Tomato planting season is upon us, leaving gardeners with some pretty big decisions to make. The tomato variety you select now will have a huge impact on your future success, but hundreds of different varieties are available. Will you go with hybrids or heirlooms? Determinate or indeterminate? Large or small fruits? Sorting through this confusing array will help you choose the right varieties for your garden.
One way tomato varieties are classified is by the size of tomato they produce. The smallest are the grape and cherry tomatoes, which bear small fruits in long clusters. As a group, these types are by far the most reliable and productive for our region. No garden should be without a few cherry tomato plants. Gardener’s favorites include ‘Sweet Million’, ‘Super Sweet 100’ and ‘Juliet’, though to be honest I have never seen a cherry tomato that did not thrive.
The tomatoes most gardeners are interested in growing are the large, round fruited types. The problem we face with tomatoes in our climate is the larger the fruit, the more difficult it is to grow. If your dream is to grow tomatoes large enough for a single slice to cover a piece of bread, you may be gardening in the wrong area.
This does not mean we cannot grow decent size tomatoes. Varieties that produce medium size fruits are your best bet. These include old favorites like “Celebrity” and “Better Boy.” If you want to try the larger types, look for “Big Beef,” “Big Boy” or “Beefmaster” — just expect yields to drop during the heat of summer.
Determinate and Indeterminate
Another way tomatoes are classified is by the way the plants grow and produce. Determinate varieties stop growing once they reach full size, which is usually three to four feet tall. As a result plants set all their fruit at once, bearing over a four to five week period and then are done. Most modern hybrids are determinate.
Indeterminate varieties continue to grow all season, setting successive crops of fruit all summer and into the fall, if you can keep pests away. Because they keep growing, indeterminate varieties get large, often six feet or more, and need heavy duty cages for support. Most cherry tomatoes are indeterminate, as are most heirlooms. The large fruited varieties mentioned above are also indeterminate, as are the medium fruited varieties ‘Early Girl’ and ‘Better Boy’.
Heirlooms and Hybrids
Heirloom varieties have been in cultivation for generations, with seeds saved and passed on from year to the next. These varieties were selected for flavor above all else. Many heirlooms are regionally adapted and not all produce well in the south. If you would like to try heirlooms look for “German Johnson,” “Marglobe,” “Cherokee Purple” and “Homestead,” all which have proven tolerant of southern heat and humidity.
Disease resistance has been one of the main goals for developing modern tomato hybrids. Planting disease resistant hybrid varieties will increase your chances of success, but keep in mind no one tomato variety is resistant to all, or even most, of the diseases that commonly plague this popular crop.
Of the hybrid tomato types ‘Celebrity’, ‘Better Boy’, and ‘Early Girl’ are favorites for the south. All three produce medium to large fruits and are resistant to fusarium, one of several diseases that can cause tomato plants to wilt and die. ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Better Boy’ have the added bonus of also being resistant to nematodes, a type of microscopic worm that attack tomato roots, stunting plants and reducing productivity. If you have limited space or are growing in containers, consider planting the determinate fusarium and nematode resistant varieties ‘Bush Celebrity’, ‘Better Bush’, or ‘Bush Early Girl’.
For even more disease resistance seek out varieties that are resistant to tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV), a serious and deadly disease that usually attacks tomato plants in May and June in our region. TSWV resistant varieties include ‘Southern Star’, ‘Amelia’, ‘Crista’, ‘Red Defender’, ‘Primo Red’, and ‘Talledaga’. Give yourself the best chances of success by planting a diversity of tomato varieties, including some cherries, some heirlooms, and some hybrids. Be sure to include at least one TSWV resistant variety in the mix and plant a couple in containers to avoid soil dwelling wilt diseases.
For more gardening advice visit pender.ces.ncsu.edu, where you can post your questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Extension office. If you live in