Tomatoes continue to be the most common garden vegetable plant. Actually they aren’t really a vegetable at all. They have seeds in them, so they are a fruit.
Tomatoes have two growth habits, determinant and indeterminate. Determinant types are usually shorter and basically fruit all at once. Indeterminate types continue to fruit until they are killed by frost.
Determinant varieties are often used for canning, since they mature in bunches. Popular varieties are: Celebrity, Roma, Rutgers, Homestead and Amelia. Newer ones are: Spitfire, Solar fire, Sunbeam and Sun Master. Popular indeterminate varieties are: Beefmaster, Big Boy, Better Boy, Early Girl, Jet Star, Park’s Whopper, San Marzano, Yellow Pear and Brandywine.
Colors, sizes and shapes are almost too numerous to mention. Often you’ll also hear the term heirloom bandied about. Heirlooms are simply open pollinated selections handed down over several generations. Back in the day people saved seeds from year to year. Some commercial tomato varieties are marketed as heirloom simply because they have been around so long.
Brandywine is a popular heirloom variety with tremendous flavor. Seedlings are easy to recognize because the leaves resemble potato foliage. German Johnson is a huge pink fruited heirloom. It is a parent to another wildly successful huge fruited variety called Mortgage Lifter, a beautiful solid beefsteak type. Other popular heirloom tomatoes are: Black Cherry, Yellow Pear, Rutgers, Marglobe, Mr. Stripey, Roma, Beefsteak, Golden Jubilee, Arkansas Traveler and Cherokee Purple.
Most tomatoes on the market are what we call hybrids. They are bred from at least two other tomatoes and the seeds either are sterile or will not breed true to type. In other words, if you plant the seeds you will not get what you started with.
Better Boy is a good example. You wouldn’t want to save and plant the seeds, although some might actually be better than the original. The problem is you don’t know what you’ll get.
One trouble we have in our climate is getting tomatoes to set fruit in hot weather. Most varieties struggle, but some of the newer cultivars have been selected for that trait. Popular large fruits are: Manalucie, Big Beef, Sun Chaser and Super Fantastic.
Sweet 100 is an indeterminate cherry tomato that sets amazing quantities of fruit in hot weather. A single plant is usually enough for most families.
Everyone knows tomatoes can be picked green and ripened on the shelf. What many don’t realize is that once a fruit is removed from the vine sugar production ceases. So even though the tomato ripens overall quality must be much lower than one ripened on the vine.
What is the best overall tomato cultivar? That’s a loaded question. It depends upon what you want. If you want to impress your neighbors on your big tomato growing prowess you might try German Johnson or Mortgage Lifter. The problem there is that they show little disease resistance, so you better be lucky and escape it.
For general use I like meaty medium sized tomatoes that are sweet but have a strong acid tang. Most large fruits are seedy with a lot of waste. My favorite all-purpose tomato is a selection developed by a truly great guy I knew in graduate school. Dr. Mannon Gallegly was the department chairman and he bred a gem called WV-63. It’s often called the West Virginia Centennial tomato.
The only problem with this one is that I’ve never been able to get the same type of production from it in eastern Carolina as we did in the mountains of West Virginia. That’s truly a shame. What’s not a shame is that Gallegly is still active Professor Emeritus in his mid-nineties.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.