How to Choose the Right Tomatoes for Your Garden
Just like in the tropics, a Northeast summer announces its firm arrival with a sweet, juicy fruit. It comes in a rainbow of bright colors: red, orange, yellow, green, purple, and black; and a wide array of exotic shapes. Its taste ranges from fit-for-dessert sugary to a citrus-like tang to smoky and salty. In our catalog alone, there are over 50 different varieties to choose from this year. And, although it is still far too cold for these delicate plants to move outside, now is the time to shop tomato seeds, which need 6-8 weeks of indoor growing before they can be planted in the garden (after the last frost).
So, how to go about deciding on which tomato is right for your garden? Answer the questions below to help you decide on the best varieties for your garden.
How big is your garden?
Tomatoes are divided mainly into two growth habits.
Determinate varieties are bushy: they usually grow to 2 or 3 feet, then slow down and focus on ripening their fruits.
Indeterminate tomatoes are vining: they multitask by ripening fruit while at the same time growing taller and taller, stopped only by frost or a pruner.
Determinate varieties do better in containers and limited spaces as well as for gardeners looking for one big tomato harvest over two to three weeks. For fresh picked tomatoes, ripening consistently over a few months, indeterminate are best, if you have the space for staking and letting the vines stretch out.
How will you eat them?
Nothing compares to a fresh summer tomato just like nothing compares to a tomato craving in February.
If beautiful summer salads and tomato sandwiches are your goal, try (New!) Berkeley Pink Tie Dye or Berkeley Green Tie Dye Tomato, or Magic Bullet Tomato. Other varieties that are as equally gorgeous as they are delicious: Purple Heart Tomato, Upstate Oxheart, Green Zebra, Cosmonaut Volkov, Goldie, or Black Krim.
Yellow Pear Cherry, Blush, Solar Gold, California Sungold (New!) Fox Cherry, and Chocolate Cherry, and Sweet Pea Currant Tomato (New!) are perfect for snacking straight off the vine. Cherry and beefsteak types are usually indeterminate. They produce delicious fruit from July up until frost.
For preserving, varieties that aren’t too juicy and have a short season (so a large batch of fruit ripens at once) make canning easiest. (You can devote a couple of weekends to preserving, then finish for the year, admire your full pantry, and go back to eating fresh sliced summer treats.) Try Speckled Roman Tomato, or Opalka for making sauce or canning whole. Principe Borghese is a perfect drying tomato, and the fascinating Ei Von Phuket is great at any stage: throw it in stir fry when it is underripe or slice it for drying when it's mature.
When do you want them?
Tomatoes ripen in 45 to 90 days. To have a tomato harvest for as long as possible, choose varieties that ripen at different times. The New Yorker Tomato knows about New York's short growing season and ripens early – in about 60 days from transplant. In general, tomatoes with smaller fruit will be ready first – the truly tiny Tiny Tim (pictured left) is ready to eat in 45 days, while larger ones take longer – hefty Stone Ridge, for example, takes its time, about 90 days.
For success with tomatoes, start your seeds indoors 6-8 weeks ahead of the last frost for your area. Transplant to a full sun location, when the soil has warmed. All tomatoes benefit from staking, and indeterminate varieties require it. Water at the base of plants, avoiding leaves and try not to create a jet that splashes soil back onto the plant (this is one way soil-borne diseases spread). Prune tomatoes when they reach about 24" high and start to produce suckers. When fruit becomes ripe, harvest often to enjoy the highest quality of fruit. Try a companion planting of herbs like Basil, Parsley, or Chives; or boost pollination by growing Marigolds or Nasturtium nearby.