When it comes to growing tomatoes, there are so many varieties to choose from and it can be hard to know where to start. Our deep love of the tomato, coupled with the tomato’s ability to mutate readily, has led to it being carefully selected and saved to create well over 3000 different varieties. Whether you are bottling, value-adding, selling or eating fresh, there are a vast selection of colours, shapes, and flavours to choose from. This is our guide to help you choose the best variety for your home garden, balcony or farm.
HERITAGE VS HYBRID
Heritage tomato varieties, including some modern varieties, are bred to be true to type. This means you can consistently save their seeds for a potentially endless supply of tomatoes, year after year. Some are bred for their colour, shape or size, some for their ability to make good tomato paste and some for their resilience to drought. Some come with a story handed down through generations of home growers and some come with a taste unlike any other.
Hybrid tomato varieties (often called F1 Hybrids) are most commonly used in large-scale commercial tomato growing. Often hybrid tomatoes are not bred with taste, resilience or nutritional density as the primary trait. Rather, they are bred to produce larger, redder tomatoes that transport well, are uniform in shape and colour, and can withstand many weeks of refrigeration and display without showing any spoilage. Hybrid seeds cannot be saved to grow true to type so they are not suitable for home seed saving.
Most tomato cultivars can be grouped according to their size and shape, with a few exceptions. Some tomatoes, like green zebras, for example, exist in both large round and cherry groups. Others, like roma or plum tomatoes, exist in one main group only.
Cherry: a common name for all the small tomatoes, nearly all of which are climbers. Generally sweet, robust and disease resistant, cherry tomatoes come in many colours.
Pear/plum/roma: larger than cherry tomatoes, and with a pear-ish or plum-ish shape. They often have dense flesh and are therefore excellent for making sauce and paste, depending on the variety.
Round and ribbed: larger tomato cultivars with ribbing on top. These are incredibly gorgeous but are prone to cracking if they get rain at the wrong point, and are sometimes prone to disease.
Round and smooth: larger cultivars with smooth skin and a round shape.
Beefsteak: a term for the large to huge tomato varieties. When cut open, these look quite meaty and fleshy, with fewer seeds than other varieties.
Clockwise from top left: Fermented tomatoes; Oxheart tomatoes, great for preserving; Tomato harvest; Tomato seedlings. Photos by Kate Berry and Kirsten Bradley
DETERMINATE VS INDETERMINATE
As well as the size and shape of their fruit, tomatoes are grouped by their growing habits and how their fruit ripens. It’s important for backyard growers to have a sense of these groupings, especially if you want to grow enough tomatoes to bottle for winter.
Otherwise known as ‘bush’ tomatoes, determinate cultivars have a low growth habit. The name refers to the fact that each stem, once it grows a flower cluster, terminates and grows no further, hence this type of tomato does not scramble high or far. Determinate tomato plants can be either left to sit on mulched ground, or staked to allow for airflow, but not for climbing. The plant will flower over a short time and then fruit nearly all at once, commonly over a four-week period. This is excellent if you’re wanting to bottle the tomatoes. It’s a big four weeks of picking and processing, but then all the work is done.
You do need to be prepared, though, as determinate tomatoes can be quite overwhelming when they’re all ready to be picked—right now! Many of the tomatoes that are suitable for making tomato paste, such as romas, are determinate.
These are the climbing tomatoes, which need to be staked or trellised for good airflow and harvest. Their stems do not terminate at a flower cluster but just keep on growing. Left to scramble along the ground, indeterminate tomatoes may be fine, but if it’s a definite harvest that you’re after, take the time to rig them up on a trellis.
As well as having a climbing habit, indeterminate tomato cultivars flower over a much longer period than determinates, and therefore they fruit over a long period, sometimes many months. They’re great for a regular supply of tomatoes for salads, and in many areas will only stop flowering once cold weather and short days (meaning less natural light) overcome them.
Of course, there are some tomatoes that defy polarities. These need to be staked or trellised but they won’t grow as high as indeterminate tomatoes. They will flower and fruit over a shorter period than indeterminates, but over a longer period than determinates. If you have a shorter outdoor growing season, semi-determinates are great for supplying you with tomatoes over many weeks, but not many months.
CHOOSING THE BEST TOMATOES FOR YOUR SITUATION
If you have a sunny windowsill, a backyard, a front step or a small farm, you can grow tomatoes, and there’s a method and a variety to suit every situation. You just need to work out what factors you have to work with and then find a cultivar and a growing method that’s right for you.
Big or small?
Big tomatoes are heavy tomatoes. While this might seem obvious, until you’ve held a fully laden tomato vine of beefsteak tomatoes, you may not realise just how heavy they can be. This is fine if your growing space has the infrastructure to deal with such a vine—very sturdy trellises or a strong overhead pole to tie them off. If you don’t, it’s best to consider varieties with smaller fruit.
Smaller-fruited tomatoes are also great for kid-friendly gardens, as they are easy to pick off the vine, unlike some larger varieties, which must be picked with care to avoid damaging the vine.
Bush or climbing?
Most bush tomatoes will ripen over a short period, which can be excellent or a headache, depending on what else is happening in your house that week. Climbers will give you a smaller but steadier stream of fruit.
Climbing tomatoes are also great for making the most of limited growing space, as they use the vertical plane to maximum effect, and can climb over 2 metres (6. feet) if allowed to do so.
Heat and light
Two things that tomatoes love are heat and light, and both are essential for a good crop. A minimum of six hours of direct sunlight on the plants is recommended. In temperate climates, planting them in the warmest part of your garden will definitely help—a growing space that faces the equator is ideal. Tomatoes also love heat, so in colder climates it’s common to grow them in a greenhouse, which traps any available heat inside. A sunny indoor porch or a sunroom is also a great place to grow tomatoes if you live in a cold climate.
Do you have a small garden bed with a sunny wall behind it? Rig up a trellis and grow climbing tomatoes. Or a sunny balcony but no ground space? Grow bush or dwarf tomatoes upside down, or in pots with a stake. Do you have lots of space and are longing for a supply of homemade passata? Plant bush tomatoes in a block.
What about a small vegie patch? Perhaps plant a row of well-trimmed climbers in the centre of a garden bed.
Or do you have no outside space at all, but a sunny window that faces the equator? Plant cherry climbers in pots inside, and twine them as they grow, up sturdy string to the top of the window.
So no matter what your situation, there is the perfect tomato waiting for you. Experiment with multiple varieties until you find which ones work best for you.
This is an extract from Milkwood’s latest book, Milkwood: Real Skills For Down to Earth Living by Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar (Murdoch Books 2018), RRP $45.00. Photography by Kate Berry and Kirsten Bradley. Illustrations by Brenna Quinlan. www.milkwood.net Available also in the Pip shop. www.pipmagazine.com.au/shop