The Top Tomatoes

After years of trying dozens of different varieties, the author has sorted out what he believes are the top tomatoes for gardeners to grow.

| March/April 1980

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. 

Small Fry

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.

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