Tomatoes - A guide to choosing tomato varieties

Tomatoes are a member of botanical family Solanaceae which make up a group of plants better known as nightshades.  Surprising to me, there are over 10,000  recorded tomato varieties with more being developed all the time as home gardeners breed new varieties.  So with this many varieties,  it can be hard to decide what variety is going to work in my garden.  

Tomato History

According to this article from the PennState Extension office, Tomato Production, "Tomatoes originated in South America--specifically in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Columbus and other explorers brought tomatoes to Europe by the late 1400s. In Europe and the United States, tomatoes were used only as ornamental plants until the early 1800s because the fruit was thought to be poisonous.".  The article goes on to further state that all members of the nightshade family to which tomatoes belong “have toxic alkaloids present in either their leaves or their fruits. Commercial tomato production did not begin until after 1860 when tomatoes were finally accepted by consumers. Since 1890, tomato breeding has developed varieties adopted for use around the world.”.  

Tomatoes are actually considered to be a nightshade fruit because by definition, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants develop a flower and then develop an edible part of the plant that contains seed.  Nightshade vegetables, such as potatoes, develop an edible part from the roots of the plant.   But whether tomatoes are considered a fruit or a vegetable the use of them will be found in many things.  Unfortunately, some people can not eat anything from the nightshade family.

Are nightshades bad for you

Although I have heard of people that can not eat nightshades, I had to rely on a WebMD article What to Know About Nightshade Vegetables to bring some light onto the subject.  According to this article, nightshade fruits and vegetables contain a small amount of alkaloids which “are chemicals that are mainly found in plants. For something to be considered an alkaloid, it must contain nitrogen and affect the human body, usually from a medicinal perspective. Morphine and quinine are two examples of plant-based medicines that contain alkaloids.”.  

The article further goes on to clarify that “The alkaloid found in nightshades is solanine. It functions as an insecticide while the plant is growing.”.  Are you like me and thinking that if solanine is an insecticide, then it is not too effective against potato bugs and some of the tomato bugs present in southern climates.  But I have a feeling it is probably something to do with non native bugs from where the nightshades were discovered. 

Consuming too much solanine can make you feel bad, but according to this article a person would need to consume quite a lot.  “Normally, potatoes and other nightshade vegetables have an acceptable amount of alkaloids in them. You may feel some effects if you eat between two to five milligrams of solanine per kilogram of body weight. If you weigh around 150 pounds (68 kilograms) you would need to consume a minimum of 136 milligrams of solanine to feel ill.”.  And further clarifies that “For context, one eggplant has about 11 milligrams of solanine.” and that “potatoes can contain anywhere from 25-275 micrograms of alkaloids.”.

However, tomatoes according to the WebMD article What to Know About Nightshade Vegetables, “contain more alkaloids in the stem and vine than in the fruit. Studies show that as tomatoes mature, the amount of alkaloids in the part that you eat decreases. So, it is unlikely to eat too many alkaloids from tomatoes, especially if you avoid unripe, green tomatoes.”.   Fortunately for me I don't have any issues with nightshades, but now at least I understand what causes the problems for some and why I have always been told not to feed nightshade greenery to animals and poultry.  I will still plant them though because I do use a lot of nightshade fruits and nightshade vegetables and the disease free plants make great compost.

Planting methods for tomatoes

As long as Tomatoes can get about 8 - 16 hours of sun each day, they can be planted almost anywhere, including containers, pots, raised beds, flower beds or in-ground gardens.  If a container is to be used, as long as the container will support the tomato, allow for staking and be of size to maintain soil moisture levels, it will work for growing tomatoes.  If you want to learn more about growing in containers be sure to check out one of my earlier blogs, How to container garden.  Patio type tomatoes, also known as cherry tomatoes in most circles, like the Tiny Tims, will work wonderfully in a container and as Gardening Know How explains in What Is A Patio Tomato – Learn How To Grow Patio Tomatoes, patio type tomatoes are easy to grow.  If you are planting in other than a container, a good soil is all that is really required.

But like some varieties of Patio type tomatoes and definitely for slicing or paste tomatoes, some research into growth habits becomes important.  If you only have a small area, you don't want a large sprawling tomato taking over the space.  So paying close attention to whether a tomato variety is determinate or indeterminate becomes important and is a good place to start determining which varieties to plant.

Determinate tomato varieties have a predetermined size they will grow and therefore do not typically need staking  or pruning and the root mass, which is relational to the top growth size, does not require as much space.  This makes determinate varieties great candidates for container or small space gardening.

