Pick the right tomato

Large number of varieties can be confusing for growers.

The prime time to plant tomatoes in the Lower Mainland is from the Victoria Day long weekend through June.

The prime time to plant tomatoes in the Lower Mainland is from the Victoria Day long weekend through June.

Each new gardening season brings with it myriad new plants.  These new guys are sometimes the result of cross breeding, hybridization or the discovery of new varieties from around the world.

It is also interesting to see the reintroduction of older varieties, ones that had dropped out of use but are now suddenly making a comeback as heritage plants.  Many new varieties gain popularity quickly, stay on the market for a number of years, then sputter out and are seldom heard from again.

I often think we have just too many varieties on the market.  Have you looked at the number of tomato varieties in seed catalogues lately? Stokes Seed catalogue lists over 81 varieties this year. Who in the world is going to plant 81 varieties of tomatoes? It must be a nightmare for seed companies attempting to guess how much of each variety will be needed every year, let alone for the poor novice gardener who would be confused with a choice of six varieties. To add to the confusion, each year new introductions come out.

Certainly there are regional climactic differences that affect the type of plants which thrive in a specific area. Here in southwest B.C., we must consider our climate and select varieties accordingly.

Superb tomatoes can be grown in our home gardens if the plants have the following characteristics. First, they must ripen early.  Tomatoes that develop in September often fall victim to blight.  Tomatoes must also be resistant to the many diseases, like verticillium and fusarium wilt, that prevail in our wet soils. It is also a good idea to have staking varieties to make sure they are up off the ground where slugs abound.  I personally feel that determinate tomatoes are better for our wet region. A determinate tomato is not a stubborn one but rather one which produces a good crop of fruit over a brief period of time.

Let’s start by selecting the best of  the smaller tomatoes for our area and work our way up to the larger varieties.

Tiny Tim has been the old stand-by cherry tomato. It matures in 45 days from transplanting and produces an abundance of fruit on a compact plant. From the many new varieties of cherry types, it’s hard to make a call, but you may want to try Sugar Snack or Sun Sugar. If you are looking for lots of sweet cherry tomatoes, then look no further than Sweet Million and Sweet 100.  They are the most prolific of all tomatoes. They are also reputed to be the sweetest tomato, and their fruit contains very high concentrations of vitamin C. Now available are Sweet Gold and Sweet Orange, both ready in 60 days.

The new trailing tomato, Tumbler, has become the trademark of basket and container varieties. It is easy to grow and produces lots of one-and-a-quarter-inch bright red, very sweet round fruit so early that even novices will have success. It is the best I’ve seen for ease of production even in ground beds, with nice growth habit and good flavour. You might want to give Tumblin Tim Yellow a try and the new Ramblers even come with stripes.

The hot trend today is the grape tomato that has been available all winter from Mexico and California. On this type, each cluster ripens all at once like a grape. Juliet has become the standard bearer. These indeterminate plants can provide up to 350 grape-like fruits, and they are quite tolerant to late blight.

Try Sugary Grape for a sweet-tooth sensation.

For mid-sized tomatoes, my top picks are Early Girl, Ultra Girl and First Lady.  All mature in 62 to 80 days, producing delicious seven- to nine-ounce (227 grams) fruit. Many gardeners claim these are the only varieties to grow.  Fantastic Hybrid is another favourite of many gardeners. Its fruit weighs six to seven ounces (185 grams) and is produced in great abundance in about 70 days. Super Fantastic matures in about the same time, and its fruit is a little larger. A good early bird hybrid is Defiant – it’s ready in 70 days with mid-sized globe shaped fruit and firm “beefsteak” texture.

Well now, it’s time to get down to the really big tomatoes. If anybody is still planting Beefsteak, may I suggest that you pray for a hot summer or move to the Okanagan. The characteristics of Beefsteak can be found in many other tomato varieties.  Oregon Spring is the first big early guy in 75 to 80 days. It’s a large slicing variety that has a good, meaty Beefsteak-type flesh and should ripen by mid-July.  Of all the Boy tomatoes, Better Boy is the true hybrid Beefsteak-type. Its fruit averages around one pound, and it matures in 72 days. It has good flavour, and is one of the most popular tomato varieties.  Big Beef and Beef Master are both Italian Beefsteak-types that have that old-fashioned Beefsteak taste and huge 20 -ounce sized fruits. Both have good disease tolerance and have won awards.

Celebrity is resistant to most tomato diseases; produces 12 ounce fruit in about 70 days; is determinate; and the plants are short and husky.

The huge news in tomatoes is the blight resistant variety called Legend. It was developed at Oregon State University and on a scale of one to 10 for blight resistance (10 being the worst), it is a .53.  It’s a very early determinate variety that produces fruit four to five inches across. This is the fifth year for this tomato in our region, and there’s been mixed reviews. Some give it high praise, while others a thumbs down. My sense is that it’s best to keep them away from your other tomatoes that get blight and could potentially spread it to Legend.

Lycopene is the healthy antioxidant in tomatoes. A variety called Healthkick has 50 percent more lycopene than any other variety. This determinant has a Roma plum shape with very sweet fruit weighing about four ounces. It is the healthiest tomato you can eat.

Some of the oldies but goodies making a comeback are Cherokee Purple, Pineapple, Green Zebra, Mr. Stripey and Oxheart Red.

Tomatoes are heat lovers, so now that the weather has warmed up and stays warm at night, you can plant out your tomatoes. As a general rule, from the May long weekend through June is usually the ideal planting time.

Brian Minter is a master gardener who operates Minter Gardens in Chilliwack.

Surrey North Delta Leader