Red, juicy, and burstin' with flavor, the tomato is without a doubt one of North America's favorite crops . . . both for in-the-garden reliability and on-the-table taste. However, the crowd-pleaser is available in so many forms that just choosing a prospective cropper can be a problem.
If, for instance, you rely on whatever already started plants your local garden center happens to offer (usually only a few of the best known types), you'll be lucky if you wind up with a variety that's even suited to your area. But when you turn to the catalogs to order seed, the sheer number of choices can be mystifying! I've spent the last four years testing just about all the varieties of tomatoes that are commonly available and offer these recommendations as the top tomatoes for home gardens.
Tomatoes fall into several categories, differing in such qualities as habit of growth, fruit size, and the time required for the plant to produce a ripe harvest. The first distinction that the home gardener should understand is the difference between determinate plants and indeterminate plants. Determinate tomatoes climb to a genetically decreed height and then—as the terminal bud blooms—the plants stop growing. All of the blossoms on such a bush set fruit at about the same time, and the harvest is concentrated within a fairly short period . . . often no more than a week or two.
Of course, such a growth habit is fine if you want plenty of the tangy fruit ripe all at once (say, for canning), but if you'd like to have fresh picked sandwich and salad fixin's over a period of several months, you'd better plant some indeterminate (or staking) varieties, too. On such vines, the terminal bud doesn't flower . . . it just keeps on growin'. As the blossoms on the lower part of indeterminate plants set and begin to ripen fruit, new flowers farther up burst into bloom . . . so the crop is produced continually until frost kills the plant. A well rounded garden should have a mixture of both determinate and indeterminate plants, to provide tomatoes for both canning and the table.
The popularity of container gardening has recently brought a lot of attention to small-fruited tomatoes, and plant geneticists have come up with some real winners. First among the little fellas that grow on compact determinate vines is Pixie Hybrid (Burpee, Thompson & Morgan, Stokes), which produces wonderfully flavored 1 3/4" fruits on 14 to 18inch plants in 52 days from transplanting.
Another compact winner is Park's Bitsy VF, which offers all of Pixie's fine qualities plus a resistance to troublesome wilt diseases . . . as indicated by the "V" (for verticillium wilt) and "F" (for fusarium wilt) attached to its name. (Actually, some tomatoes don't contract the diseases at all, because they're resistant to verticillium and fusarium. Other cultivars, however, are tolerant of the wilts . . . which means that even though the plant may contract the disease, its fruit crop will be largely unaffected. Unfortunately, many seed companies seem to have confused resistance and tolerance, and it's difficult to tell from a catalog description just how immune some varieties are. All VF tomatoes, however, are at least tolerant of the wilt diseases.) Some plants also sport an "N" after the name, indicating a resistance to infestation by nematodes . . . the small wire-like worms that attack the roots.
Other highly recommended cultivars include Patio (Park, Twilley, Hastings). which produces 2" diameter fruit on two foot plants in 70 days . . . City Best VF (Park), an improved Patio . . . Small Fry VFN (Park, Burpee), with clusters of deliciously tangy-sweet fruit on three foot vines in 65 days . . . Tiny Tire (Johnny's, Nichols, Jung), which yields little 3/4" fruits on a plant perfect for hanging baskets . . . and Droplet (Farmer), a variety known for holding its fruit on the vine when ripe.
However, not all small tomatoes are borne on determinate plants. Among the season-long indeterminates are Sweet 100 (Burpee, Harris, Thompson & Morgan), the extraordinarily heavybearing All-America medal winner that's widely admired for its flavor and high vitamin C content . . . and an English import, Gardener's Delight (Johnny's, Thompson & Morgan, Burpee). The transatlantic tomato has the real tangy flavor of the "love apples" of a century or more ago, according to the folks at Thompson & Morgan . . . and the bite-sized yummies can be frozen whole!
Turning now to "normal"-sized fruit (which can range from four ounces to well over a pound!), we'll first discuss varieties of early tomatoes. . . which—since they mature within 45 to 65 days after the transplants are set out—are a real boon to the short-season gardener. Two determinate types lead off the list: Spring Giant VF (Twilley, Park, Stokes), which ripens fine-tasting eight ounce fruit in about 65 days . . . and Ultra Girl VFN (Stokes), which yields a heavy crop of half-pound saladmakers in a short 56 days. The earliest variety, however, is undoubtedly Early Girl (Park, Burpee), whose five to six ounce fruits mature in just 45 to 50 days . . . but this cultivar does sacrifice some flavor to produce its quick crop.
Several indeterminate types that bear early and then keep on producing fruit are Big Early (Burpee), 62 days . . . Extra Early (Park), 65 days . . . and Rushmore VF (Stokes, Gurney), a 66 day type that's ideal for the West and Midwest areas of the United States.
