One of the best reasons to start tomatoes from seed is to have a wider choice of varieties than you can find at your local garden center. (Another is to avoid the plant diseases that are common on starts shipped from huge growing operations.) But a wider choice means more decisions. How to decide which ones you want to grow this year? This post is meant to help you sort out what will work best for you, suit your needs, and make you happy.
First, I suggest that you daydream for a moment. What is your perfect tomato experience? What do you look forward to? For me it's summer evenings with a huge platter of sliced heirloom tomatoes, olive oil, and french bread. Some mozzarella and basil, a glass of wine. That's tomato heaven for me. For you maybe it's salad, BLTs, pasta sauce, or salsa. Maybe it's a cellar full of jars for the winter. I can identify with all of those. I'll bet that for a lot of folks, it's cherry tomatoes straight off the vine. Some love a rainbow of colors, sizes and shapes, just for fun.
Whatever it is, make that a priority. Then, think about what else would mean a lot to you, save you money, or delight your family. In short, identify what will actually get used at your house.
For years I grew cherry tomatoes because they look so great and they are fun to pop into your mouth, and doesn't everyone grow cherry tomatoes? After a while, I realized they were the last thing to get used. I gave them to visitors, ate a few off the vine while gardening, and that was it. Given a choice between a big meaty slicer and a handful of cherries, I will always take the big tomato--less work to pick, less skin per tomato, and for me a more satisfying experience to eat. Not that I don't eat a bunch in the garden when I walk by--I do. But they are the last thing I pick for the kitchen. One or two vines in tubs will give me all I want for snacking in the garden. Your patterns and your desires will almost certainly be different--so be clear about what they are.
Next, I would consider your climate. If you live somewhere with heavy disease pressures, like the South, then disease resistance must be a priority if you want tomatoes at all. If you live in a cool foggy climate, then extra-early types are for you.
Anywhere summers are cool, it is important to find tomatoes that can ripen there. Not just turn red, but really ripen, with full flavors and sugars. Of the tomatoes we list, Stupice, Estate, Italian Heirloom, Black Krim, Gardener's Sweetheart, Santiam Sunrise, and Prudens Purple have the ability to ripen in cooler (or shadier) conditions than others, even others with the same "days to maturity" rating. That list spans most of the sizes and types, luckily.
In my climate, the ability to withstand big fluctuations in temperature is key. Summer days are often 100 degrees or more, but nights drop into the 50's. Many tomatoes drop blossoms or abort fruit under those conditions. Cherokee Purple and Pineapple (both from Kentucky) are super heat-resistant. Italian Heirloom, Stupice, Brandywine, Chadwick's Cherry, Myona, and Pruden's Purple all produce well here.
No matter where you live, most people want fresh tomatoes as long as possible. So early tomatoes are popular--but don't forget the late season as well. You don't want a tomato-less September! I always plant an early, cool-season tomato, a mid-season tomato, a cherry, a cooking tomato for salsa and sauce, and a late tomato. In cooler climates, you wouldn't need the late type. (In reality, I actually grow many more than that--usually a dozen kinds. But we're talking basics here.) Once you have tried a few, you will find flavors you particularly like. Here at Quail, Bob loves Chadwick's Cherry, Will loves Black Krim, Julie loves Pineapple. We all love Brandywine. The farmers market can be a great opportunity for tasting. But be aware that tomatoes picked in the heat of the day will have better flavor than those picked on a cold morning, before the sun can develop their sugars. If you live somewhere with cold nights, your afternoon-picked tomatoes will have more flavor than a farmer's tomatoes that had to be picked in the early morning before the market.
Tomatoes fall into broad categories, each with a specific name. Once you know what the terms mean, you'll know what to look for, and the descriptions online will be much more helpful. As I run through the terms in the next post, chances are that some will appeal to you and others won't. Great! That means you can look for (or eliminate) some categories as you decide what to get. Or if you want to look at the choices now, go here.