Ever felt a little overwhelmed when standing in front of the tomato selections on a seed rack? So much to choose from, but, if you are like most gardeners, you only have so much space to dedicate to these rather large plants. At Sage Garden we often get the question, "what is the “best” tomato?" And that is a tough question to answer! But this can be addressed successfully, in collaboration with the gardener.
1) First off, there really is no “best” tomato, being that taste and preference have so many subjective variables. But the question gains focus if we can look at the end-use: are you wanting a slicer, a canning tomato, a paste tomato, a variety for snaking, or perhaps sun-drying, something that will amaze your friends in all of its heirloom zaniness, a tomato that is likely to win top prize at the country fair for being record-breaking in size etc. Of course most gardeners won’t have just a single desire in mind, but may well be after a great slicer for tomato and basil sandwiches, plus a second plant for fresh snacking (+ as many other possibilities as space allows for!).
Related to the question of end-use is an interesting phenomenon: some people don’t want anything to do with a tomato that is anything other than red. And this is important, because even the best tasting tomato is no good if the look interferes with enjoyment of the flavour. These types of brain-tricks are difficult to over come, so don’t discount the colour of your tomatoes, particularly if they are going to be shared with some who really only appreciates red tomatoes! On the flip side of this issue, some people love to grow edible things just because they are beautiful, and tomatoes are very diverse in colour and form, presenting an amazing opportunity to have some edible fun.
2) The second variable builds on the first: what do you want from the tomato plant and where do you want to grow it? Most tomatoes are large, rambling plants that require at least 2 x 2’ space in the garden or a minimum 5 gallon container. However, there are the shorter bush style plants (usually determinate types) that require much less room and support compared to the vine (indeterminate) types. A common mis-conception is that cherry tomatoes are smaller plants. In fact the opposite is true! Most cherry tomatoes are very large vines, and the tiny currant-style tomatoes are borne on the biggest vines of them all. That said, there are are miniature tomato plants (that produce both cherry and medium-sized fruits) that can be grown in hanging baskets or smaller than 5 gallon containers. So ask yourself, realistically, what space do you have available and this will guide the selection process.
3 ) Third, you want to consider the days to maturity. In our short season many gardeners are in a rush to get that first tomato, and also avoid the pain of having fruits almost ripen... but then get hit by early fall frost. And there are tons of tomato varieties that mature in 55 - 70 days from transplant. However, some of the most impressive tasting selections do take 75 - 90 days to produce, so it may be worth planting these even if there is a little risk involved (lots of ways to help tomatoes out in our short season such as planting only once soil is warm so they establish more quickly, pruning plants for better air and light penetration which improves ripening, mulching to ensure even soil moisture, application of kelp to improve cold tolerance). But, if each year as a gardener YOU feel the late season tension between ripening tomatoes and chilly nights, perhaps the perfect tomato is one that matures early (Crimson Sprinter is an excellent Canadian introduction for short season gardeners).
If you are planning to have more than one tomato variety, it is wise to choose different days to maturity, so as not to be over run with tomatoes all at one time. Choosing varieties with different days to maturity also stacks the odds in your favour in terms of plant performance, as we may get better weather during one part of the summer allowing a particular plant to yield a bumper crop, even if weather does not co-operate for another.
4) Fourth, there is the highly complex question of tomato flavour, which is really at the heart of why home-grown tomatoes matter! Tomatoes are all about the balance between sugars and acids, and perfection lies some where along a continuum that seems to be very personal. Chefs will leverage the relative balance between sweet and acidic qualities of various tomatoes, using their art and science to guide them when creating recipes. But the average person out to enjoy a tomato in a salad or on a sandwich is likely looking for a variety that includes a combination of sweet and acidic qualities, often described as the true “tomato” flavour. Eastern European and Russian selections often have this quality, as does the famous Brandywine tomato and the Italian Heirloom.
If your end-use is “for snacking”, the sweeter tomatoes are going to be first choice, and these are generally the cherry style and especially the currant tomatoes (but there are larger ones such as Hawaiian Pineapple). There are also low acid, lower sugar selections which are often yellow or orange, and come in a wide range of sizes (Yellow Perfection and Yellow Brandywine are popular).
The exciting thing about tomatoes is that there are actually many flavour profiles, and seed packs or plant information cards should describe any unique qualities (the “smokey” flavour of Black Krim or the “citrusy’ tones of Green Grape, for example) that may pique your taste-buds. Have fun with with this.
5) A very practical fifth consideration when determining the ideal tomato is resistance to disease. Tomatoes are notorious for blights, which for some gardeners becomes a barrier to enjoying the crop. All tomatoes can be managed to reduce the potential for blights (mulching, removing lower leaves, crop rotation), but varieties such as Iron Lady are naturally blight resistant and may be the magic bullet in some situations.
Other crop concerns such as blossom end rot or cracking are also common to all tomatoes under certain conditions, but less so for particular varieties. Resistance to these issues is often noted on packs or plant descriptions (generally determinate style and smaller fruited tomatoes are less prone to blossom end rot; Moskovich is one of the best red heirlooms in terms if resistance to cracking).
When it comes down to it, when asked about the “best tomato”, one of best tools we have to help answer this is to take note of which varieties are repeat purchases for our customers. Home gardeners can take advantage of the same informal “rating” system by asking friends and family what they love... they are likely to offer a passionate reply!
Please let us know if you require assistance choosing tomatoes for your garden. We offer a wide selection of tomato seeds and an even wider selection of tomatoes as transplants... we know we have a tomato plant you will love!