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Tomato time! What’s your favorite variety?

I think it is safe to say that it is officially tomato season in Maryland! For people that do not grow their own tomatoes, many visit local farmers markets, roadside stands, or grocery stores to purchase these delicious treats. How are you getting your tomato fix in 2021? Do you have a favorite tomato variety you grow at home?

Soil type and growing conditions such as temperature and amount of available water can influence the taste, sweetness, and texture of a tomato, but there is some background information that can help guide your tomato buying or growing. My family and I grow 10+ different varieties and anywhere between 150-200 tomato plants each year for our small, fresh vegetable business. I want to share some lessons with you that I have learned. 

Below are some basic terms to know (for a more detailed explanation of these check out this blog post). I’m going to make some generalizations about the terms when it comes to characteristics that people are looking for in eating qualities: 

Variety– there are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes. Each variety has a special characteristic that makes it different from another variety — shape, size, color, taste, etc. Varieties can be open- pollinated, heirloom, or hybrid. These terms relate to how the seeds are produced season after season and are important if you want to save seeds in your garden.  

In some situations, especially in greenhouses, growers will utilize bumblebees to ensure that pollination happens; however, cross-pollination is not needed for tomatoes, as they are self-fertile (a complete flower with both male and female parts, so just the motion of the flower opening is usually enough movement for pollination to occur). In nature, wind and rain help tomato pollination to occur. In my high tunnel, we shake our vines every few days.  

Open-pollinated plants have been crossed in nature by insects, wind, rain etc., several times and most variability has been lost through natural selection and natural crossing. These often breed “true” to name and characteristics. However, these plants are more likely to produce fruits that have deformities like catfacing

Heirloom is a special designation of open-pollinated plants that are 50+ years old and often have a fun story that goes along with the name. They may have some variability in size, shape, and color, but are usually pretty standard. Heirlooms/Open-Pollinated varieties are often softer, thinner skinned, get more bruises from handling, and are harder to pick/pull off the vines. My favorite heirloom and story is about the Mortgage Lifter, which was bred in West Virginia by a mechanic that was so successful that he ended up growing plants and selling them to pay for his mortgage in just 6 years. 

Hybrid or F1 generation seeds are the result of a specific cross of two parent plants. The hybrids are often bred for a specific outcome such as disease resistance, color, or use. Often these tomatoes are very uniform in shape, size, and color when ripe. Many times hybrid tomatoes are more “sturdy” tomatoes– not as soft and will hold up better on the shelf. Often, the more ripe these tomatoes are, the less thick the skin appears and the sweeter they taste. 

In my opinion, if you choose accordingly, every tomato has a perfect use.

For salads, I like a tougher skinned tomato, so I choose a hybrid. Who wants a tomato that gets all over the other vegetables in the salad? Also, if someone in your family doesn’t like tomatoes, these types are easier to pick out. 

Making juice, sauce, salsa, or anything that you want to be thicker– heirlooms, hybrids, or paste tomatoes (sometimes a mixture of all work the best)– any type will work but a longer cooking time may be required to get the correct thickness. 

Eating fresh on a sandwich– heirlooms often have the best flavor and texture, but if overly ripe, they tend to be a little mushy. Hybrids will work well, especially if you let them get fully ripe!

Sometimes people use overall shape to categorize tomatoes, but the shape doesn’t always fully describe the tomato.

Beefsteak- is a particular variety name, but many people also use this term to describe a large tomato.  Sometimes these varieties have a core that isn’t edible. 

Slicing- describes a large tomato often used to cut across and make a nice slice, often important to people that want to eat a fresh tomato sandwich. 

Cherry- very small tomato, eating in one bite without cutting. 

Pear- small pear-shaped tomato, often eaten whole, much like a cherry. 

Grape- similar to a cherry, but usually smaller in size. 

Oxheart- tomatoes shaped like a heart that often have a large core that is not usable. 

Paste- oval to pear-shaped tomatoes that are meaty with fewer seeds. They tend to have less juice and are preferred for drying, canning, or sauce. 

Several yellow oxhearts are pictured above. This is a variety called Homer Fike Yellow Oxheart, from my hometown. 

Skin thickness is a very important characteristic! 

Hybrids often have tougher or thicker skin, which makes them easier for picking and handling in mass production. If you like to squeeze tomatoes to check for ripeness a thicker skinned variety can be misleading in how tasty or ripe a tomato is. 

Knowing characteristics for each variety can be really helpful in determining ripeness. 

For example, we grow several types that are pink when fully ripe. But if we do not mark where these are planted it is easy to leave them on the vine too long and they get overly ripe and then are not marketable.  Likewise, if you are shopping for tomatoes and do not realize that there are pink varieties, you could be missing out on a very tasty treat! 

Oxheart Tomatoes– Top left— washed,  Top right– cleaned, boiled and ready to peel the skins, Bottom Right- cooking with salsa packet mix added, Bottom left— Salsa in pints and processed in a water bath canner.  
Another heirloom tomato– Mr. Stripey. If you are looking for a yellow tomato with a red marble that will grow huge, try this variety! As you can see from the photo, the tomatoes are way larger than my mother’s outstretched hand. 
Mixture of hybrid tomatoes– Fourth of July (a great salad tomato, perfect for cutting into quarters) and Early Girl
Purple hybrid tomato called Marnouar which has eating characteristics similar to an heirloom but a disease resistant package that I could not resist!

Knowledge is power when it comes to choosing the best tomato for your purpose! Please, on behalf of gardeners and fresh vegetable growers everywhere, do not squeeze the tomatoes to test for ripeness! Take a chance and try some different varieties this season and next! 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. See more posts by Ashley.

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