It’s time to start tomatoes indoors, so here are our picks for the tastiest tomatoes to grow in the garden this year.
By Carol O’Meara
The National Garden Bureau declared 2011 the “Year of the Tomato,” and what a year it will be. The most popular vegetable in the U.S. has millions of devoted fans across the globe, and for good reason—one bite of the tangy sweet fruit inspires hundreds of salsas, sauces and salads.
Black, red, yellow, gold or purple, nothing beats the tomato when it comes to the crown jewels of the vegetable garden. Spend the season celebrating the “love apple” by growing its patriarchs—heir-loom tomatoes. If you’ve been hesitant to grow heirlooms because of their often-odd shapes and flamboyant colors, you’re passing up a true flavor bonanza. Heirlooms are the juiciest, most delectable tomatoes that offer a host of flavors not found in store-bought tomatoes, which are typically hybrids selected for uniformity of color and taste.
Heirlooms differ from hybrids in that they must be open-pollinated, grow true to their parents and be around for more than 50 years. Many open-pollinated plants are too young to be considered heirlooms, but as they’re passed from generation to generation, they get closer to inclusion in this coveted group. Hybrids are different, in that they won’t grow true to their parents.
Knowing some love apple lingo is crucial to getting plants that suit you, so bone up on these terms before shopping:
Tomato vines are classified determinate, indeterminate or semi-determinate.
Determinates grow 3 to 4 feet in height, set fruit all at once, and give plenty of tomatoes for sauce. They don’t need staking.
Semi-determinates grow a tad taller and set fruit in several flushes throughout the season. Caging is recommended.
Indeterminate vines need support because they get big—up to 10 feet or taller, so staking, caging or trellising is a must. If staking, nip off the side suckers that form between leaf and stem, and loosely tie the vine to the stake as it grows.
The string of letters after a tomato’s name on a plant tag indicates its disease resistance, usually bred into hybrids. VFFNT, for example, means the plant is resistant to Verticillium wilt, Fusarium strains 1 and 2, nematodes, and tobacco mosaic virus.
Heirloom tomatoes come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Cherry tomatoes are bite-sized salad additions; beefsteaks cover a hamburger in a single slice. But don’t pigeonhole any tomato’s use—they’re all delicious in salads or grilled, and in salsas and sauces.
Some tomatoes fruit early; others take their time. Postpone the agony of waiting for that first ripe fruit by planting a combination of early-, mid-, and late-season tomatoes.
Early-season fruits mature within 70 days after transplanting; mid-season fruits in 75 to 80 days; late-season tomatoes take 85 days or longer to reach maturity.
Spring is the time to start tomatoes indoors, so pick up some plants at your local nursery, farmers’ market or CSA, or send off for seeds. The following are our picks for the Top Tomatoes to help you celebrate the Year of the Tomato in your garden.
Sauce and Stew Tomatoes
Amish Paste. If you want sauces with old-fashioned flavor, it’s hard to beat the paste tomato that ranks number one in taste trials across the U.S. This large, plump heirloom has an outstanding flavor that will make your friends ask for your sauce secret. Indeterminate, mid season, 85 days.
Black Krim. Slice and grill this black tomato to bring out its sweet, deep, complex flavor that’s perfect for adding to soups. It’s a prolific heirloom, so you’ll have enough fruit to pop in the freezer for adding to stews come winter. Indeterminate, mid season, 75 to 90 days.
Grushovka. A compact heirloom perfect for containers, this plant goes wild when it comes to fruit, producing heavy crops of tasty pink tomatoes. Plant it in a pot on your patio garden and you’ll get enough tomatoes for your favorite sauces. Determinate, early season, 65 days.
Roma. A powerhouse producer of plum tomatoes, the Roma is dense with dry, meaty flesh, making it ideal for sauces, pastes and canning. The compact plants set fruit all at once, so set aside a day to process your favorite sauces. Determinate, mid season, 80 days.
Sweet Cherry Tomatoes
Blondkopfchen. When you’re looking for one plant that feeds you all summer, look no further than Blondkopfchen (Little Blond Girl). This German heirloom sports huge harvests of sunny-yellow, 1-inch fruits that are achingly sweet and tender. Indeterminate, mid season, 75 days.
