The Tomato Dilemma: What kinds should I plant?

comments (11) May 15th, 2010

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What type of tomatoes should I plant? With so many varieties to choose from, it can be overwhelming selecting the right ones for your garden. Get some tips in the blog post below.
Green zebra. Waiting to ripen...
A yellow pear cluster. Again, waiting to ripen.
What type of tomatoes should I plant? With so many varieties to choose from, it can be overwhelming selecting the right ones for your garden. Get some tips in the blog post below.Click To Enlarge

What type of tomatoes should I plant? With so many varieties to choose from, it can be overwhelming selecting the right ones for your garden. Get some tips in the blog post below.

Photo: G. Eide

If you're just starting out as a vegetable gardner, the countless tomato types available is overwhelming. How do you know what to plant? What's right for your garden space? What's right for your tastes?

I'm heading into my third season as a veggie gardener and am just starting to figure it out. In this short blog post, I'll share what worked and what didn't for me. Maybe it can help others facing the same “what to plant?” conundrum. And for any seasoned tomato growers out there... share your advice. What tomato varieties do you to plant?

Buy well-labeled plants and try many varieties
My first year I wanted to try the sought-after heirloom tomatoes. Silly me, I bought the a six-pack of seedlings at a garden center simply labeled “heirlooms.” I had no clue what varietal they were.

They never turned red that summer. Did they ripen? I don't know. Maybe they were the kind that stayed green when ripe. Maybe there was something wrong with my gardening technique? Who knows...   regardless, I tried some and the flavor did not impress.

Lesson learned? Find out the specific kind you're planting. If you don't, you can't learn from your experience for future seasons. I also wouldn't recommend planting a ton of the same type at first--then you're putting all your eggs in one basket. Try out a selection to see what works well for you and your space.

Vine or bush? Support 'em well
You also want to find out if your tomatoes are “vining” (indeterminate) or “bush” (determinate) style tomatoes. This will help you figure out how to support and prune the tomatoes.

This is another reason for buying well-labeled plants—my first season, I didn't know what type they were so I was confused about what to do with advice from pruning articles like this since there are different tips depending on whether you have determinate or indeterminate plants.

Try reliable varieties
Go easy on yourself in the beginning. Try out well-recommended, tried-and-true varietals so you can hopefully get some success your first year and won't loose interest in the hobby.

Here's what worked well for me last year:

  • Sun gold: Incredibly sweet. My most productive plant last year and the fruits arrived early too.
  • Sweet 100s: Tried these in 2008—another tasty and prolific variety. 
  • Grape tomatoes: Also prolific tomato. I won't try this year though... tI buy a hot-house version of this variety all year long from the grocery store. 
  • Roma tomatoes: Good production. Small types grow easier in my garden.
  • Celebrity and Carmello: These tomatoes were recommended on several gardening sites. They performed well until the blight struck in 2009. 
  • New Yorker: Fantastic patio plant. In a year of blight, my patio plants loved their containers—warmer and drier than their brethren in the garden blot.  
  • Window Box Roma: Another great container plant. 
  • Isis Candy: Good potential. I only actually got 4 small cherry size tomatoes from this plant, but I think it was user error. I used too small a pot and put this indeterminate (vining) tomato on the deck. It would have been happier in the garden, but the few I tried were tasty. I want to try again.

My do-not-repeat list
I ran into trouble with two tomato plants:

  • Cuban Yellow Grape: It didn't amaze me. Pests attacked its soft and delicate leaves. The fruit was fine, but the plant wasn't very robust.
  • Principe Borghese: I didn't have much luck with this paste tomato plant. It didn't seem to like my garden.

My plan for this year:

  • Cherry tomatoes: Sun Gold, Sweet 100 (from seed), Isis Candy
  • Small size fruit: Roma (from seed), San Marzano (from seed), a Burpee sweet salad hybrid (from seed) that I'll try in a container.
  • Larger tomatos: Two New Jersey tomatoes: Rutgers and Ramapo and maybe Green Zebra. 

