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Tasty Tomatoes — Spring 2010 | Out Here Magazine

Which ones are right for you?

By Hannah Wolfson

Nothing beats a homegrown tomato, which is probably why they're the most popular crop planted in vegetable gardens. But which tomato should you grow?

Finding the right answer may depend mostly on the soil, light, and other conditions in your garden, as well as your own personal tastes, says Bill Hlubik, director of the Middlesex County EARTH Center at the Rutgers, NJ, Agricultural Experiment Station.

"There's a lot of tomato varieties and it can be extremely confusing," Hlubik says.

Hlubik has tested dozens of tomatoes for flavor, productivity, and disease-resistance. He also has a few favorites in his own garden, but he warns that those varieties might struggle in different climates.

So, Hlubik advises, ask your neighbors which tomatoes work in their gardens and check with your local extension office.

One of the first choices is between heirloom tomatoes and hybrids. There's much ado these days about heirlooms, which are billed as the tomatoes you remember from Grandma's garden.

Heirlooms — tomatoes that will mature like their parents when openly pollinated — offer a vast array of different flavors, colors, shapes, and sizes. Among Hlubik's favorites are the Red Brandywine (some Brandywine strains are hybrid, he points out), Prudence Purple, Arkansas Traveler, and Boxcar Willie.

Yet heirlooms can be tougher to grow in some circumstances, he says. Many heirloom fruits are prone to cracking, which can make them rot quickly.

Hybrids, on the other hand, have been bred to be especially disease resistant or productive. One of Hlubik's new favorites in his own garden is BHN 589, a hybrid developed by BHN Seed with an old-fashioned tomato flavor.

Other factors to consider when choosing which tomatoes to grow:

Space. How big is your garden plot? This matters because tomatoes come in two types: determinate or indeterminate. Determinate plants reach a specific size, then stop growing and start producing prolific fruit. Indeterminate plants can grow to towering heights — some as high as 7 feet — and easily overwhelm a small garden.

Size. Do you want tiny cherry tomatoes or big slicers? On the small side, Hlubik likes the supersweet heirloom Isis Candy, the hybrid Sungold, and the improved Sweet 100, which bounces back from all kinds of weather. On the huge end, check out Beefy Boy, Mortgage Lifter, and Supersteak, which produce tomatoes weighing around 14 to 16 ounces each. Good medium-sized tomatoes include the mild Jetstar, and Supersonic, which is crack-resistant.

Season. There are dozens of cold-resistant early tomatoes, which can grow fruit in as little as eight weeks. But be aware that many lack flavor, and that even the toughest need the soil warmed for them beforehand, he says.

Style. If you want tomatoes for sauce, look for paste tomatoes, especially the meaty, egg-shaped Roma-style varieties such as Sauce and Slice and Viva Italia. If you're growing a canning tomato, you'll want one that's high in acid; the cutoff point is generally a pH of 4.6 or lower, he says. That may rule out some classics such as Ace, Beef Master, Big Girl, and Delicious, all sweet tomatoes that would require extra acid during canning.

In the end, he says, it all comes down to flavor and how well a particular variety will do in your own garden, which can be hard to predict. Be prepared to try several different kinds, and to try new ones each year until you find your favorites.

Hannah Wolfson of Birmingham, Ala., enjoys homegrown tomatoes all summer long.