In the Garden:
Upper South
May, 2012
Regional Report

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Try different colors and sizes of tomatoes this year.

Tomatoes and More Tomatoes

Large or small, rural or urban, no matter where they garden or in how big of an area, just about the first plant that any gardener considers planting for fresh eating is the tomato. The only problem is that there are so many different tomatoes. Even if you purchased your tomato seeds months ago and started your own transplants, you might still be beguiled by some of the tomato transplant varieties at local garden centers or greenhouses. In a recent search on the Internet for information on certain tomato varieties, I stumbled upon a website with a database for almost 4,000 different tomatoes. Maybe you're happy with just one or a few varieties, but why not try more? But which ones? How to narrow the list?

Over the years, I've probably grown between 150 and 200 different tomato varieties. Currently, I've chosen to grow about three dozen varieties. In limiting my selection, I take a variety of criteria into consideration.

Choosing Tomatoes by Plant Size and Maturity
Among the designations for tomatoes is that of growth type. Determinate tomatoes usually grow about 2 to 3 feet tall, then stop flowering. Most of the tomatoes ripen at once. People who can a lot of tomatoes often choose a determinate variety of paste tomato for preserving. Indeterminate tomatoes will grow to 5 feet or more and continue flowering and bearing fruit until frost. For many of us, this is our goal, so we'll look on the plant label to see if it is an indeterminate variety.

There are also tomato varieties that are ideal for containers or hanging baskets. These may be labeled dwarf, miniature, or patio types.

Different tomato varieties also take different amounts of time to produce ripened fruit. I try to always include at least one early-ripening variety, such as Stupice. Otherwise, I aim for varieties that ripen in about 75 to 80 days, which is the average. A few very-large-fruited varieties may take up to 90 days to ripen. How patient are you?

Choosing Tomatoes by Fruit Size
Tomato fruits range in size from barely larger than a green pea to one or more pounds. You probably have a favorite. For instance, I have a friend who only has space for three tomato plants, and she chooses the large beefsteak type, which usually weigh 12 or more ounces, for all three. Over the years, I've found that there's a lot of waste with these due to the tomatoes often having green shoulders and a large core. My own preference for a good, basic slicing tomato is to choose varieties that ripen in the range of 4 to 8 ounces. The varieties available in this size tend to ripen more evenly with less waste.

I also like the type of tomato sometimes referred to as a salad type, which are in the 2- to 4-ounce range. Not surprisingly, they're great for salads. Of course, the cherry and grape types of tomatoes are perfect for adding to salads as well as for snacking and lunch boxes.

Choosing Tomatoes by Color and Flavor
As I narrow my tomato choices down, I certainly include some traditional red varieties, but I've come to also appreciate ones that are considered pink (sort of a pale red), yellow, black (ripening to a purplish-brown-green color), and green (which are yellow-green when ripe). There are also orange, white, and striped varieties.

If you've never tried any of the black or green varieties, please make this the year to try at least one of each. Although there is variation, in general, the black types have a rich, deep flavor,while green ones are tangy but not sour. If you're looking for a low-acid tomato, yellow ones frequently fit this need. Beyond that, flavor is such a subjective issue that I will leave you to your own preferences.

Other Criteria for Tomato Varieties
If you want to make your own tomato sauce, then you'll want to choose a paste type of variety, with their meaty texture. Grape tomatoes as well as small salad-type tomatoes are good for oven-drying. There are also tomato varieties that contain higher level than normal of nutrients.

As you shop for plants this spring, add to your garden adventure by adding some new tomato varieties. Who knows, you may find a new favorite.

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