Extension Educator, Horticulture
Tomatoes are the most popular garden vegetable. Even folks who only grow flowers generally have at least one tomato plant tucked in somewhere.
The "gotta have the first red tomato" folks have already planted their tomato plants. If the plants have frost covers, the early ones can do OK until the weather warms. For truly early tomatoes, try some of the fast maturing vines such as Sub Arctic Plenty, Early Cascade, Early Girl, or Quick Pick.
I recommend waiting until after May 10 to plant tender vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and squash. Later plantings quickly catch up to the early ones most years.
There are hundreds of tomato varieties from hybrids to heirlooms so selecting one is like going down the cereal aisle in the grocery store. There are a few items to consider beyond just taste such as growth habit, earliness, use and disease resistance.
Tomato plants fall into one of two types: determinate and indeterminate. Tomatoes are determinate if they eventually form a flower cluster at the terminal growing point, causing the plant to stop growing in height. These tend to be good canning tomatoes since the fruit ripens all at one time. Because of their smaller size, determinate vines are easier to control and support during the growing season and are good in containers.
Plants form flower clusters from the sides of the stem and continue indefinitely to grow taller are called indeterminate. These plants are the "pinups" in magazines of the tomato plant eating the garage. Indeterminate tend to be late maturing but continue producing until frost. These can be staked or caged with heavy fencing or concrete reinforcing wire.
Use is also important in the selection process. Fresh eating is number one. The small-fruited salad types, Super Sweet 100, Sweet Million, Yellow Pear, Large Red Cherry, and Mountain Belle are great as a snack but tough to keep from sliding off your hamburger. Grape tomatoes known for their sweet taste, firm texture and elongated shape appeared in stores a few years ago. Santa F1 was the first grape variety to become popular but realize there are several varieties now called grape tomatoes. You may have to try a few to discover your favorite.
Main crop varieties are good for fresh eating and juice. Big Beef is one of my favorites. It has good diseases resistance with beautiful abundant, medium to large tomatoes. Others include Celebrity, Fantastic, Better Boy, Mountain Pride, Floramerica, Burpee's Big Girl and Supersonic.
In these days of supersize some folks like their tomatoes large or just enjoy the "gee whiz" factor. Fruits may be extremely large but also can be misshapen, with rough scar tissue on the blossom end that has to be cut away. Some of the newer hybrids like Supersteak and Beefmaster have better shape.
Paste types are used for making catsup, paste, sauces and canning. These include Roma, San Marzano, Amish Paste and Viva Italia.
Contrary to popular belief, yellow and orange fruited varieties are not significantly lower in acid content than red tomatoes, and they are equally safe to can or process. They "taste" sweeter than red varieties, because they have higher sugar content. These include Mountain Gold, Lemon Boy Jubilee and Golden Boy.
Tomatoes are subject to a few diseases. Verticillium and fusarium wilts are soil borne diseases that cause yellowing of the leaves, wilting and premature death of plants. These diseases persist in gardens where susceptible plants are grown. Once they build up, the only practical control is the use of resistant varieties. Resistant varieties will have "VF" on the label.
For great information about growing tomatoes and many other vegetables, check out the book Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest by Chuck Voigt. Also check out our website "Watch your Garden Grow" at http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/