South Alabamian

Tomato varieties: making the most of your choice

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There are nearly 10,000 named varieties of tomatoes. However, each tomato gardener has a different variety that they deem superior to all others. With the arrival of April and spring weather, the treks to home garden stores have begun. Tomatoes are at the top of the gardening plant list, but the variety choice is entirely up to the gardener.

Selecting Varieties

Gardeners should always consider which foods they like the most when selecting seeds. Some families have heirloom tomato seeds passed down from generation to generation. Others enjoy trying new tomato varieties every year. Some only enjoy tomatoes fresh during the growing season, while others can them for future enjoyment. When it comes to their uses, according to Chip East, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System horticulture regional agent, some people prefer using traditional slicing tomatoes for canning and traditional canning tomatoes for slicing.

Slicing Tomatoes

Tomatoes usually used for slicing tend to be 8 to 12 ounces. There are many varieties that fit this bill. However, they all taste a bit different. ‘Better Boy,’ ‘Celebrity,’ ‘Crista,’ ‘Big Beef’ and ‘Mountain Majesty’ are all common slicing tomato varieties.

“It is impossible to say which is best,” East said. “Some people will only plant one variety their entire life and claim that it’s the best despite never trying another.”

Paste Tomatoes

Traditional paste or canning tomato varieties are smaller in size, at approximately 4 or 5 ounces. These tomatoes–including Roma, Plum and Mariana– tend to be lower in water content than larger slicing tomatoes are. The higher meat-to-water ratio makes these tomatoes great for sauces and canning.

Salad Tomatoes

The smallest tomato varieties are often used in salads. These are grape and cherry types. Both are near 1 ounce and are bite size. As their names suggest, they are generally shaped like grapes or cherries. They are generally sweet and have an even higher meat-to-water ratio. Common cherry tomato varieties are ‘Mountain Belle,’ ‘New Pearl’ and ‘Sun Gold.’ Common grape tomato varieties include ‘Juliet,’ ‘Mountain Honey’ and ‘Navidad.’

Tomato Flavor Factors

Homegrown tomatoes are largely considered the pinnacle of tomato quality. However, there is a lot more to it than the garden-versus greenhouse argument. East said the argument should be less about homegrown versus greenhouse and more about vine-ripened versus harvested early.

Homegrown tomatoes are normally picked as they are ready, while tomatoes in stores are often harvested early and shipped great distances. This keeps the tomato fresh longer but worsens its flavor. Some tomatoes may even be picked while still green, then ripened with chemicals after reaching the store. Not all greenhouse tomatoes are harvested early, though.

“Some people can tell the difference between field-grown tomatoes and greenhouse-grown tomatoes, but vine-ripened ones still have the best quality,” East said. “The closer to vine ripe the tomatoes are the better their quality is, but they have a shorter shelf life.”

There are other stress factors that can also affect tomato flavor.

“Low light, cold, disease, insects, not ripening properly before harvest, poor irrigation management and poor nutrition are all stress factors which can change the flavor of tomatoes,” East said.

Proper irrigation and nutrition will help gardeners get the most out of their tomatoes, but planting at the right time will make it all easier. Planting at the right temperature will cause plants to grow more quickly, giving gardeners their culinary favorite all the sooner.

“Using a soil thermometer is the best way to do it,” East said. “The soil should be between 60 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit at the coldest part of the day when planting. If you had to pick a perfect soil temperature, 85 degrees Fahrenheit is optimum but hard to achieve early in the season. I like for temperatures to be at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit.”

More Information

To learn more about growing tomatoes in the home garden, check out the Extension Brief, Selecting Which Tomato Plants to Grow at

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