scarlet, crimson, pink or purple. All are just fancy names for red. Many gardeners describe the flavor of red tomatoes as common, ordinary or traditional. Although red still reigns supreme, other colors are rapidly gaining in popularity. The light colors of yellow, gold and orange have subtle, mild flavors, and less mouth-puckering tang for those who object to the acidity of tomatoes. The darker colored tomatoes of burgundy, chocolate, black or indigo often have stronger and more complex flavor blends of sweet, tart, savory and smoky. Green varieties (not unripe tomatoes) are slightly soft when ripe and taste like red tomatoes, but green-lovers claim they are sweeter with a slight peppery taste. Different colored fruits and vegetables offer different nutrients. For better nutrition plant a wide range of colors.
One final tip about tomato flavor — varieties that have green shoulders taste better. It used to be that all tomatoes would ripen in a pattern, starting at the bottom with the red color gradually working up to the top. The shoulders were the last to ripen and usually remained slightly green. About 70 years ago, a naturally occurring mutation caused tomatoes to ripen evenly — a very attractive trait. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence is that they also have less flavor and aroma. When evenly ripening tomatoes are picked green, they continue to develop color but not sugar, flavor or aroma. They look ripe, but still taste green. The green-shouldered gene allows the unripe fruits to continue to develop sugar, flavor and aroma just as if they are still on the vine. So, don’t get frustrated if your tomatoes don’t ripen evenly … it’s a good thing!