Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Tomatoes


Country MoonEach 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Early Girl and Czech Bush. Fairly common tomatoes, this variety makes bite-sized wedges and are perfect for salads.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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