As you choose tomato varieties for this year’s garden, summon the mantra “Change is good.” Branching out can be great fun, and also tremendously rewarding, when a new-to-you variety solves a chronic problem with an unmanageable tomato disease.
Most MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers prefer open-pollinated (OP) tomato varieties that have been selected for flavor, texture and color. These include some heirlooms, a term that has various definitions but generally refers to an open-pollinated variety that’s at least 50 years old. Open-pollinated varieties allow gardeners to save their own seeds from year to year, too. On the other hand, hybrids may be the best tomato varieties to prevent devastation in disease-prone climates.
To help you choose the best tomatoes for your inclinations and situation, we’ve selected some classic, representative varieties in a few broad categories, which we chose based on reader feedback from a tomato survey. Then, we’ve offered up top recommendations among both open-pollinated and hybrid varieties based on eating quality and disease resistance. (See the key for disease-resistance codes.) Some of these tomatoes are sure to climb their way to the top of your must-grow list!
Most gardeners feel pure pleasure when they haul in a basket full of perfect, round slicing tomatoes. True tomato perfection comes in a range of colors, shapes and sizes. Bright red is the most popular color, but pink-red and purple-hued varieties offer unique flavors worth adding to your mix.
Red slicers represent a huge subgroup of varieties that bear fruits that look deceivingly like the round, red tomatoes in stores, only they taste worlds better. Many beefsteaks — a common term for large, thick-fleshed, juicy tomatoes — appear in this group.
Classics: Some varieties that define this category and are plentiful in seed catalogs and garden centers, including ‘Celebrity,’ ‘Better Boy,’ ‘Beefmaster’ and ‘Big Beef,’ are hybrids produced by Seminis, which is owned by Monsanto. So, you may opt to avoid them if you’re concerned about Monsanto’s corporate stronghold on the seed industry.
Good open-pollinated picks: The fruits may not be huge, but the 1934 vintage ‘Rutgers’ (V, F) delivers old-time flavor via vigorous plants. Also consider ‘Ruth’s Perfect,’ bred by Wisconsin biodynamic farmer and activist Ruth Zinniker, or ‘Super Choice,’ an Amish heirloom from Kentucky. All are heavy producers of juicy slicing tomatoes packed with rich, old-fashioned flavor.
Good hybrid picks: ‘Jetstar’ (V, F), released in 1969, produces heavy crops of uniform, crack-free, great-tasting tomatoes, even in stressful seasons. State-of-the-art resistance to early and late blights are available in ‘Defiant’ (V, FF, EB, LB) and ‘Iron Lady’ (V, FF, EB, LB), and the latter is also resistant to septoria leaf spot, a fungal disease that is sometimes confused with early blight. For best results with these and other blight-resistant varieties, grow them in a row or bed that’s separate from your other tomatoes.
Pink slicers boast some out-of-this-world flavors. If you’re only ready for a small step away from classic reds, this will be your ticket to a tomato awakening.
Classic: ‘Brandywine’ strains vary, with the Sudduth strain most beloved for its full flavor that hits all the high notes — fruity and slightly sweet with a hint of savory smoke. The lobed fruits vary between large and giant.
Good open-pollinated picks: ‘German Johnson’ is like a more refined ‘Brandywine,’ producing less-lumpy fruits that are more uniform in size. Other fine-flavored pink beefsteaks include ‘Ferris Wheel,’ released in 1894, and the modern version of its likely parent variety, ‘Pink Ponderosa.’
Good hybrid picks: ‘Brandy Boy’ (V, F, N) and ‘Pink Brandymaster’ (V, F) were specifically bred for gardeners whose garden plots require strong resistance to soilborne diseases and who want the distinctive flavor of ‘Brandywine.’ When given serious support and wide spacing, these big, potato-leaf plants can be highly productive and are less finicky and disease-prone than ‘Brandywine.’
Purple slicers are as delicious as they are gorgeous. Their taste is often described as richer than that of reds. These beautiful beefsteaks ripen to a rich mahogany hue and are often more plentiful in vitamin A and antioxidants than lighter-colored varieties. Stunning on the table, these gourmet tomatoes elevate salads and sandwiches. Note that their purple tones fade when the tomatoes are cooked.
Classic: Despite its irregular shape and size, ‘Cherokee Purple’ garners grower fanfare. Originally from Tennessee, happy specimens of this pink-to-purple heirloom produce big, lobed tomatoes with green shoulders and a deep, complex flavor. Plant researchers say tomatoes that ripen with green shoulders are better at converting sunlight into sugars, making for greater flavor. This variety is at its best where summers are warm and humid.
Good open-pollinated picks: While not as flavorful, ‘Black Krim’ is more uniform in shape, stands up to reasonable disease pressure, and tends to produce better than ‘Cherokee Purple’ in less-than-perfect weather. ‘Paul Robeson’ looks fresher and tastes zippier because under its purple-tinted skin it has red-orange flesh rather than pink. These are all full-season, 85-day tomatoes, as is the productive ‘Indian Stripe.’ The plants of ‘Indian Stripe’ are more compact and produce slightly smaller fruits than ‘Cherokee Purple’ plants do, but the fruits have a similar color with green striping.
Good hybrid pick: In soils where tomatoes require verticillium or fusarium resistance, ‘Marnero’ (V, F, TMV) nearly guarantees a crop of tomatoes that will make it to maturity. The fruits are more uniform than ‘Cherokee Purple,’ but are still slightly pleated, pink-purple on the bottom, and greenish on top.
