Whether you dream of an Italian-style tomato-and-basil salad or standing over the kitchen sink eating the best tomato sandwich in the world, learning how to select tomatoes for your garden will make your dreams come true. It's the one summer crop everyone wants to grow.
Cherry, grape, slicing, salad, paste -- all tomatoes are either determinate or indeterminate growers; it's good to know this at the start so you can plan the right place and the right support method for your garden. Check the seed packet or plant label to find out.
Determinate tomatoes grow, bloom, and set fruits once; this means they are more compact growers and you get to harvest the entire crop about the same time.
Be sure to look at the "days to maturity" when you think about how to select tomatoes for your garden. If you live in a short-season climate, make sure you don't choose a tomato that takes 100 days to ripen -- otherwise you may not get fruit before frost.
You could be put off learning how to select tomatoes when you start reading about all the possible diseases they can get, but so many varieties are disease-resistant now that you shouldn't worry. The seed packet or catalog will list which diseases each variety is resistant to. Here are the most common: F1 and F2 (Fusarium Wilt), V (Verticillium wilt), LB (late blight), TMV (tobacco mosaic virus), EB (early blight), and N (nematodes).
Gardeners in some parts of the country are plagued by tomato hornworms -- they are large green caterpillars that will eat and eat, leaving you with little. You can control them with bT, an organic control. For more hands-on control, take your pruners out each evening and snip the things in half. It's very satisfying.
Here's a problem that isn't a disease: blossom-end rot. This dark leathery spot on the bottom of the tomato is a symptom of poor calcium uptake and a result of inconsistent watering -- too wet, too dry, too wet -- you get the picture. Maintain a consistent soil-moisture level and you won't see this happen.
Everyone loves an heirloom tomato, and these old varieties are best suited to the home garden because they don't ship or store well. Many are open-pollinated -- meaning you can save the seeds and grow the same tomato next year -- but some are hybrids. And some modern hybrid tomatoes are open-pollinated. Confused? Just be sure to read the description of each variety (look for the letters OP) so you know how to select tomatoes that suit your purposes.
And now, grafted tomatoes. Gardeners are accustomed to apples and roses being grafted -- growing the top part of a plant on hardy rootstock of another type -- but tomatoes? Heirloom and other varieties of tomatoes are now being grown on strong-growing roots of another kind of tomato, and the result is a better yield -- any way you look at it is better for the gardener.
The taste test: Which tomato is the best? So much depends on your own garden and the weather, but you can be confident when you choose a tomato with "sweet" or "sugar" in the name. The tomato's color won't have much to do with it -- why else would a green tomato ('Green Zebra') win some contests? The perfect red might not taste as good as the pinkish heirloom superstar 'Brandywine'. And no tomato wants to compete against the bright orange cherry 'Sungold' - it just wouldn't be fair.
Of course, we all know the best-tasting tomato is the one grown in our own garden.