Indeterminate tomato varieties have no determined size they will grow.  They will just keep growing and growing until they are killed by a frost or are pulled out.  Because of their growth habits they require staking or support and with their immense size they can be top heavy when container grown despite their large root size.  And so, I do not plant indeterminate tomato varieties in containers unless the container is very large and the plant can be stabilized and pruned.  But rather I prefer to plant them in raised beds or directly into the garden where staking or trellising is easier to do.  I used to let my tomatoes just “go natural” and  sprawl with no support at all but the mat they formed caused rotting issues and made picking very difficult.  So for the last few years, I use a page wire fence supported on t-posts which allows me to see the fruit, pick the fruit easily and trim the bottom leaves to allow for air flow to help prevent mildew and rot.  But I did not get to this point over night.Tomatoes, indeterminate tomatoes, trellising

Although for years I used the tomato cages available at any garden center, I was never happy with them and so quite often just ended up allowing the tomatoes to crawl across the ground.  It was not perfect that's for sure, but it worked.  But then I ran across a video from Living Traditions Homestead where they used paige wire to trellis for a number of fruits and vegetables including tomatoes.  Although they now use cattle panels, I liked the affordability of the paige wire and so I mirrored my set up to the one in the video Busy Day in the Garden! Trellises, Fencing and Weeding.   And I won't go back to sprawling tomatoes.  Although they have also started to plant in large lick tubs in the greenhouse, they still support the indeterminate tomatoes to prevent damage and improve production as they explain at 8:25 in the video It Was Our Mistake...Tomatoes, indeterminate tomatoes, trellising tomatoes

Tomato Varieties

Even though there over 10,000 varieties in the world, only a portion of them are available for growing in the home garden.  Some of them are hybrid, some are heirloom varieties and some just won't grow well here due to the short season.   Although I can eliminate a lot of tomato varieties for various reasons, how do I decide what varieties to try.

For years, I would just visit the various nurseries and get whatever tomatoes they were offering for sale. And that works.   But usually, they are very limited in the varieties they offered and anything “unique” would not be found.  So I started starting my own tomato seedlings to give some of the varieties I read or heard about a try and to ensure that my favorite varieties were always available.  But there are a number of factors that I need to consider when choosing a variety. Tomatoes, tomato varieties, tomato transplants

  1. What do I want them for?  Being that I primarily plant tomatoes for canning purposes with some fresh eating, my primary focus is on a good sized paste tomato.  I can and do use slicing tomatoes for canning in combination with the paste tomatoes as they can give a different flavor profile to the canned goods, but they do contain more water.  
  2. Tomato variety seed preservation and seed saving.  Sometimes the varieties are listed as being very rare and by growing these varieties and saving the seed it allows me the opportunity to not only harvest some unique fruit but also feel like I am helping to preserve genetics.  As I explored in Canning tomatoes - Preserving a surprise harvest, I was able to do just that in 2022 with the Arbuzyni tomato.  This year I was gifted an extremely rare variety, Sophie's Choice, that I will be trialing. 
  3. Days to Maturity.  As I explored in Fall planting of cool weather crops for fall gardening in Zone 3b the days to maturity can mean different things depending on the fruit or vegetable being grown and to some extent,  the seed company.   It really is just a guide.  Generally, days to maturity for tomatoes is typically the number of days from transplanting to fruit development.
  4. Frost free growing days.  The number of actual growing days that I have between first and last frost will affect what I can grow.  There are a number of online resources to determine this and for my area these resources list the average growing season for me as 88 days.  However, by knowing my area I know that by protecting the plants in the spring and fall I can sometimes extend that season, but not always.  So when choosing varieties, I will pick varieties that have Days to Maturity within the number of frost free days, or very close.
  5. Past trials.  Fruit size, production, flavor, vigor and disease resistance are all considered when choosing a variety.   For a couple years now I have tried growing an Opalka tomato  which is well outside my frost free days at 109 days to maturity.  However, because of their reviews I want to try them.  The plan is that by starting the seeds a bit earlier, I can transplant a more robust plant and thereby improve my odds of some good production.  In that same vein, past trials have resulted in tomatoes I no longer grow like the Roma tomato.  Although it grew well for me, the small size of its fruit set me on the quest for a different paste type tomato. 
  6. Reviews.  With so many varieties to choose from it is always nice to hear or read about what someone else thinks of a variety.
  7. Heritage, heirloom or hybrid tomato varieties.  Hybrid varieties are varieties developed through selective breeding, they are not a genetically modified seed.  Although heritage and heirloom are typically terms that are used interchangeably, I have always been taught that Heritage varieties are varieties that can be traced back over 50 years.  But as this West Coast Seeds article,  Heirloom Seeds and Heritage Seeds, states their interpretation is clarified as ““Heritage” is a designation used more in the UK than in North America, but it means essentially the same thing as “heirloom.” It is sometimes used to describe an heirloom variety that has cultural or ethnic importance, as in Romano beans, as they have a direct lineage back to Italy.”.  But that said, choosing which variety is always a debatable question amongst gardeners.  Some gardeners are purists and will only grow heritage or heirloom varieties whilst others don't care.  But what it boils down to in my books is that if you want differently colored tomatoes and want to be able to save seeds then ensuring you grow heritage or heirloom tomato varieties is the way to go, open pollinated being better.  If production is the reason for planting, then perhaps hybrid varieties is what needs to be planted but in doing so you may also sacrifice flavor.  For me, it is a mix of it all as I save seeds from the heritage and heirloom varieties but I also want the production to can. 
  8. Availability.  Like most plants it is better to source the seed from local growers as the plant genetics are “acclimated” to localized growing conditions.  Maybe not exactly, but similar.  So when looking for varieties, my first search is through the local growers catalogues.  There can be some issues around getting seeds from outside of Canada unless the seed company has done the necessary paperwork.  And although some have done the paperwork, my initial search is restricted to Canadian growers such as:

