Choosing the Best Tomatoes for Your Garden

Tomatoes are perhaps the most popular plant grown in the home garden., both because home grown tomatoes are often higher quality than those found in grocery stores and because they are common in many different types of traditional dishes cuisines.  Even people who don’t have a vegetable garden will find a spot in the yard or in a container to plant a few tomato plants.

Choosing a Tomato Variety

There are several factors that go into choosing the right tomato variety for your garden.  Many gardeners focus on characteristics of flavor when selecting varieties, however disease resistance to common diseases and growth habit should also be considered when making choices.

Choosing tomato cultivars for flavor and use

There are several different characteristics that give tomatoes their flavor. People tend to pick and choose their favorite varieties based on a few different characteristics. Since these characteristics are so varied, the choice of a “best” or “favorite” tomato is a very subjective one.

There are over 400 volatile compounds in tomatoes that give them their flavor, including glutamate, which is the major component of a taste category called umami that most people associate with the satisfying savory flavors of soy based Asian dishes, some meats, asparagus, and mushrooms. But what drives most flavor selections in tomatoes are acid and sugar.

High-acid and low-sugar tomatoes are very tart, almost sour. Some people love these tart tomato varieties.  The common Brandywine tomatoes are very high acid, as are Stupice and Zebra.

Tomatoes that have a balance of sugar and acid in them are varieties like Mortgage Lifter, Black Krim, Mr. Stripey, Celebrity, and Big Boy, all of which are very popular for their balanced flavor.

Low-acid varieties can be an answer for people who do have an issue with acid. Unfortunately, they also sometimes can be bland, especially if they are low-sugar. Varieties such as Ace, Amish Paste, Big Girl, Fireball and San Marzano are more common low-acid selections.

When you select tomatoes to grow, you should also keep their intended use in mind. Slicing tomatoes are best used for slicing and using on sandwiches (or slicing and frying when green).

Cherry and grape tomatoes are great for salads, because you usually don’t have to cut them for salads.  They are also great canned, pickled, or dried.

If you want to preserve some tomatoes, I would suggest a variety such as Roma or San Marzano. These paste-type tomatoes are meatier and have less water, which results in a better canned product.  They also make great sun-dried tomato varieties.

Remember that since tomato acid levels are variable, the recommended canning procedure now includes adding acid in the form of lemon juice or vinegar to make sure bacteria don’t grow in the canned product.

Choosing cultivars for disease resistance

tomato disease chartThere are several common tomato diseases that can drastically affect the quality of your tomatoes and the lifespan of your tomato plants.  Some cultivars have been developed that are resistant to common diseases to help reduce disease pressure without having to use control methods.  There is a set of codes used to convey these disease resistance characteristics that can be found in seed catalogs or on plant labels or seed packets.  Home gardeners should especially look for these cultivars if they have experienced the diseases in the recent past in their gardens.

While heirloom varieties have become popular due to their flavor profiles, most do not have the disease resistances that have been bred into more modern cultivars.  A relatively new technique of grafting heirloom tomato plants onto tomato rootstocks bred for disease resistance has been used by farmers and is increasingly available to home gardeners through select suppliers.

Choosing cultivars by growth habit

Tomatoes can exhibit one of two major growth habits – determinate or indeterminate – that are important to keep in mind when choosing tomato plants for your available space or desired level of maintenance.

Determinate tomatoes, sometimes referred to as bush tomatoes, have shorter and bushier growth than indeterminate varieties. They grow to a certain height according to their genetics and will stop growing when they reach that height. Due to the more compact growth, these plants often require minimal, if any, staking to stay upright.  They make good choices for container growth, since they have a more defined height and width.  Some varieties have been bred as super small miniature varieties that will grow even in small containers.  For those growing with limited garden space, such as raised beds, the bushier growth means that they require more vertical space than indeterminate types, so you may want to grow indeterminate varieties on a trellis rather than determinate types.  Determinate varieties produce a limited number of tomatoes per plant, which usually mature within a short timeframe.

Image result for tomato sucker
A tomato sucker on an indeterminate tomato, which needs to be removed.  Photo: Univ. Fla. Hort Dept.

Indeterminate tomatoes, sometimes referred to as vining tomatoes, have long growing branches that require staking or trellising to keep them off the ground.  They don’t have directions in their genetic code telling them to stop growing, so they keep growing throughout the growing season as long as they are healthy and have available nutrients and water.  They can grow 10 feet long or even bigger.  They produce tomatoes throughout the growing season as long as the plant is growing and have no limit on the number of fruits they can produce.  For best yields, indeterminate tomatoes usually require pruning when they are young.  They especially need to have suckers, or growth in the joint of the nodes, removed.


Additional Resources:

Selecting Tomatoes for the Home Garden (UNL Extension NebGuide)


John Porter
Urban Agriculture Program Coordinator at Nebraska Extension
John Porter is the urban agriculture extension educator for the Omaha metro area and statewide program leader for the Horticulture, Landscape, and Environmental Systems team at Nebraska Extension. He specializes in urban agriculture and horticulture, especially in the areas of vegetable and fruit production for home gardens, urban farms, and edible landscaping.
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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Urban Garden Guru and commented:

    A post I wrote for the GROBigRed blog on selecting tomato varieties…

  2. Really interesting article! I just went through picking out my tomato varieties for the year, I went with Beefsteak. Really excited to be enjoying them soon!

    1. Best wishes for a happy gardening year with lots of tasty Beefsteak tomatoes!

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