Best Cherry and Salad Tomatoes
Small-fruited cherry tomatoes are easy to grow, and usually produce well even in extreme conditions. The best-tasting varieties grow into big, robust plants that require sturdy support.
Classics: Hybrid ‘Supersweet 100’ (V, F) starts producing cascades of bright red fruits about 65 days after planting. Fruity, popular ‘Sungold’ (V, F, TMV) follows a few days later with its delicious, orange-yellow orbs.
Good open-pollinated picks: Bright red ‘Peacevine’ delivers sweet flavor in an open-pollinated, highly nutritious package. In addition to high vitamin C, ‘Peacevine’ contains high levels of an amino acid thought to help calm the body. ‘Black Cherry,’ a variety with Russian roots, has small, purple-black, sweet fruits that tomato expert Amy Goldman says taste like “plumstone fruit without the stone.” ‘Dr. Carolyn’ is a richly sweet, yellow cherry tomato developed by and named after famed tomato breeder Dr. Carolyn J. Male. Its plants are vigorous and productive.
Good hybrid pick: ‘Mountain Magic’ (V, FF, EB, LB) takes a while to load up with big, red cherries, but its tolerance of early blight and resistance to late blight helps keep the plants productive until frost, even in rainy years.
The best varieties for canning as sauce or diced tomatoes have thick flesh and little juice, so they don’t need long cooking times to shed excess liquid. When fully ripe, they make fine salad and sandwich tomatoes, too.
Classic: In our reader survey, the top tomato of any type was dependable ‘Roma VF.’ Originally released as ‘Roma’ with resistance to fusarium wilt in 1956, breeders improved the variety in 1963 by adding resistance to verticillium wilt. ‘Roma VF’ reliably produces lots of uniform, meaty fruits.
Good open-pollinated pick: Some gardeners like ‘Opalka’ so much that they grow it as a main-crop, all-purpose variety. A family heirloom from Poland, this variety’s pepper-shaped fruits hold well on the vine and in cool storage, and its plants give big yields for this category. The sparse, wispy vines allow good air flow so foliage dries quickly, which helps deter diseases that thrive in moist environments.
Good hybrid pick: Released by North Carolina State University in 2010, ‘Plum Regal’ (V, FF, TSW, EB, LB) is a firm, heavy-bearing paste tomato with resistance to late blight and tomato spotted wilt virus, an increasingly common disease in warm summer climates.
Best Early-Producing Tomato Varieties
Early tomatoes grow well in cool weather and begin blooming at a young age. Disease resistance isn’t as important because the plants bear before disease pressure becomes severe. Few extra-early hybrids have a truly memorable flavor, so for this category, stick with open-pollinated varieties that perform well in cool climates.
Classic: Cold-tolerant and a snap to grow, potato-leaf ‘Stupice’ yields clusters of tasty, tennis-ball-sized fruits in less than 60 days. You’ll see good production that chugs reliably along all summer.
Good open-pollinated picks: ‘Moskvich’ is a cold-tolerant Russian heirloom capable of producing its first ripe fruit in only 60 days. The compact plants of semi-determinate ‘Earliana’ produce a heavy, concentrated crop 70 days after planting. Also consider ‘Prairie Fire,’ which bears larger fruits than other extra-early varieties.
Every garden should include at least one tomato grown just for fun, in which case unique colors top the list of desirable traits. In this wild-card category, one of the top varieties to put on your list is ‘Green Zebra,’ which produces striped, green fruits that develop buttery yellow undertones when fully ripe. When breeder Tom Wagner of Everett, Washington, shared an early version with his father, his father responded, “See you in the funny papers.” Now, about 30 years later, many gardeners consider them the jewels of their tomato patches. ‘Green Zebra’ plants are real survivors, too, and often produce good crops in years with bad weather.
Among yellow tomatoes, ‘Manyel’ is valued for its tangy, citrusy flavor, and it yields clusters of yellow “moons” in about 75 days. Its biggest weakness is a tendency to crack, so gather all ripe and nearly ripe fruits before expected rain. ‘Mr. Stripey’ is an heirloom with a reputation for disease resistance, and its sweet, yellow fruits don pink-red stripes and splotches. The yellow fruits of slow-maturing ‘Pineapple’ are even bigger and swirled with red and orange. ‘Striped German’ is yellow-and-pink striped with a beautiful marbled interior. ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ boasts huge, sweet fruits with a hint of spiciness.
For solid-orange tomatoes with dense interiors, try ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast,’ which was bred in Michigan and bears sandwich-sized fruits. The productivity of smaller-fruited ‘Golden Jubilee’ may be even better — so reliable it borders on being bombproof.
Love stuffed peppers? Try growing stuffing tomatoes — yes, just imagine that cheese-stuffed, homegrown goodness. Resembling bell peppers, stuffing tomatoes are thick-walled, hollow and relatively juice-free. The empty interior allows for simple preparation of tomato dishes packed with savory ingredients. Try ‘Costoluto Genovese,’ a red Italian variety with a good, slightly tart flavor, or ‘Ruffled Yellow,’ a flattened, scalloped tomato that’s excellent for cooking.
For a snazzy, fun way to find even more disease-resistant varieties and search for other desired tomato traits, try our Tomato Chooser app, which allows you to sort through and learn about 333 tomato varieties. You can even find out which varieties expert tomato growers have given top marks for flavor.
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