What Tomato Varieties for 2023

Being that I need to start my tomatoes for transplanting into the garden about 8 -10 weeks prior to when I plan to plant them in the garden (beginning of June), shortly after Christmas I sat down and determined what new varieties to try and made sure I had the seeds I needed.  tomatoes, tomato varieties, tomato seedlings

For the 2023 gardening season I will be starting the following tried and true varieties:

  • Bush Early Girl - determinate hybrid medium sized slicing variety maturing in 54 days;
  • Bush Beefsteak - determinate heirloom average sized slicing variety maturing in 65 to 80 days;
  • Prairie Pride - determinate heirloom slicing variety maturing in 50 days.

 The following varieties have been trialed a couple times in previous years but for various reasons will be trialed again in 2023:

  • Red Stalker - indeterminate heirloom slicing variety with days to maturity at 105 days;
  • Opalka - indeterminate heirloom paste variety with days to maturity of 90 to 109 days after transplant;
  • Amish Paste - indeterminate heirloom paste variety with days to maturity of 80 - 90 days;
  • San Marzano - indeterminate heirloom paste variety that matures 78 - 85 days after transplanting;
  • Ropreco - determinate heirloom paste variety that matures in 70 days;
  • Arbuznyi - indeterminate rare heritage slicing variety that matures in 75 days.

The following new varieties will be trialed for 2023:

  • Sophie's Choice - determinate extremely rare heritage slicing variety that matures in 65 days;
  • Paul Robeson - indeterminate heirloom slicing variety with average size fruit maturing at 80 days;
  • Arctic Rose Dwarf - dwarf variety maturing in 60 days;
  • Dwarf Confetti - dwarf variety maturing in 70 days;
  • Tiny Tim - indeterminate variety with little fruit  maturing in 45 days.

For the garden, I will most likely start around 80 plants in total with the primary focus being on my tried and true varieties and the ones I have trialed before.  Most likely I will trial about eight plants each of the new varieties with the exception of the dwarf varieties and Tiny Tim variety which I will only start a couple for some containers on the veranda and to possibly bring indoors for the winter.

I typically start my tomatoes in four packs but this year I am planning on using a 2.5 inch (6.35 cm) pots for some like I did for the 52 peppers I started.  My thinking is that by using this size of pot, I will not need to transplant the tomatoes or peppers before I need to plant them out.  But by trying both sizes I can see what I like better.  Jess from Roots and Refuge Farm in the video Garden Progress in Early April (SEED STARTING Greenhouse Chat!) | VLOG and in many of her other vlogs and blogs has spoke highly of the pots and trays from Bootstrap Farmer and so I decided to give them a try.   Bootstrap farmer was sold out of the ones I wanted but I did manage to find some with the Canadian Company, Valley Indoor, so ordered from them.  She does transplant her tomatoes into the 2.5 inch (6.35 cm ) pot so it will be interesting to see what my trial reveals for my situation. Tomatoes, peppers, tomato varieties

Final Thoughts

Whether a person has a lot of space to plant or only a couple containers on their deck, tomatoes can be a wonderful gateway to gardening fruit to grow.  With so many flavors, colors and purposes, these high producing plants can be a welcome addition to your gardening space.  I know that for me, I can not imagine not having them. Do you have plans to grow some tomatoes this year and if so, what varieties are you growing?

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Additional Resources

Tomatoes, tomato varieties, indeterminate tomato varieties

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