As each new tomato seedling pushes its tiny head through the soil and unfurls its tiny leaves, I rejoice in the thought of eating tomatoes from the plant it will become. Sometimes people ask me how I choose what tomatoes to grow. I choose varieties based on taste, texture, and need. You may like certain varieties because you have children in your family, and the colors or flavors appeal to them. Maybe you’re selected tomatoes with higher nutrient contents–yes, some are bred for their health attributes! I’ve grown as many as twenty-six varieties in one season, trying to compare flavors and meet our needs for fresh tomatoes as well as canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, juice, marinara, and salsa.
I think it’s safe to say that tomatoes fall into four basic categories: (1) cherry, (2) fresh eating, (3) paste or Roma, and (4) drying. The first two categories tend to be juicy. The latter two tend to have more flesh and less juice and therefore need less processing to turn into sauce or other non-perishable products. Tomatoes can also be hybrids (for which you have to buy seed each year) or open-pollinated (for which you can save seed from year to year yourself). Some tomatoes are heirlooms, meaning they’ve been around for at least fifty years. Tomatoes are also classified as determinate (growing in a bush) or indeterminate (continuing to grow in vines that must be trained, or else they’ll turn into something from “Little Shop of Horrors”). I’ll list a few of my favorites here, according to the first four categories I gave.
I’m a fan of traditional red cherry tomatoes. I’ve tried as many as seven different colors at one time, and I confess that some of the black cherry tomatoes and orange cherry tomatoes just don’t grow that well or taste that good to me. Instead, I opt for a traditional variety like Camp Joy, which produces large cherries in clusters like grapes.
Fresh Eating Full-Sized Tomatoes
I can’t resist having tomatoes as early as possible, so often I plant one or two Early Girls or Fourth of July tomatoes. These are round, red tomatoes in the size of a tennis ball: nothing spectacular except for being ready to eat in June in the Ozarks. Ready a little later are Arkansas travelers. I’ve started growing Arkansas travelers since I moved to Arkansas. These are a medium-sized pink tomato with a good flavor and beautiful color in the garden.
My Georgia grandfather planted Better Boys, so to me these mid and late season beefsteak (bigger) tomatoes always taste like tomatoes ought to taste. I usually plant a half dozen.
I like color in the garden, and after experimenting with lots of tomatoes that aren’t strictly red, I’ve found some favorites. I always plant a few Lemon Boys (and sometimes Jubilee) tomatoes to add that zingy yellow to summer salads. Yellow tomatoes tend to be lower in acid than red tomatoes, so I feed them to friends and relatives who don’t like reds so much either. Yellow tomatoes like these are also nice paired with delicate fish.
Mr. Stripey is a fun hybrid with carnival stripes of red and yellow. The tomatoes are big, and the color is stunning. The flavor is pretty darn good too. I love to layer slices of yellows, reds, and Mr. Stripey in fresh tomato salads. One Mr. Stripey is enough for my garden.
Other colored tomatoes I’ve tried include Cherokee Purple, Prudence Purple, and Black Krim. I liked the rich flavor of all of them, but so did the stink bugs in my garden, and often the top and bottom of the tomatoes would ripen at different times. Furthermore, all three of these tomatoes had a really high proportion of seeds to flesh. Therefore, I limit them in my garden–and I can almost guarantee that I’ll get protests in the comments for saying that.
Paste Tomatoes (also known as Roma or sauce tomatoes)
Since we want tomatoes for sauce, I grow a lot of paste tomatoes. For this year, I selected Amish paste, Pompeii, San Marzano, and Opalka. Amish pastes are consistent. They are not terribly exciting, but they have an oblong shape that’s easy to peel and process, and they are fairly sturdy. The others have better flavor (in my opinion) but less disease resistance and somewhat less consistent shapes, making processing a bit more difficult.
Last year I started to grow sun-drying tomatoes for the first time. Between a storm that wreaked havoc on my seedlings and the blight I referenced in a previous blog post, I did not get any tomatoes. This year I’m planting Principe Borghese again. I’ll let you know the results. I can tell you this: the average vegetable drier will burn out its motor before it dries seven trays of standard tomatoes (and, yes, I learned the hard way). If you want home-grown sun-dried tomatoes, grow tomatoes that are meant to be dried.
What are your favorite tomato varieties? Do you have more success growing certain varieties? Which variety do you like best for fresh eating? Which do you like best for sauces and salsas? Are you interested in seed and plant sources for some of the varieties I grow? Let me know in the comments section.
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