Selecting Tomatoes for the Home Garden

This publication will help home gardeners choose from a variety of tomato cultivars to find what they want.

Sarah J. Browning, Extension Educator
Laurie Hodges, Extension Vegetable Specialist
Dale T. Lindgren, Extension Horticulture Specialist

Figure 1. There is no direct link between fruit acidity and color.
Figure 1. There is no direct link between fruit acidity and color.

Tomatoes, Solanum lycopersicum (formerly Lycopersicon esculentum), are available in a wide range of fruit colors, sizes, shapes, and maturities. Ripe tomatoes may be red, orange, pink, yellow, white, or even green with shapes varying from globe or round to slightly flattened, pear-like, or cherry-sized.

Consumers sometimes complain that tomatoes purchased in grocery stores lack flavor or have tough skin. Although nurseries and garden centers can provide only a limited number of different tomato cultivars, home gardeners willing to grow their own tomato transplants can choose from among hundreds of tomato cultivars, selecting those with the color, texture, size, and taste they prefer. Although rumored, there is no direct link between fruit acidity and color. Yellow tomatoes, which many home gardeners believe have lower acidity, actually have a normal acidity level but also a higher sugar content, which changes the flavor (Figure 1).

When discussing tomatoes, the term cultivar, a contraction of the terms “cultivated variety,” refers to any group of plants with distinct characteristics that are preserved through controlled propagation, such as hybridization or cuttings. In contrast, the term variety refers to a subdivision of a species that evolved without human intervention, often within a distinct geographical area, and will breed true when isolated from other tomatoes. Often the term variety is used incorrectly to refer to any distinct tomato type. Almost all tomatoes should be referred to as cultivars, since even heirloom tomatoes were developed through years of human selection for plants with the best characteristics.

Certain tomato cultivars have been developed for special uses such as stuffing (Pink Stuffer, Yellow Stuffer, Striped Cavern) or longer storage (Burpee’s Long Keeper).

Very dwarf cultivars adapted for growth in pots or other containers also are available. Most of these “patio” cultivars have cherry-sized fruit, like Pixie II and Orange Pixie, although a few, like Bush Steak, Patio, and Patio Princess, produce regular-sized fruit.

Tomato Classification, Growth Habits and Pollination

Common tomato classifications include:

Tomatillos, and ground cherries are sometimes confused with tomatoes. These plants belong to the genus Physalis rather than the tomato genus Solanum.

Home gardeners should carefully consider the amount of space available in their garden when deciding which tomato cultivars to grow. Planting a combination of cultivars with different growth types will result in a long season of fresh tomatoes. The two most common growth forms for tomato plants are determinate and indeterminate.

Many tomato cultivars on the market today are hybrids. Tomato plants are self-pollinating, however, hybrid seed can be produced through a laborious process involving the hand crossing of two different parent plants. The resulting hybrid seed or progeny display specific characteristics inherited from the parent plants. However, when seed is harvested from the hybrid plants and grown out the following year, it will not grow true to type because of genetic recombination. Therefore, gardeners should not save seed from hybrid plants, with the expectation that the resulting plants will be similar to the hybrid parent.

Increasingly popular today are heirloom tomatoes. The definition of an heirloom tomato varies, but usually refers to open pollinated plants that were in cultivation before 1940, when the first hybrid cultivars became widely available. Often heirlooms have been passed down within families or communities for many years, with seed selected from the best plants each year. All heirlooms are open pollinated. Open pollinated plants, when isolated from other tomatoes, will grow true to type each year and their seed can be saved with the expectation of the same plant and fruit quality each year.

Most new tomato cultivars are resistant to or tolerant of certain diseases. This usually is indicated by a letter following the name, such as “N” for nematodes, “F” for Fusarium race 1, “FF” for Fusarium race 1 and 2, “FFF” for Fusarium race 1, 2 and 3, “T” for tobacco mosaic virus, and “V” for Verticillium wilt. Cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) and tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV), Alternaria stem canker (ASC), gray leaf spot (St), and Septoria leaf spot (L) indicate additional disease resistance. Realize that not all tomato cultivars have the same level of resistance, and even resistant plants can become infected if disease pressure is very high. Some plants are labeled as tolerant to certain diseases indicating that they will produce fruit of acceptable quality even with moderate to high levels of disease infection.

Although open-pollinated heirloom cultivars are now popular, many have little genetic resistance to common diseases. These older cultivars should be planted in ground that has not had any Solanaceous crops (tomato, pepper, eggplant, or potato) for at least three years and in a place with good air circulation to reduce the opportunity for fungal infection.

All-American Selections (AAS) are cultivars tested at trial gardens across the United States. Cultivars must be unique, widely adapted, and provide a quality product to receive this honored award.

Early season tomatoes require 65 or fewer days from transplanting to harvest; main season tomatoes 70 to 79 days; and late season tomatoes more than 80 days.

