Growing Great Tomatoes: Varieties

Since tomatoes are one of the most popular crops for the home and community gardener, let's dive in to how to have a great harvest.

You probably know that there are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes you can grow. It's easy to get overwhelmed with what kind of tomato to grow!

In this article, we'll go through the process of selecting what kinds of tomatoes you should grow based on your goals and your growing environment. We answer 3 questions: 

  1. How are you going to use your tomatoes?
  2. Where are you growing your tomatoes?
  3. Hybrid or Heirloom?

I wrap up the article with a few tips from an experienced garden tomato grower. 

Remember: You can grow any tomato you want to! There are no rules... but this article will help guide you to select a variety of tomato that you will succeed growing and that you'll enjoy harvesting and eating! 

Question 1: How are you going to use your tomatoes?

The main characteristic to consider is whether you're going to cook with the tomatoes, can or freeze the tomatoes, or eat them fresh. 

If canning tomatoes, choose a variety that has lower water content such as Roma, San Marzano, and Amish Paste. These varieties are often called "plum" tomatoes for the plum-like shape of the fruit.

If you want to make tomato sauce, any type of tomato will work. When making sauce, you usually simmer off (evaporate) some of the liquid slowly to concentrate the flavor and to create a thicker sauce. Using lower water content tomatoes, like plum tomatoes, can reduce the time needed to boil down to a thick sauce. It is OK to mix different varieties in a sauce. 

If you're eating the tomatoes raw and fresh, select varieties that are grown for superior flavor. Beefsteak tomatoes are a good choice. Heirloom tomatoes frequently have richer, more complex flavor as well. 

Cherry and grape tomatoes are good for fresh eating, too, although they are usually too small for sandwiches! They are terrific in salads and you can roast a bunch of them in the oven or on the grill. 

If you're not sure which type will work best for you, hopefully, you can grow more than one plant. Then select a few tomatoes and see what you like. 

Question 2: Where are you growing the tomato?

Let's consider two aspects of your growing location: where you are on the map, and where you're putting the tomato plant. 

On the Map

Some northern and high-altitude parts of the United States don't have a very long growing season. Many tomato varieties were developed in much warmer climates and they take a while to come to harvest. There isn't enough growing season to get a good harvest for many traditional tomato varieties. 

If you are in zone 4 or lower, your priority should be to select short season tomato varieties. Find these varieties in your local garden center, by looking it up on the Internet (hello, Google!), and my favorite resource, your state or county cooperative extension. 

Once you have a list of suitable varieties, continue with the next criteria, growing the vine. 

Growing the Vine

Tomato plants can get huge! They can produce tomatoes for weeks and weeks - which might be just what you're looking for, or it might be way too much!

If you are growing in a container (pot), or your garden doesn't have a lot of space, select a determinate tomato. Determinate tomato vines/plants don't grow so large and are well-suited to the smaller space of a container. They are sometimes sold as "patio tomatoes." Additionally, they produce their fruit all at the same time (or thereabouts). This is ideal for a container garden or a small home garden.

If you have a lot of space and you have more time to tend your tomato plants, select an indeterminate tomato. Indeterminate tomato vines can grow to be very large, and once they start producing fruit, they keep on producing until the plant dies. This is great if you want a huge harvest for making tomato sauce and canning tomatoes. 

The terms determinate and indeterminate describe (roughly) how the plant grows.  Determinate tomatoes grow to a specific size, then stop growing. Indeterminate tomatoes continue to grow until the plant dies. It's almost comical how the plants just keep on growing until they can't any more. 

See also: Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes

Question 3: Hybrid or Heirloom?

Hybrid tomatoes have been bred for specific characteristics, largely to please the mass market in the United States. They have been bred for qualities such as:

  • resistance to disease
  • uniform size and shape
  • preferred color
  • transportability and durability

Since the focus of the breeding had not (usually) been on flavor, hybrids tend to have a mild flavor, maybe even bland. Not all hybrids are bland though, and the disease resistance can really help your garden tomatoes succeed. 

At your garden center, hybrid tomato transplant labels will have a series of letters, indicating the diseases they are resistant to. (Here's a list of plant disease resistance codes from Johnny's Selected Seeds. It lists diseases for more than just tomatoes). 

