TomatoMania- Choosing Wisely

a perfect golden heirloom tomatoWelome back for more TomatoMania.

This week Scott Daigre is going to educate us on a few basic terms that will help us choose just the right seedlings for our gardens and our appetites. Don’t worry you can do it… tomato tags are easy to decipher. Well, easy for Scott. But persevere. Because you are one week closer to bushels of perfect tomatoes. Just like this one pictured here. But stay away from it. Grow your own. This one is mine. GREG

So many tomatoes, so little garden space.

Now that you’ve selected and amended your garden space, here comes the fun part. You get to fill it with tomato plants!

The seedlings you’ll find this time of the year most often come in 4” pots. They can look rather insignificant as you consider the whole wide space you’ve just spent your valuable time tilling.  Not to worry. They’ll soon be in major growth mode. In a couple months you’ll wonder why you didn’t expand the garden just a little bit more!

tomato seedlings for saleBut how do you choose which tomatoes to plant?

Of course, you can launch into a major research project.  But it’s easier to start by simply reading the label and description attached to the plants you’re considering.   Competent growers should offer you a guide, albeit a tiny one, on the tag or sticker that accompanies the plant. You’ll find the name (which is sometimes a clue to its heritage or notable qualities) and, hopefully, a description of the tomato to be. This will help you decide whether or not it’s a good fit for your space and your summer goals.

Here’s how to decode some of the information you’ll find on the tag:

First, is it a hybrid or an heirloom?

A hybrid is a tomato variety created in order to combine the desirable qualities (color, taste, disease resistance, etc.) found in it’s two parents.  Often regarded as “pretty but tasteless” . But, actually nothing could be further from the truth when they are grown correctly in your own garden.  Seed saved from a hybrid, however, is not likely to produce the same tomato if planted out in future seasons.

An heirloom is a variety, often an old one, that is “true from seed” or “open-pollinated”.  Properly saved seed from these plants will produce the same tomato in future seasons.  Though some are modern, others are hundreds of years old and have truly been handed down from generation to generation in different parts of the world.  (Hence the name.)  Why?  They have qualities that are prized – mainly taste!

tomatoe seedlings ready for plantingYour group of semi-finalists should be labeled Determinate or Indeterminate or have some sort of clear abbreviation of one of these.  This tells you mainly about the fruiting pattern and capability of the plant, but can also clue you in as to ultimate size.  Pay close attention patio gardeners!

Determinate tomato plants will tend to be tidier and smaller in stature than their counterparts.  Think of them as a farmer’s tomato.  They will produce a crop on or near the top of the plant and all or most of it will ripen at the same time.  (Or the first to ripen will hold nicely on the plant until more of the crop is ready.)  Most roma types exhibit a determinate pattern. If your main goal is canning and you’re only growing a few plants, this is an asset for you.

Indeterminates are usually larger plants (often mammoth plants) that keep growing and producing on side branching throughout the season.  This can be a long time in milder climates!  Most heirlooms are indeterminate varieties.

Capital letters following the name of a hybrid tomato will indicate disease or pest resistance.  Each letter stands for a particular disease or pest that the plant will be resistant to.  For example, V — Verticillium wilt resistance, F – Fusarium wilt, N – Nematodes, T – Tomato mosaic virus. If you’ve lost plants in the past due to one of these common tomato maladies pay attention to this notation.  Does this mean the plants are bullet proof?  No.  Heirlooms will not show these notations, usually because we don’t know their parentage.

Lastly, there should be a notation on the label that says 75 Days.  Or 49 days… or 100 Days.  This is an estimate of the time it will take for your young seedling to fruit after planting. (This assumes good planting practices, consistent care and good seasonal conditions.) While obviously not an exact science, this estimate will tell you whether you’re considering an early, mid-season or late-season tomato. Tomatoes that fruit in under 70 days are generally considered “early”.  70 –85 days is mid-season and any over that will definitely be late season arrivals. Going on vacation for the entire month of August?  Avoid the beefsteaks since you’ll be gone when they fruit!

Once you understand all these clues you can devise your own strategy for the season. Cherries all summer?  Late season whoppers?  A rainbow of colors?  I say do it all.  Everyone’s got a different idea of what makes a perfect tomato garden and that’s the beauty of having your own. Enjoy!

Next…planting and care.

Scott Daigre