Type Cultivar Name Plant
Harvest Comments
Cherry Jolly I   Main 70-75 days, hybrid, AAS, 1 1/2 oz. peach-shaped pink fruits
  Husky Red Cherry DI V, F, ASC Early 65-70 days, hybrid, 1/2 oz. fruit, small plants produce throughout the season
  Large Red Cherry I   Main 75 days, open pollinated, 1 oz. deep red fruits
  Pixie II D   Early 52 days, 2 oz. fruits, dwarf compact plants
  Orange Pixie D   Early 52 days, hybrid, 4 oz. yellow-orange fruits, meaty with excellent flavor, plants 18’ tall
  Red Grape SD   Early 60 days, open pollinated, 1/2 oz. fruit in large clusters, crack resistant
  Sugary SD   Early 60 days, hybrid, AAS, grape-like clusters, very sweet fruits, good for containers
  Sungold (Sun Gold) I F, T Early 57-60 days, hybrid, golden-orange fruits, crack resistant
  Super Sweet 100 I V, F Main 70-78 days, hybrid, 1/2 oz. fruit, improved Sweet 100, crack prone
  Sweet Million I V, FF, N, T Early 60-70 days, hybrid, improved Sweet 100, 1/2-3/4 oz. dark red fruit on tall vigorous plants, crack resistant
Pear Red Pear I   Main 70-75 days, open pollinated, 1/2 oz. fruits, resists cracking, good flavor
  Yellow Pear I   Main 70-80 days, open pollinated, 1 oz. fruits, crack prone, average flavor
Plum Juliet I   Early 60-62 days, hybrid, AAS, 1 1/2-2 oz., elongated and slightly flattened red fruits, crack resistant
Paste Amish Paste I   Main 74 days, open pollinated, 8 oz. ox heart-shaped paste tomato, great flavor
  Macero II D V, F, ASC Main 76 days, hybrid, red, thick-walled, pear-shaped fruit
  Roma VF D V, F, ASC Main 75-80 days, open pollinated, 2 oz. fruits, thick flesh fruits
  San Marzano I   Early-Late 60-80 days, open pollinated, 3 oz. deep red fruits, meaty and dry, crack resistant
  Viva Italia D V, F, N Main 72-80 days, hybrid, 3 oz. fruits set well in hot weather
Standard Better Boy I V, FF, N, ASC Main 72-80 days, hybrid, deep red, 1 lb. globe-shaped fruit, crack resistant
  Bush Celebrity D V, FF, N, T, ASC, St Main 67 days, hybrid, AAS, 7-10 oz. fruits, good flavor, 15’ compact plants, very disease resistant
  Bush Early Girl D V, FF, N, T Early 65 days, hybrid, 18 inch plants, 6-7 oz. fruits
  Bush Steak D   Early 65 days, hybrid, 8-12 oz. red fruits, dwarf 2-foot plants for containers
  Celebrity SD V, FF, N, T, ASC Main 70-75 days, hybrid, 7-10 oz. red fruits, good flavor, very disease resistant
  Early Girl I V, FF Early 57-63 days, hybrid, 4-6 oz. slightly flattened, crimson fruits
  Floramerica D V, FF, N, T, ASC, St Main 70 days, hybrid, AAS, bright scarlet 10-12 oz. fruits, sets fruit well in hot weather
  Floralina D V, FFF, ASC, St Main 78 days, hybrid, 8-10 oz. red fruits, good flavor
  Health Kick D V, FF, ASC, St Main 72 days, hybrid, 4 oz. plum-shaped fruits high lycopene content, strong disease resistance
  Husky Gold DI V, F, ASC Main 70 days, hybrid, AAS, 5-7 oz. bright golden fruits
  Jubilee (Golden Jubilee) I   Late 80 days, open pollinated, AAS, 8 oz. orange, globe-shaped fruits
  Mountain Pride D V, FF Main 74-77 days, hybrid, 7-10 oz. fruits with good flavor, very crack resistant
  Mountain Spring D V, FF Early 65 days, hybrid, 9 oz. firm, globe-shaped fruits, very resistant to cracking and blossom end rot
  Patio D F Early 50-70 days, hybrid, 4 oz. firm red fruits, 2-foot compact plants are great for container growing
  Patio Princess D   Early 65-68 days, hybrid, 4-5 oz. red fruits, developed for container plantings
  Quick Pick I V, F, N, T, ASC Main 79 days, 4 oz. red fruits, good disease resistance
  Rutgers I F, ASC, St Main 75 days, open pollinated, 5-8 oz. red fruits, good flavor, heavily used as a processing tomato by Campbell’s Soup
  Rutgers Improved
(Rutgers VFA)
D V, F, ASC, St Main 72 days, 6 oz. dark red meaty fruits, good flavor
  Sun Leaper D V, FF Early 69-72 days, hybrid, 9 oz. slightly flattened fruits with good flavor, sets fruit well in hot weather
  Sunmaster D V, FF, ASC, St Main 72 days, hybrid, 7-8 oz. fruits, good flavor, sets fruit best in hot weather
Beefsteak Beefmaster I V, F, N Late 80 days, hybrid, 1-2 lb. red fruits solid and meaty
  Big Beef I V, FF, N, T, ASC, St Main 70-75 days, hybrid, AAS, 8-12 oz. fruits, crack resistant
  Brandywine I   Late 80-90 days, open pollinated, 10-24 oz. red-pink fruits, great flavor
  Caspian Pink I   Late 85 days, open pollinated, 10-12 oz. red-pink fruits, good for cool climates
  Cherokee Purple I   Late 85 days, open pollinated, 8-12 oz. dark red fruits, soft texture
  Nebraska Wedding D   Late 85-90 days, open pollinated, 10 oz. deep orange fruits, crack resistant
Specialty Yellow Stuffer I   Late 80-85 days, open pollinated, 4 oz. yellow , elongated (Gourmet Yellow Stuffer) fruits, nearly hollow except for a small cluster of seeds
  Burpee’s Long Keeper I   Main 78-85 days, open pollinated, 6-7 oz. orange-red fruits, bred for storage quality
  Striped Cavern I   Main 80 days, open pollinated, bell pepper-like 8 oz. red fruits with gold stripes, hollow inside except for a small cluster of seeds, good for stuffing

This publication has been peer reviewed.

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Index: Lawn & Garden
Issued June 2008