Lynn has been a professional organic farmer for the last 35 years and runs a 210-acre farm in Western Colorado with her husband.
Do you love tomatoes, but don't know which variety grow? Growing tomatoes is fun and so rewarding, but it can be a bit confusing to select the right tomato plants to grow.
I've been a professional organic farmer for 35 years, and I've learned a lot about growing tomatoes. In this article, I'm going to share my top six tips for selecting the right tomato variety to create the best success for you.
6 Questions to Ask Before Buying Tomato Plants
Selecting which tomato variety to grow can be a little bit confusing and feel like a daunting task. If you get the wrong variety, you can have a real disaster and end up without any tomatoes to eat. There are over 3,600 tomato varieties out there that I know of (and there are probably even more). In my experience, there are six things that you want to consider when choosing a tomato variety.
- What do I want to do with my tomatoes?
- What characteristics am I looking for in a tomato?
- How long is my growing season?
- Do I want a non-hybrid or hybrid tomato?
- Do I want indeterminate or determinate tomatoes?
- How many plants should I grow?
I go into each of these questions in detail below. Once you have your answers, you should know what kind of tomato will perform best for you!
1. What Do I Want to Do With My Tomatoes?
The first question to ask yourself is, what do I want to do with my tomatoes? Do I want to preserve my tomatoes? Do I want to eat them fresh? Do I want to grow them for production, or do I just want to give them away? Deciding what you want to do with them will help determine which variety to choose.
2. What Characteristics Am I Looking for in a Tomato?
Next, you should consider what characteristics you are looking for. Do you want a tomato that tastes really good? (Let me give you a little hint . . . if grown organically, they all taste really good!) Do you want something that doesn't split or is disease resistant? Or are you looking for heavy production? These are all possible characteristics to look for when choosing your variety.
3. How Long Is My Growing Season?
Another critical question to ask yourself is, how long is my growing season and how many frost-free days do I have?
Long- vs. Short-Season Tomatoes
For example, we live in zone five, so we have about a 90- to 120-day growing window. If we were to pick a really long-season tomato, say a 150-day tomato, we would never get a tomato to eat because we'd freeze before that. So you need to consider whether a long-season tomato will work in your area.
There are also short-season tomato varieties, some that will produce in 70 days. Those are the ones that we pick here at our farm. There's also something called a split season. People who are in really hot regions will probably want to grow a short-season tomato in the spring, take a break in the summer, and grow another short-season tomato in the fall.
Timing Your Seedlings
One also has to consider plant timing. You really need to decide when you want to start your tomato plants in your house so that you can have them ready to go when it's time to go out in the garden. You want to plant seeds indoors about eight weeks before your last frost; that will get the tomato plants ready to go out in the garden when the time is right.
How to Find Your Frost Date
When you're going to go out in the garden, what you want to do is find your frost date (your zone will have a frost date that matches up with it) and then look at the 10-day forecast once you hit your frost date.
Ours is around May 15th, so what I'd want to do is look at the 10-day forecast from May 15th to the 25th. If I don't see any frost in that time period, then I know it's OK to plant my tomatoes out. If I plant out too early, there's a pretty good chance they're going to get frosted.
4. Do I Want a Non-Hybrid or a Hybrid Tomato?
This is a very confusing subject for a lot of people. Basically, non-hybrid, open pollinated, and heirloom are pretty much the same thing. You can collect seeds from all three of those kinds of tomatoes and plant the seeds back to get a new plant with the same characteristics as the parent plant.
A hybrid is where they take one plant and cross it with another plant and you get a crossbreed between the two. That's a little different than a GMO, which is done in a test tube, and which is genetically modified. This is just cross-pollinated, which is totally safe for us. I don't really know of any GMO tomato seeds that are available to the public, so you really don't have to worry about that at this point.
Basically, if you want to save seed, go with the non-hybrid and open-pollinated or an heirloom. If you want a heavier production volume and a disease-resistant package (which people living where it's real humid will want), you'll want a hybrid tomato.
5. Do I Want Determinate or Indeterminate Tomatoes?
In addition to looking different—bushy or long and vining—determinate and indeterminate plants produce at very different rates.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes
Our indeterminate tomatoes grow up a string and produce one or two pounds of tomatoes every week, and they go and go and go until we take them out in the fall.
Determinate plants, which are more of a bush type—are going to put on a whole bunch of tomatoes all at once. You can get about 30 pounds of tomatoes off of these plants in a three- or four-week period, whereas the indeterminates are going to just keep producing week after week after week.
So you've got to decide, do you want everything at once (great if you're going to preserve) or do you want eating tomatoes where you're just getting a couple of pounds a week?
6. How Many Plants Should I Grow?
The last thing to consider is how many plants you should grow. An indeterminate is going to give you about one to two pounds per week all season long once they start producing, which is good for eating fresh and giving away. Your determinate plants are going to have all their fruit on at once, which is good for canning and preserving.
If you're thinking about how many plants you'll need, think back to the first question on this list: What do you want to do with your tomatoes? If you're going indeterminate, let's say you eat four pounds a week and you want to give away four pounds a week; that would be eight pounds in a week. You're probably going to want eight plants or so, maybe ten plants.
For determinate plants, let's say you want to can and you want around 60 pounds a week. The determinate plant will make about 30 pounds over its cycle, which is about eight pounds per week. So you're going to want about eight plants to give you that 60 pounds a week for those four weeks.
Best of Luck With Your Tomatoes!
Growing tomatoes can be a lot of fun and so tasty. You just need to decide which characteristics you want in your tomato plants, get some plants, and get started. For more tomato tips, check out my techniques for getting the highest yield and best flavor from your tomatoes.
May your garden be easy, fun, productive, and always organic!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Lynn Gillespie