Growth habit is important because, to get a bumper tomato crop, you need to provide enough room for the plant as it grows and adequate support. Tomato plants have one of two growth habits. Determinate (bush) varieties grow to a predetermined height (usually 2 to 3 feet), set fruit and then concentrate on ripening that fruit. Indeterminate (vine) varieties keep growing taller through the summer, and continue to set and ripen fruit until they are killed by the first frost.
If you have a limited amount of growing space or will be growing tomatoes in a container, it's best to select a determinate (bush) variety. Determinate tomato plants spread out, but are less unruly than indeterminate varieties. Determinate varieties are the best choice for cooler, coastal climate gardeners who need tomatoes that produce a crop in a shorter time period. Determinate plants are a better choice for gardeners who enjoy canning the produce from their gardens.
However, if you have plenty of space, prefer to pick your tomatoes over several months, can do some pruning and provide sturdy support, select a an indeterminate variety. Select the growing site carefully as some indeterminate cultivars can exceed seven feet in height. This type of tomato plant is best grown in the ground.
Time to maturity is important if you have a short growing season or live in a cooler area of the county. If your area experiences long, warm summers you can select from a variety of tomatoes, including larger beefsteak types that take 80 to 90 days to mature. Warmer areas of the county can successfully grow varieties such as "Chianti Rose," "Pork Chop" and "Cherokee Purple" (all 80 days) while those in West Marin do better with "Sun Gold," "Early Girl" and "Moskvich" (all 60 days).
If you want to save seeds from year to year, plant heirloom or open-pollinated varieties. Seeds collected from these plants will "come true," meaning they will grow into an identical plant the following year. Heirloom tomatoes such as "Chocolate Cherry," "Cherokee Purple," "Jubilee," "Moskvich," "Chianti Rose," "Japanese Black Trifele" and "Green Zebra" are all open-pollinated varieties that have been passed on from one generation to the next.
Hybrids are a cross between two genetically different varieties that have been selected for certain desirable traits. Hybrid varieties often offer better disease resistance or higher yields, but they will not come true from seed.
Based on the initial and secondary considerations listed above, the Marin Master Gardener top performers include a wide variety of tomatoes.
- For salads: Cherry tomatoes or compact container varieties such as "Sun Gold" (60 days), "Sweet 100" (65 days) and "Chocolate Cherry" (70 days) all yield an abundance of small- to medium-sized fruits and adapt well to most climate zones.
- For tomato sauce/paste: Varieties such as "Enchantment" (70 days), "Jubilee" (75 days) and "Japanese Black Trifele" (75 days), a beautiful pear-shaped deep purple-black tomato, are dependable vine-type plants. Or try "Green Zebra," a beautiful chartreuse tomato with lime green stripes that ripens in 75 days.
- For slicing: "Big Beef" (70 days), "Carmello" (75 days) and "Oaxacan Jewel" (85 days) are good for slicing, but because they take longer to mature, grow best in warmer areas with longer growing seasons.
- For big flavor: For flavorful medium-sized tomato favorites choose "Early Girl" (60 days), "Celebrity" (70 days), "Moskvich" (60 days), "Green Zebra" (75 days), "Japanese Black Trifele" (75 days) or "Jubilee" (75 days).
Examine plants before purchasing. Look for green plants with four to six leaves and straight stems. Check leaves for signs of insects or disease such as brown spots, holes or curling. Avoid plants that appear wilted, yellow or have spindly, thin stems. Select young plants without blossoms or fruit, as younger plants tend to establish faster in the garden.
With a warm enough spring and summer and an adequate supply of rain, following these guidelines should make this your best tomato-growing year ever.