How to Choose Tomatoes for the Home Garden
Choosing Tomato Varieties
Learning about the many tomato varieties is often intimidating for the first-time home gardener. Tomatoes purchased from the supermarket are a poor introduction to this tasty, nutritious vegetable. Strolling down the aisles at the local farmer's market introduces you to more tomato varieties, but nothing beats experimenting with different varieties of tomatoes in your home garden. Yet which do you choose? What do all those names and labels mean? Are tomatoes easy to start from seed, or should you wait until the local garden center gets its plants in and try your luck there?
Growing tomatoes is an adventure, not a challenge! Start by learning about the many tomato varieties available for your home garden, and get growing.
Know Your Gardening Zone, Soil and Light Conditions
Before buying your tomato seeds or plants, it's important to make sure that you have the proper growing conditions for tomatoes.
The USDA divides the United States into bands called Gardening Zones. Each zone has a frost-free date, or the earliest average date in the spring when you can plant tender annuals and vegetables such as tomatoes outdoors, and frost date in the fall, which is the average date of the first frost. You will need to know your gardening zone to help you choose your tomato varieties and to know when you plant the young plants outdoors. The Arbor Day Society has a free Gardening Zone lookup on their website. You just enter the first digits of your zip code and it will tell you your zone.
Soil pH for Growing Tomatoes
The soil pH refers to the 0 to 14 scale assessing acidity (0) and alkalinity (14). Most garden plants prefer a soil pH between 5.5 and 6.5, and tomatoes are no exception. The Minnesota Cooperative Extension Office website states that tomatoes need a pH between 5.5 and 7.5. That's a nice, broad range that encompasses many soils found throughout the United States. You can have your soil tested for a nominal fee at a state agricultural soil testing lab, found through your state or local Cooperative Extension office or a local garden center. Garden centers also sell soil pH testing kits and they're easy to use at home.
It's always a good idea to add plenty of good-quality compost to the soil prior to planting tomatoes. Tomatoes suffer from a variety of diseases. One of the most common is called blossom end rot. It's caused by low calcium levels. Keeping soil pH around 6.5 and adding lime to the soil boosts available calcium for the plants. A calcium-rich foliar spray can also compensate for low calcium, but amending the soil boosts your plants' overall health and fertility and is better in the end for your garden.
Light Needed to Grow Tomatoes
Tomatoes need full sunlight, which is defined as six or more hours per day of steady, direct sunshine. If your backyard is in shade part of the day, check out other spaces such as a patio or balcony, or even your front yard. Tomatoes aren't fussing about where they grow and you can easily grow them in pots or containers on a sunny balcony or patio. And unless your town ordinance, homeowner's association or some other law says you can't, why not grow a tomato plant as part of your front landscaping? You run the risk of local kids (or grownups) picking unauthorized tomatoes, but you'll have a better chance at growing healthy tomatoes if that's your only choice for full sunlight.
Types of Tomatoes for the Home Garden
What types of tomatoes can you grow at home? Nearly any kind of tomato can be grown under the right conditions! The following list is not meant to be a list of scientifically classified tomato varieties but a list of common groups and terms most home gardeners use to describe tomatoes.
- Cherry tomatoes - look for varieties called Sweet 100, Sweet 1000, Supersweet 1000 etc. Cherry tomatoes have the smallest fruits and are great in salads. They come in red, yellow and orange varieties too, so you can jazz up your salads with tasty tomatoes in different colors.
- Patio tomatoes - larger cherry tomatoes are sometimes, but not always, called Patio tomatoes. These have large ping-pong ball sized fruits.
- Plum or Paste tomatoes - these tomatoes are meant for making tomato sauce and cooked dishes. They often have a bitter, more acrid taste and a thicker skin.
- Heirloom tomatoes - there's no set definition of an heirloom tomato or any heirloom vegetable, flower or fruit, for that matter. Most gardeners consider a plant that's over 50 years old an heirloom variety. Think of heirloom varieties as those that have withstood the test of time. They often produce abundant seeds and have natural disease and pest-fighting abilities. Brandywine is a popular dark ruby red tomato variety called an heirloom tomato. Legend has it that the Pennsylvania Amish grew this tomato, keeping the seeds from generation to generation until growers became interested in it in the 1990s. Now you can find seeds in most catalogs. There are many other heirloom tomato varieties; read the product descriptions online or in the gardening catalogs.
- Early tomatoes - Early Girl and other tomatoes with the word "early" in the name produce fruit faster than other tomatoes, so you can enjoy them longer throughout the season. Early Girl produces slicing tomatoes of moderate size.
- Beefsteak tomatoes, sandwich or slicing tomatoes - the big boys of the bunch, these tomatoes can be whoppers! These are the ones you grow to slice and eat on a sandwich. Beefsteak is a popular variety, but Mortgage Lifter, and heirloom variety from the 1930s, also produces hefty tomatoes.
Should You Plant Tomato Plants or Start Tomato Seeds?
Tomatoes are relatively easy to start from seed, and seed starting supplies don't have to be expensive. If you want a special variety, color or type, you may need to begin your seeds in January or February to ensure that the plants are ready for spring planting by your frost free date. Purchase seeds from the local garden center or one of the many online or direct mail catalogs.
Plants purchased from the garden center are usually robust, healthy and strong, and provide a great head start on the garden for beginning gardeners. When planting young tomato plants, pick off the lower sets of leaves and plant the tomato very deeply in the planting hole so that the new first set of leaves is just above the soil line. Tomatoes will push out new roots from the section where you plucked off the leaves, resulting in faster growth and stronger roots.
Whatever you choose to do, do plant a few tomatoes in the backyard garden this year. Once you grow your own tomatoes, you'll never mistake a supermarket taste for the bright, juicy flavor of a home garden tomato.