Heirloom tomatoes are varieties of tomatoes that allow natural processes (breeze, winds, insects) to disseminate the pollen. They haven't been bred for qualities as mentioned above, although they have been bred by farmers and gardeners over the years because they liked those tomatoes for one or another quality. Likely the quality was flavor! The fruits of heirloom tomatoes tend not to be uniform in size or evenly colored. They are not as resistant to plant diseases and may not produce as abundantly as hybrids.

Tomato connoisseurs prize hybrids for their flavor and texture, unusual colors (like the green, yellow and purple tomatoes in the photo above.)

I've described some of the practical qualities of heirloom tomatoes, but there's more to it than above. It takes a bit of explaining, so here's an article that goes through it.

Suffice to say, heirlooms offer interesting shapes, colors, and flavors, but they may not give you as large a harvest as some hybrids might. Hybrids might grow better in your garden, but you may be disappointed in the flavor and texture.

It will take some trial to discover what type of tomato suits your palate. 

A Few Other Considerations

Here are some of my practical observations having grown tomatoes for many years.

All tomatoes require support to grow well, even determinate tomatoes. It can be a simple stake in the ground, tomato cages, or any other structure. Many tomato support structures are available for purchase - elaborate, fancy, and simple. Tomato plants (vines, actually) are not natural climbers, so you will have to tie the vine to the support to keep them growing up.

The vines start out small but will probably grow to be large and heavy. Plan ahead and use strong supports. It's difficult to shore up a tomato cage sagging under the weight of a mature tomato vine. 

Cherry and grape tomatoes are among the easiest to grow. They produce a lot of tomatoes and in the peak season, you will likely have to harvest every day or every other day! If you don't, they will over-ripen and rot. This is messy and invites disease to your plants. 

Cherry and grape tomatoes are also among the quickest tomatoes to come to harvest. For tomato growers who live in an area with a short growing season, cherry and grape tomatoes are the way to go!

I prefer indeterminate tomatoes. I think they produce the best tasting tomatoes and I have an outdoor plot in which to grow them. However, they are more of a responsibility - the plants grow like crazy and they require regular maintenance to keep them from falling over and breaking from its own weight. I don't find the work difficult.

  • I cut the plants back (pruning) to keep them of reasonable size. I don't have huge plant supports, I use tomato cages and stakes, and I don't let the plants overwhelm the support structures.
  • I keep the major vines tied to their supports. 
  • I watch for pests and deal with them.

Maintaining the plants require dedication and persistence. When the tomatoes are growing most actively, I spend about an hour a week keeping up with my 6 to 8 plants. 

I have tried various heirloom varieties over the years and they really tend to have the most amazing flavor! In my experience, they don't produce as many tomatoes - often they grow into magnificent plants, but not a lot of tomatoes on each one. The tomatoes tend to be misshapen and "ugly." It's probably not true of all heirlooms, but the fruits of the varieties I've tried tended to be "tender," meaning the smallest nick or bump causes the tomato to go bad quickly. 

If I Were Growing Tomatoes for the First Time... 

If I wasn't sure what tomatoes to grow as a new gardener, this is the approach I'd take.

I would plant 4 tomatoes in my small plot. 

  • A cherry or grape tomato, for snacking, roasting, pasta dishes, and salads
    • Success is almost guaranteed!
  • A hybrid beefsteak tomato for slicing on sandwiches and eating raw
  • A popular tomato for my area, likely a hybrid
    • Ask other gardeners or ask at the garden center
    • In Kansas City, Jet Star and Celebrity are popular
  • An interesting heirloom tomato in an unusual color, for fun and for an experiment.

I would not can tomatoes. I might improvise a tomato sauce if I happened to get a large harvest and needed to use up a lot of tomatoes. You can make a small batch of tomato sauce on the stovetop and use it all quickly or freeze any leftovers. 

I would ask other local gardeners for their thoughts on great tomato varieties, and take notes on their suggestions. 

I would take notes on what grew and produced well and what didn't, and which varieties tasted the best. I would use those notes to make changes in my garden plan for next year. 


Next week, we'll talk about planting tomato transplants, my preferred way of planting tomatoes in my garden!

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