Master Gardener Julie Olson

By Julie Olson

Tomatoes are the most popular plant for the home gardener. Looking through a seed catalogue is a daunting experience and selecting which varieties to grow is a challenge.   Everyone has a favorite variety they grow every season. Whether growing plants from seed or purchasing them from your favorite nursery, there are several things to consider in your selection.

How will the fruit be used? The tiny cherry tomatoes, which are available in many colors, are great for salads.  Oblong paste tomatoes like Roma and San Marzano are meaty, and contain less juice. They`re great for salsa and recipes which require diced fruit.  The larger beefsteak style are sliced for sandwiches. Costoluto varieties are wonderful when used for roasting or stewing.  Each type of fruit contributes different characteristics which determine their best use.

How much garden space do you have? Plant breeders have developed compact sized plants which grow well in a large pot on the patio. These varieties usually produce smaller fruit with fewer per plant. The smaller fruit varieties can also be grown in patio pots. Bush style plants can support  themselves and don`t require being staked. These will take less room in your garden. Many hybrid plants are bush style. Vine tomatoes must be staked or surrounded by cages. The sprawling habit can cover a large area if not controlled. Most of the favorite heirloom plants are considered a vine style.

Do you want lots of fruit at one time? If you are canning and preserving tomatoes, a determinate variety will produce fruit which ripens within a concentrated time period.  Celebrity is an example of a determinate variety. Most heirloom tomatoes are considered indeterminate.  These varieties will fruit over an extended time. Some examples are Brandywine, Cherokee Carbon and Costoluto Genovese. Determinate or indeterminate type will be indicated on the plant tag or seed package of each variety.

Heirloom verses hybrid tomato? Heirloom varieties have withstood the test of time. Seed has been saved and passed down through generations of growers. Heirlooms are almost as famous for being fickle in the garden as they are for their wonderful taste.

Hybrid varieties are cross pollinated from two different plants. They have been developed by growers for extra disease resistance, size or flavor. Fruit usually has thicker shin which allows for less cracking.

Tomatoes are available in a multitude of colors and sizes.  Newly developed are the Artisan varieties. These are elongated cherry shape, small in size, multicolored and many times striped. Colors range from pale gold, green with yellow, orange mixed with red or gold.

No matter your preference, a tomato has been grown or developed to please you. Now- back to the original question, How many tomatoes are there?  Listed heirlooms are about 3000 varieties.  Approximately 15,000 hybrids have been developed, with more to come.

Julie Olson is a member of the Maricopa Master Gardeners. They can be reached at

This column appears in the March issue of InMaricopa.