Each spring when I ask someone if they are going to put out a garden, the response I usually get is “Oh no, just a couple of tomato plants.” It doesn’t matter what size garden a person has, you never see one that doesn’t include these juicy red spheres. No wonder because tomatoes are America’s favorite vegetable. OK, I know that, technically, those red rounds of delight that we eat are the fruit of the tomato plant, but it is used as a vegetable in eating and cooking which categorizes it as a vegetable.
I always thought a tomato was a tomato, but each variety has its own characteristics, depending on what you intend for its use. With roughly 7,500 varieties, the choices are staggering. Heirlooms are becoming increasingly popular, especially with home gardeners and organic producers since they tend to produce more interesting and flavorful crops at the cost of disease resistance and productivity.
Before you decide on which kinds are better for your needs, this is what the experts are recommending for different purposes:
Beefsteaks. These big, red globe tomatoes can weigh up to a pound each and often measure 6 inches in diameter. They combine a tangy acid bite with a touch of sweetness, creating a classic rich flavor. They are juicy, contain lots of water, and beefsteaks themselves come in more than 350 varieties. Often called “slicers,” they are great on hamburgers and BLTs.
Bush tomatoes. Actually baby beefsteaks, this variety is uniformly round and racquetball-sized with thick skin. They are the fruit that “pop” when bitten into.
Early Girl and Czech Bush. Fairly common tomatoes, this variety makes bite-sized wedges and are perfect for salads.
Plums or Romas. The fruits of this variety are oblong, sweet with a high acid content. Known for chewy flesh and low water content, they are perfect for making tomato sauce because they cook down faster. They have a longer shelf life than moister tomatoes and are also great in quick saute dishes or fresh salads where they outshine their juicier cousins.
Cherry and other tinier tomatoes. These miniature varieties are 1 inch in diameter or less, and they are the most delicate and complex of the small tomato varieties. The rule of thumb is usually the smaller the fruit, the bigger the sugar content. They are great on salads or eaten fresh from the garden.
Grape tomatoes. Named for their size and shape, grape tomatoes have become grocery store standards. They offer predictable, uniform sweetness. Mini tomatoes also can be pear or teardrop shaped and come in red or yellow. They are slightly more bland with a more subtle flavor than other varieties.
Black tomatoes. No, I am not talking about those way beyond their prime; there actually are deep purple ones known as black tomatoes. They can run in diameter anywhere from plum-sized to weighing nearly a pound. They have a rich, almost salty taste.
Varieties such as Romas, San Marzano, Big Mama, Jersey Giant and Amish Paste are known as paste tomatoes and are great for canning. They are quite dry, very mealy and have fewer seeds. The popular heirlooms are not the best candidates for canning simply because they are juicier.
Growing your own tomatoes is pretty easy if you follow a few guidelines. Young plants can be purchased at nurseries and transplanted outside after danger of frost and the ground and weather is warm. Many people prefer to start their own from seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before it’s time to put them outside. The advantage to this is that, if you find a variety you really like, you can save your own seeds from year to year.
Prior to planting outside, fertilize the soil with aged manure or compost. After you plant them outside approximately 2 feet apart, they like at least 6 hours of full sun per day in well-drained soil. Plant the root ball deep enough so that the lowest leaves are just above the surface.
Some support system is recommended since fruit that is allowed to lay on the ground will spoil. Stakes can be used with the plants gently secured to them or tomato cages fit directly over the plant and allow plants to grow within the support, holding themselves upright.
The trick to keeping their skin from cracking is in the watering. They like consistent amounts of water, keeping the level at about 2 inches per week through the summer. Putting mulch around the plant's base helps to retain the water. To help provide this consistency through periods of drought, place flat rocks next to each plant. Rocks pull water up from the ground and keep it from evaporating. Gee, now where would I find rocks!
The experts say never to refrigerate fresh tomatoes. Their reasoning is that it spoils the flavor and texture of that garden tomato taste. I beg to differ, to me there is nothing better than a chilled tomato.
Isn’t it nice when something that tastes good is actually good for you? Tomatoes boast a wide array of nutrients and antioxidants including alpha-lipoic acid, beta carotene, lutein and lycopene. Lycopene helps prevent several types of cancer and cooking provides even more of this nutrient. They are also rich sources of vitamins A and C and folic acid.
Tomatoes help maintain strong bones, repair damage caused by smoking and are good for the heart, hair, skin, kidneys and eyes. There really isn’t anything not to like about the popular tomato, so bring on the sauce!