Extension Educator, Horticulture
Summer means the delicious taste of fresh tomatoes compared to the "cardboardelicious" taste of winter tomatoes. Of all the vegetables we can grow, tomatoes are the most popular in the home garden. Even folks who only grow hair have at least one tomato plant tucked in somewhere.
There are hundreds of tomato varieties from hybrids to heirlooms, so selecting one is like going down the cereal aisle in the grocery store. A few items to consider beyond just taste are: 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 that 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 with the picture of the tomato plant eating the garage. Indeterminate tomatoes tend to be late maturing, but continue producing until frost. These can be staked or caged with heavy fencing or concrete reinforcing wire.
For early ripening tomatoes, try some of the fast maturing vines such as Sub Arctic Plenty, Early Cascade, Early Girl, or Quick Pick.
Use is also important in the selection process. Fresh eating is number one for most people. 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 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 disease 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. Some of the newer hybrids like Supersteak and Beefmaster have better shape.
Paste types are used for making catsup, paste, sauces, and for canning and drying. 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.
Or how about some weird and wonderful ones such as White Wonder with its creamy white flesh and skin or Yellow Stuffer with its easy to stuff lemon-yellow pepper-looking fruit.
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. Resistant varieties are the best preventative. Resistant tomatoes will have "VF" on the label.
For information about growing tomatoes and many other vegetables, check out the book Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest by Chuck Voigt. Available through U of I publications at1-800-345-6087. Also check out our website "Watch your Garden Grow".