Green Doctors. We couldn’t resist putting this youngster on the list, because this open-pollinated tomato introduced in 2009 by Amy Goldman is sure to become an heirloom favorite by 2059 (its 50th birthday). Bursting with flavor so intense and delicious, this tomato was the hands-down favorite of Colorado Master Gardeners at the 2009 Tomato Taste-off. Indeterminate, mid season, 85 days.
Yellow Pear. This bite-sized, gourmet tomato is a gem in salads and fresh eating with its lemony yellow color, pear shape and deli- ciously mild, tangy flavor. Introduced in the late 1800s, Yellow Pear is in demand by chefs for fresh, upscale salads. Don’t let the petite fruit fool you—Yellow Pear is a vigorous grower and needs caging for support. Indeterminate, early season, 70 days.
Green Zebra. Green tomatoes are all the rage, and if tangy, spicy fruit excites your taste buds, these 2-inch-round tomatoes are guaranteed to please. An open-pollinated tomato introduced in 1983 (so it’s not an heirloom yet), Green Zebra adds sass to salads, bruschetta and salsas. Indeterminate, mid season, 75 days.
Jaune Flamme. A French heirloom, this mid-season tomato produces gorgeous 4-ounce fruits that are orange on the outside with a red interior. The lightly fruity, sweet flavor is punctuated by a classic tomato tang, making this a perfectly balanced addition to your dining table. Indeterminate, early season, 70 days.
Silvery Fir Tree. This Russian heirloom struts its stuff in containers and hanging baskets, where its delicate, fern-like leaves dazzle with a slight silvery sheen. When the bright-red fruits ripen, the contrast between silver and red will make you hesitate to pick such colorful perfection. But be bold—the tangy, slightly acid taste is a sure winner. Determinate, very early, 58 days.
Great Tomatoes, Hands Down
Aunt Ruby’s German Green. So delicious it’s listed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, Aunt Ruby’s German Green is a big, sweet, tasty tomato worthy of every garden. To tell when this green tomato is ripe, let it hang until it lightens in color and blushes yellow, then cut open one for a taste test. Inside, the pink-tinged flesh has a flavor that will make you salivate with delight. Indeterminate, mid season, 80 days.
Brandywine. The king of the table is this beefsteak, which wins raves year after year in blind tastings. Producing big, red, juicy fruit on a stocky vine, Brandywine lives up to its name with sweet, tangy, old-fashioned tomato flavor. Indeterminate, late season, 95 days.
Gold Medal. This beefsteak beauty wins over palates with its large, juicy lobes, buttery soft texture and sweet, low-acid flavor. A visual stunner, the fruit is red streaked, gold and flashy. If you have a gourmet’s appreciation for fine foods, this tomato is a must. Indeterminate, mid season, 80 days.
Purple Cherokee. Beloved by many gardeners, this versatile beefsteak has a sweet, complex flavor that’s great in salads and sauces or just as a snack with fresh basil, mozzarella and balsamic. The plant is a heavy producer of beautiful purple fruit. Indeterminate, mid to late season, 80 days.
- If growing tomatoes in a container, choose compact plants that stay well behaved and plant them in a 5-gallon pot.
- Pick plants that are bright, deep green with a stout stem, avoiding those with flowers or fruit; though enticing, those fruits or flowers will stunt your plant’s early growth.
- Plant tomatoes in full sun (8 hours daily exposure).
- Amend the soil with compost.
- For large, healthy roots, dig a horizontal trench and lay the tomato in it. Gently lift the plant upward, avoiding bending or breaking the stem, until the top two sets of leaves are above the soil line. Don’t bury any leaves, which will rot against the stem under the soil, so pinch off those below the soil line. Then cover the roots and stem with soil.
- Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart.
- Give seedlings a shot of starter fertilizer, then set up trellising.
- Fertilize every two to four weeks through July, depending on your soil (those low in organic material need more fertilizer than older, richer gardens).
- Keep watering consistent, irrigating regularly to a depth of 7 to 8 inches.
—Carol O’Meara. (Carol O’Meara is a local gardening expert. Check out her blog at gardeningafterfive.wordpress.com.)