Written by Susan B.
Spring planting is an exciting time. We love the satisfaction we get from growing food crops, but that’s especially true of tomatoes. Nothing quite compares to the delicious taste of a home-grown tomato, especially when it’s picked at the peak of ripeness just before you plan to eat it. We’re going to tell you all about heirloom, open-pollinated, and hybrids, and explain the difference between determinate and indeterminate varieties. Refer to this information when you come into our nurseries to look for tomatoes to plant in your home garden.
Where and When Tomatoes Originated
Did you know that tomatoes have existed since the 5th century B.C? Tomatoes belong to the nightshade family, there is evidence that they were first used that long ago. And the tomato (which is a fruit, by the way) originated in western South America. The earliest tomatoes grew in abundance in the wild, and the fruits were small (smaller than tomatoes today), and they had thin skins. Indigenous Peruvian Indians likely introduced tomato plants that produced mutated large fruits, using selection to domesticate the fruits for commercial cultivation.
Understanding Tomato Terminology
Determinate tomato varieties grow in a bush-like habit, so they remain more compact. Because they are bushy, they may not need supports. They are better suited to container growth. Determinate tomatoes typically produce their fruits within three to four weeks of planting (in the ground), and they set their fruits once, not continuously throughout the growing season. Determinate tomatoes tend to be best for canning and freezing.
Indeterminate tomatoes produce their fruits on vines. Because of the weight of the fruits, and the height of the plants, they need support from trellises, stakes, or tomato cages. Indeterminate tomatoes produce fruits later in the season, but plants produce fruits from mid-summer to late fall. In colder climates, indeterminate plants may produce fruit until the first hard freeze.
Heirloom tomatoes are typically defined as those whose seeds started with one family generation and were passed down through subsequent generations to maintain the plant’s most valuable characteristics. A critical distinguishing feature of heirloom seeds is that all are open-pollinated. Commercially available heirloom seeds and tomatoes come from plants that were open-pollinated and introduced to the wholesale and retail markets before 1940.
Open-pollination occurs when nothing stands in the way of allowing pollination to happen naturally – when birds or insects move pollen between plants, or when the wind blows pollen from plant to plant. Open-pollination produces genetic diversity. And it creates wide variation among plants, forcing them to adapt to the climate and growing conditions wherever they are planted. Seeds produced from open-pollinated plants will always be true-to-type, meaning they’ll always have the DNA of their parent plants. An exception occurs when different varieties within the same species cross-pollinate. This scenario makes it impossible to know what the seeds produced from these plants will be.
Hybridization is the process of either in nature when random plants cross-pollinate. Forced cross-pollination is done manually in a controlled environment to take desirable characteristics from the pollen of one plant and place it on the stigma (pollen source) of another plant. Plants may have an F1 label to indicate cross-breeding to produce a more vigorous plant. Hybrid plants will only be healthy and genetically stable for one generation. That’s why it’s best to buy hybrids from a nursery like GreenThumb.
Choosing Tomatoes to Grow
Many tomato lovers prefer heirloom tomatoes because they deliver consistent results – both in flavor and growth.
Indeterminate varieties may produce sweeter, more flavorful, and more balanced (ratio of acid to sweetness) fruits because they bear fruit continuously throughout the growing season (although fruits mature later than Determinate varieties.) There is a direct correlation between a tomato plant’s leaf production and the sugar and acid content of its fruits. The more leaves a plant has, the sweeter and more acidic its fruits will be.
Other factors to consider when growing tomatoes are disease resistance. Our temperate climate makes tomato plants more prone to tomato blight, a fungal disease that proliferates in wet weather. When you need to water your tomatoes, do so early in the morning to ensure that the leaves and stems dry thoroughly in the sun. Choose tomatoes that are designated as blight-resistance.
Paste tomatoes tend to be meatier. The meaty consistency (and lower water content) makes them an outstanding choice for canning, making salsa, and making sauces. Paste tomatoes are ideal for making fresh pasta dishes and on BLTs. (The last thing you want in a BLT is soggy toast.)
Beefsteak doesn’t refer to a tomato variety. It refers to large, meaty tomatoes. One of their distinguishing characteristics is a smaller seed cavity, which means that the seeds don’t interfere with the ratio between the juice and flesh. They also have imperfect and irregular shapes and their vibrant red color. Beefsteak tomatoes are excellent for slicing, grilling, eating raw, or using in salsa. You can even use them in tomato-based dips or sauces.
Cherry tomatoes are typically the sweetest of all tomatoes. They are excellent for snacking, to use in salads, to add to egg dishes, or to use as garnishes. You can also freeze cherry tomatoes. Don’t wash them before you put them in a bag. Use a zipper-closure type freezer bag or a freezer bag that has a vacuum seal.
Yellow and Orange Tomatoes
Yellow and orange tomatoes are no less flavorful than their red cousins. They have less acid, so they aren’t as hard on the stomach.
Green tomatoes aren’t fruits that haven’t yet ripened. They are packed with flavor (and they taste better (sweeter) if you leave them on the vine until they practically fall off.) Green Zebra tomatoes are striped. They are meaty with a tangy tartness when picked early. Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes develop an Amber-colored tinge as they ripen. They have a sweet and spicy flavor. Green Zebra and Aunt Ruby’s German Green are heirloom varieties.
No vegetable garden is complete without at least one tomato plant. We encourage you to check out our inventory. Be sure to ask about disease-resistant varieties and newly released hybrids. Our garden experts will help you choose the best tomatoes for your growing conditions.
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