The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Selecting Tasty Tomatoes

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator
slmason@illinois.edu

A dream of summer is incomplete without fresh home-grown tomatoes. But with over 600 possible tomato varieties, which one is the best?

Tomato varieties include weird and wonderful names – 'Aunt Ruby's German Green', 'Box Car Willie', 'Mortgage Lifter' and 'Abe Lincoln Original'. Their skin colors embrace a summer sunset of red, orange, yellow, green, pink, to purple. Tomato sizes range from marble to softball. Round, knobby, blobby and pear-shaped, tomatoes go well beyond plain old red spheres.

For most of us we select varieties for their flavor. Sweet, tart or tangy the flavor of tomatoes is as varied as their appearance. As with any food, tomato taste is on the tongue of the be-taster; however, researchers have pinpointed the two big components of tomato flavor - sugars and acids.

Generally people characterize tomatoes with high sugar and high acid levels to also be high in tomato flavor. Conversely tomatoes with low sugar and low acid levels are often listed as bland or mild. Sweet tomatoes contain high sugar, but low acid content. If it is low in sugar but high in acid, it's generally considered a tart tomato. Despite popular opinion yellow tomatoes are not necessarily low in acid nor are red tomatoes necessarily high in acid.

Tomatoes also contain over 400 different volatile compounds that contribute to subtle differences in flavor and in fragrance. Although the volatile oils are present in very small amounts, our perception of flavor is tied to our ability to smell the different tomato volatile oils.

According to Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah Iowa, the winners of their heirloom tomato tastings include: 'Dester', 'Lemon Drop', 'Velvet Red', 'Gold Medal', 'Moonglow' and 'Wapsipinicon Peach'.

The "best tomato" also depends on the intended use. Most backyard gardeners go for fresh eating, but tomatoes for salsa, sauces, juice or stuffing are popular. 'Amish Paste' is a favorite cooking tomato for its meatiness for sauces and salsas. The first time I grew it I wondered why everyone liked it. Mine were mushy and flavorless until I realized I was leaving them on the vine too long. As with many tomatoes, for the best flavor and texture harvest them slightly before or at full color.

Disease resistance is also an important attribute. Look for varieties with VFN after their name. The letters indicate some resistance to the wilt diseases (Verticillium and Fusarium) and the microscopic roundworms known as nematodes.

Unfortunately few tomato varieties exist that are resistant to the common fungal leaf spot diseases of early blight and septoria. These diseases start out as spots on the lower leaves. Dead leaves hang limply on the plants as the fungus moves up the stems. North Carolina State has developed some early blight tolerant varieties known as the Mountain series ('Mountain Pride', 'Mountain Supreme', 'Mountain Gold', 'Mountain Fresh', and 'Mountain Belle'). Other varieties with some resistance include: 'Defiant', 'Matt's Wild', 'Merlot', and 'Cabernet'.

To manage leaf spot diseases do a good job now of removing all old tomato debris in the garden and give them plenty of breathing room during the season. Mature plants should have at least 2 feet of open space around them.

'Big Beef' and 'Celebrity' are a couple of my favorite tomatoes for just good all around fresh eating. Their medium-sized fruits are perfect as a single serve snack or in a salad. I also like the smaller sized 'Juliet' and for snacking you can't beat 'Sweet Million'. These varieties seldom crack or have blossom end rot and exhibit good disease resistance. However, no varieties will be 100% immune to disease especially if they are in crowded growing conditions.

You have plenty of time to start your own tasty tomato transplants. Just sow seeds indoors under fluorescent lights by the end of March or first week of April.

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