Other info sources

  • A Rutgers survey: For more information on tomato types, the New York Times cited a Rutgers survey of best tasting tomatoes (it's at the bottom of this page). Here's what they called as the best tasting tomatoes: Large tomatoes: Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter (also known as Radiator Charlie’s), Hawaiian Pineapple, Pruden’s Purple. Medium-size tomatoes: Eva Purple Ball, Arkansas Traveler, Box Car Willie, Lemon Boy, Costoluto Genovese, Ramapo, Brandywine Red, Green Zebra. Small tomatoes: Snow White, Isis Candy, Yellow Pear. 
  • Cornell University also offers a tomato/vegetable ranking tool. These are some of their most popular/most rated types: Sungold Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Celebrity, Stupice, Early Girl, and Jet Star.
  • One gardener completely unscientific approach to selecting tomato types in this blog post.
  • Suggestions for selecting paste tomatoes.
  • Advice on unusual tomato types from's Ruth Dobsevage.

Do you agree? Disagree with the variety of suggestions above? Have any additional advice? Post a comment below.

posted in: tomatoes

Comments (11)

user-3163199 writes:
Posted: 11:56 am on March 6th
shirlgirl3 writes: So glad to join you, I am from Eastern Washington, very warm here, summer-wise, and I am growing tomatoes for the first tome in years, just retired!
I am finding this exchange very useful, I will be trying Early girl also next year, thank you!

Posted: 4:15 pm on August 14th
syngeasiusype writes: Hello, world!!!
Posted: 3:07 pm on January 27th
LydayLefchify writes: Hi
 I think that 's on hold saytik
  I think that helped you .
Posted: 6:42 am on November 1st
WineDiva writes: I planted cherokee purple a few years ago and I thought they had the most amazing taste. They do have a very thin skin, though, so careful on the amount of water you give them/they get
Posted: 8:06 pm on March 3rd
Parmentier writes: Excellent piece. Does anyone have suggestions about the best varieties of tomato to plant indoors? I live in a apartment in New York with good southern and western exposures. Lots of sun in the summer. Looking for small determinate plants or plants that would do well in hanging baskets.

Posted: 12:41 pm on March 3rd
thistleridgefarm writes: Like Eyelean, living on the Northwest coast tomato growing is trial and error. I've had good success with the tomatoes from the old Soviet Union like Black Krim, Black Cherry, Black Plum and their flavor is exquisite. My biggest surprise was a medium-size tomato called Jaune Flamme. Very prolific, orange-gold fruit, tasted like a tomato trying to be tropical fruit. 25 vines produced hundreds of fruit. I tried Schimmeig Striped Hollow once and it was truly a different fruit but it ripens late and had spotty pollination so I experienced only a few fruit. Carmello was a disaster and succumbed to blight way before any other tomato variety showed signs. Matt's Wild Cherry sounds romantic, going back to the original wild plant and all, but I got more leaf than fruit and chalked that one up to novelty. Striped Zebra is fun and a great novelty, but needs a long growing season. I plant it as early as I can in the hottest spot I can spare and wait until the fruit have a tinge of gold showing between the green stripes. That's when it has perfect flavor. I'll be experimenting with containers mostly this year due to some construction so I'm always interested in folks container experiences.
Posted: 12:56 pm on March 2nd
EyeLean writes: I live in Oregon so getting a tomato to maturity is tough...not a lot of hot and sunny days. Nights drop frequently to the high 50's...even in August!

Tomato's developed for our climate always do the best here:
Oregon Spring
Early Girl
(any 'early' types..not big tomatoes but at least you get a good crop)

I've tried cherry tomatoes too and they ALL do well:
My favorites....
Sun Gold (favorite..sweetest)
Sweet Million
Yellow Pear

Heirloom varieties, as well as beef steak, have been tough to get them to ripen. We usually run out of warm weather before they can get going strong. 'Wall-o-waters' and other things to keep the temperature up would help but I'm too lazy to work that hard. If they don't produce on their own they get the boot from my list! Ruthless, am I!

Things that got boot'ed:
Mortgage lifter
Green Zebra
Big Beef
Old German
(its not that they WON'T grow here...its just not enough production for me to count them worth it)

Posted: 12:17 pm on March 2nd
curryleaf writes: Yeah, thanks Ruth for promoting this. It is that time of year again to figure out what kind of tomatoes to plant...

