How to Choose Which Tomatoes to Grow

Whether you grow your own tomato plants at home or shop for seedlings at your local farmers’ markets, you’ve probably felt overwhelmed when trying to decide which tomato varieties to grow in your garden. Don’t feel bad about that! There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes in cultivation and reading the plant descriptions doesn’t help much – they all sound like the best variety ever!

Each of us gardeners have our own top five list of favorite tomato varieties. You can ask ten gardeners for their picks and not hear the same tomato twice. So, in an effort to help you make the best decision for you, I’m going to have you take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Instead of trying to make your decisions on the fly when you’re standing in front of a table of plants in the hot sun, here are some things to think about before you buy.

HOW TO CHOOSE WHICH TOMATOES TO GROW

What do you like to use your tomatoes for?

When you go out to your garden on a sunny, summer evening to harvest your ripe tomatoes, how are you most likely to use them? Do you pop them into your mouth immediately? Do you skip inside to make a BLT (or maybe a BKT, what my husbands calls his hipster version – Bacon, Kale, and Tomato). Or do you squirrel them away on your counter until you have a big enough pile to cook down into sauce for winter dishes?

How you eat your tomatoes should be the first criteria to use when deciding which varieties to grow. Tomatoes are broken down into several categories, and within each category are many different varieties. Here’s a breakdown of the different categories:

Slicers: These are the most common type of tomato you’ll find. They’re generally round-ish and used for fresh eating on sandwiches, and those pretty tomato and mozzarella salads you see on Pinterest. They often have a higher water content than paste tomatoes.

Paste/Roma: Used for canning and making sauce. Their shape is usually more oblong than round and they have a thick flesh. They have less water than slicers which makes them great for food preserving.

Cherry: These marble-sized fruits are perfect for popping right into your mouth. They’re especially fun if you have kids. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount each plant produces, so be careful how many you plant.

I grow a mix of all of these types in my garden because I use my tomatoes in different ways. I usually plant a total of between 15-20 tomato plants each season: 2-3 cherries, 5-7 paste, and the rest slicers.

Sun Gold cherry tomato plant loaded down with fruit!

Where are you growing your tomatoes?

This is a double-layered question because I mean, where in the world is your garden, and where do you plant your tomatoes?

When you think about it, tomatoes are pretty adaptable because we grow them in all different types of climates. You may live in a high elevation, short season area like the mountains of Colorado, or a very hot area like Miami, or somewhere that stays relatively cool in the summer like Seattle. There are tomato varieties for each of these regions.

Where you live will help determine which varieties will perform best in your region. The best way to find out which varieties grow well in your hometown? Talk to other gardeners and farmers. That’s why I recommend buying seedlings from farmers in your local area.

Use this as an excuse to chat up your gardening neighbors and friends and find out what varieties are on their must-grow list each year.

The second part of this question is – where do you plant your tomatoes? In the ground or in a container? At your house or in a community garden plot several miles away?

There are two types of growth styles for tomatoes – determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes only grow 2-3 feet and then ripen all of their fruit in a short amount of time. Indeterminate tomatoes keep growing and setting fruit on the new growth right up until frost. My tomatoes often grow up to 10 feet tall!

If you grow your tomatoes in the ground on your property then you can really plant any kind you’d like. If you like to can your tomatoes you might want to grow some determinate varieties so you get a big harvest in the span of a few weeks. Indeterminate varieties will give you a longer harvest, but you’ll need to be able to stake and trellis your plants as they grow.

If you have a container garden, you probably don’t want to plant any indeterminate varieties in your pots. They’ll get way too big and even tip over. Instead, look for varieties that say container/patio/or bush in the description. Those will all be determinate types.

If you garden off-site from your house in a community garden plot, or a friend’s property in the country, I’ll warn you against planting cherry tomatoes unless you visit your garden often. They tend to ripen quickly, often crack if they’re not harvested in a timely manner, and you may end up with more on the ground than in your stomach.

In my garden I plant 95% indeterminate types. Once in a while I grow a determinate plant or two.

My Sun Gold tomato plant has reached the top of the trellis in this photo. I could barely reach it anymore!

Plant the Rainbow

Is there anything that says summer garden party more than a multi-colored plate of sliced tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella? Once you settle on the categories and growth types you want to grow this year, make sure you plant a rainbow of colors to please your senses and tap into your creativity.

Tomatoes come in almost every color you can imagine (sorry, no blue tomatoes yet!):

Red

Pink

Black/Purple

Orange

Yellow

Green

White

and lots of streaked, striped, and mottled colors

Having an array of colorful tomatoes allows you to impress friends and dinner guests by mixing and matching them in salads, sandwiches, and appetizers. And don’t forget, when you grow and cook with visually beautiful food, you’re adding an extra layer of joy to the gardening experience.

I’ve grown all of the colors above and more. It’s especially fun to grow tomatoes that are green when they’re ripe, like Green Zebra. Each year I try one or two new varieties just for fun!

I’ve created a cheat sheet to take on your shopping trip to help you wade through the varieties and make decisions that align best with your personal garden and lifestyle. Print it out here.

If you’re a seasoned tomato grower, share with us in the comments below – where do you garden and what’s your #1 favorite tomato to grow?

Read more tomato posts here:

How to Prune Your Tomato Plants

The Best Tomato Trellis

How Many Different Varieties Should You Plant?

 

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Comments

  • Carl Johnson

    I have 40+ tomatoes …. outside of Black Earth.My favorites are Cherokee purple and Cosmonaut volkov
    Carl d

  • Carl Johnson

    And don’t forget to recommend Guy Clark’s song “Home grown tomatoes”. It is on utube.
    Here’s the line: “there’s only two things that money can’t buy: ones true love the other home grown tomatoes.”
    Carl d

  • Hi, which varieties you recommend to grow in shade. My garden has between 6 to 8 hours sun per day.

    • Hi Bertrand- Pretty much any tomato variety should do well in 8 hours of sun. 6 hours of sun is getting on the low side, but I think it’s still worth it to plant them if you really love them. I’d try some cherry tomato varieties in the shadier parts of your yard. I love Sun Gold the most!

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