However, a new introduction called Early Cascade VF (Nichols, Park, Burpee, Stokes) has the potential to become the leading early tomato. The plant's delicious fruits are small (four ounces), but are produced in great profusion and over a long season.
The list of mid-season tomatoes (maturing within 70 to 80 days after they're set out) determinate varieties has to be headed by Floramerica VF (carried by most major seed houses), the great 1978 All-America Bronze Medal winner. This widely adapted plant (it will bear in cool, hot, or humid weather) yields fruit weighing up to 12 ounces . . . and it's tolerant of—or resistant to—some 16 tomato diseases! Herbst is offering another strong performer: The Godfather VFN, which produces eight-ounce globes that are resistant to several diseases and to blossomend rot. Other quality mid-season determinates are Big Set VFN (Gurney, Twilley), which sets half-pound fruit well even in cold weather . . . and Bonus V FN (Park, Twilley, Hastings), which produces a heavy crop in 75 days.
The mid-season indeterminates are the "main croppers"—the tomatoes folks rely on year after year—and the yardstick by which all others are measured is Better Boy VFN (Stokes, Twilley, Park, Burpee). Better Boy really is an improvement over earlier hybrids: Not only is it one of the most disease-free tomatoes ever bred, but it's also considered one of the finest-tasting fruits available. This 70-day variety has been reported to yield as many as 280 1 1/2-pound fruits from one vine! Make a place for it.
However, even if you choose a superb performer such as Better Boy, it's best not to put all your tomatoes in one basket. You can achieve diversity by planting some of the other fine mid-season varieties as well: such as BigGirl VF (Burpee), a disease-spurning relative of Big Boy that produces one-pound fruit in 78 days . . . Whopper VFNT (Park), featuring a resistance to tobacco mosaic (smokers, take note!) and luscious 10 ounce globes in 75 days . . . Red Chief VFN (Hastings), an excellent southern variety with nine ounce fruit in 80 days . . . Terrific VFN (Herbst, Park, Hastings), a rugged hybrid with good crack resistance and 10 ounce fruit in 70 days . . . He Man VF (Park), a robust plant with six ounce tomatoes in 80 days . . . Fantastic VF (Gurney, Park, Stokes), which yields tangy eight ouncers in 70 days ... Ultra Boy VFN (Stokes), which—although it has one-pound fruits that ripen in 72 days—doesn't match its sister, Ultra Girl, in flavor . . . and Nepal (Farmer), a large variety for the North.
The Beefsteak Brothers
The heavyweights form a class of their own. The huge fruits of these late-ripening (75-90 days) indeterminate plants are enormously popular for slicing. For years Beefsteak tomatoes set the standard, but this variety is subject to disease. Look for Beefmaster VFN, an improved Beefsteak variant (from Herbst, Park, and Burpee), which bears heavy crops of fruit weighing up to two pounds and has a flavor that challenges that of Better Boy. Other giants that have performed well for me include Bragger (Park), rough-fruited but vigorous and crack-resistant . . . The Duke VF (Park), a highly productive vine which yields fruit weighing up to two pounds in 75 days . . . Wonder Boy VF (Herbst, Stokes, Twilley), which produces one pound love apples of excellent flavor in 80 days . . . Supersonic VF (Harris), which ripens superb half-pound fruit in 79 days . . . and Pink-Skinned Jumbo (Park), an improvement over the old Ponderosa variety.
If the space allotted to tomatoes in your garden isn't already crammed to bursting, you should consider planting some of the plum-shaped paste types. Their fruits make superb ketchup as well as fine tomato paste, and they're great canners, too. Look for Roma VF, a 76-day determinate variety from Park, Stokes, and Burpee . . . San Marzano (Burpee, Stokes), an 80-day indeterminate with a high percentage of solids . . . Veepick VF (Stokes), an easy-peeling type with 73-day maturity . . . and No-va (Stokes), an early (65 days) Roma variant.
Of course, you might also want to try a few of the yellow varieties that are popular in many parts of the country. It has often been claimed that yellow tomatoes, because of their mild flavor, are low in acidity . . . but the USDA has found that the blander flavor comes from increased sugar content, not less acid. Among the popular yellow tomatoes are Sunray F (Burpee, Harris, Twilley), an 80-day indeterminate vine . . . Jubilee (Nichols, Park, Burpee), an 80-day indeterminate that's the old timer among the yellow fruit .. . and Golden Delight (Gurney, Stokes), a 65-day determinate plant. You can even purchase white tomatoes, but they lack both disease resistance and fine flavor and are generally considered only novelties.
Well, there you have it. I've listed a farm full of reliable performers, and among them-several certified all-time winners. Put it this way . . . any garden that contains some of the following can't go wrong: Sweet 100, Ultra Girl, Better Boy, Floramerica, and Beefmaster. Good gardening!