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
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 . . . CityBest 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 Sweet100 (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 EarlyCascade
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
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 . . .
WhopperVFNT (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
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
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
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!