This year I'll probably try black krim based on Meyesa's recommendation. And I might give Early girl a shot too.

Based on success from previous years, I'll try “Rose” again (recommended by Fine Gardening’s Danielle Sherry--it was a late bloomer but very viney and interesting) and Ramapo and of course Sun Gold--those cherry tomatoes are amazing. I'll probably try a Carmelo and Celebrity for the beefsteaks.

If I do containers, I'll do window box roma and new yorker again.

Vegetable Gardener’s Ruth Dobsevage always seems to be a fan of the reliable Juliette so that might be a good one to plant.

I will not, however plant yellow pear, green zebra, isis candy, or Principe Borghese. I just didn't have much luck with these. :(

If people have other recommendations, I'm anxious to hear them!
Posted: 9:39 am on March 2nd
Meyesa writes: I agree with both of you on Sun Gold, but I didn't have good luck with Yellow Pear. They just didn't taste great, especially next to Sun Gold, which are amazingly sweet and very prolific. But I have to say yellow pear is gorgeous, and a great addition to a multicolor/shape salad. It's important to remember that tomatoes from different gardens will taste different too. They just don't like my garden:( I love green zebra, but some describe them as acidic. In my garden they're really very sweet. San Marzano was really tasty, but I only got one tomato that I could eat. They were the only plants in my garden to be destroyed by late blight last year and for that reason I'm exploring other paste tomatoes.
Although there are great determinate varieties for growing in pots, I love growing big indeterminate cherry varieties in big pots. I let them get tangled up in the railing on my front steps and guests can snack as they come in the house. As you both mentioned though, you need some pretty big pots for the root system of these guys.
It's nice to hear about varieties I'm not familiar with, like Isis Candy. I'll have to add that to my list of tomatoes I want to grow in my life. The list is already 75 varieties long, and this year I'm knocking 26 varieties off of the list (all from seed). Only one of the 26 is a repeat from last year, Black Krim. Last year, Black Krim produced plenty of beautiful sweet tomatoes, and it wasn't even in a very sunny spot! For me it's a favorite in salsa. The others are just varieties I've read about, I have reasons for growing each one, but this would be a book if I wrote about each, so just ask if you are curious about any.
Here's the list for this year's garden:
Regular fresh eating Tomatoes:
Yellow Brandywine, Aunt Ruby's German Green, Speckled Peach, Peach Blow Sutton (fuzzy and sweet like a peach), Black Krim, Aunt Gerties Gold, Jaune Flamme, Marvel Striped Zapotec, Schelenberg's Favorite
Paste Tomatoes:
Goldman's Italian American, Purple Russian, Opalka
Short season/Early Tomatoes (great for pots):
Bloody Butcher, Tiny Tim (cutest tomato plant ever!), Siletz, Buckbee's new 50 day, Beli Naliv, Stupice, Manitoba, Oregon Spring
Cherry Tomatoes:
Blondkopfchen, Black Cherry, Matt's Wild Cherry (not far removed from real wild tomatoes)
Weird (I just had to see it for myself) Tomatoes:
Reisetomate (seriously, look it up), Schimmeig Striped Hollow

Posted: 11:48 am on May 25th
Tanseygal writes: I agree with you that tomato size and variety need to fit the growing space. I grow small fruit and large fruit tomatoes in a 4 x 8ft raised bed and in larger than 18 inch diameter pots (root systems can get extensive.) Ok, I'm a curious gardener who likes to experiment. I prefer vine (long/tall) indeterminant types. And they do get tall with a strong support (as they are supposed to do.) My favorites are Isis Candy; a red ball of sweetness with a yellow starburst on the bottom that has grown 7ft tall, Yellow Pear; with great tomato flavor that my Gramma introduced to me that has grown 6ft tall, and SunGold a very sweet golden ball that grew 6ft tall. My caged beauties were covered with fruit giving a good crop that year. All in pots. This year I'm adding Black Cherry to the bunch; all from seed. Multicolor salads again this year. Yahoo!
Posted: 12:15 am on May 19th
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