Growing Tomatoes

A look at tomato varieties, including slicing tomatoes, processing tomatoes, and salad tomatoes.

| Summer 2017

Freshly picked Roma tomatoes sit on a table.

Photo courtesy

The amazing number of tomato cultivars that flood the market every year can make choosing which tomato to plant a puzzling choice. Since tomatoes are versatile in their uses, it helps to know which tomato variety falls into which category. One approach that can help your decision is to consider what exactly your needs are before making your selections.

For most of us, what initially comes to mind is a delicious, ripened-on-the-vine, glowing red orb bursting with juice and flavor. However, these are not the best qualities for some purposes. Tomatoes grown for processing or for shipping need to have thicker skins, fewer seeds, and less juice, while maintaining enough flavor to stand up to processing heat.

Slicing Tomatoes

If your main goal is table-ready, flavorful tomatoes, there are many to choose from, including some old favorites like Big Boy, Better Boy, Early Girl, and Celebrity. Foremost in the slicing category, though, are the beefsteaks.

The term "beefsteak" refers to a particular tomato called the Beefsteak Tomato, as well as to an entire class of large slicing tomatoes with excellent flavor and juiciness. Some tomatoes in this category may weigh close to a pound, with several varieties weighing as much as three pounds. Beefsteaks have thin skins, and offer equally balanced sweetness and acidity. They also have a good seed-to-flesh ratio, with numerous seed compartments distributed throughout. While most beefsteaks are round, different varieties can have various outer appearances, such as ribbing near the stem, or being more slender and plump. They can come in several colors as well, from rich red to orange and from dark purple to green. Despite their popularity, beefsteaks are fragile tomatoes not suitable for commercial use. Some well-known choices for planting are Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and Mortgage Lifter, each an heirloom and each an excellent slicing tomato. Additional good choices include Big Beef, Pink Beefsteak, and Tomazilla. For all slicing tomatoes, make sure you plant them in proper soil and offer plenty of sunshine. You can also add organic fertilizer if you'd like.

Most beefsteaks take 85 days to harvest, which means that for most of the United States, they must be started indoors and transplanted when they're about 8 inches tall and the outside soil temperature is 60 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. All transplants will need to be hardened off before being placed in their permanent location. Beefsteaks require a sunny location with well-drained, composted soil. Because of their size and weight, they require sturdy cages or staking up with firm ties. Most are indeterminate and should be placed about 5 feet apart. It’s important to read literature about your beefsteak choice since they vary regarding their optimum climate needs, which can result in the same tomato tasting great in one part of the country, but not so great in a different geographical location. Not all beefsteaks are heirloom tomatoes, but many are, which helps explain their rich taste and high demand. It also explains some confusion over the terms "beefsteak" and "heirloom."

When heirloom tomatoes are mentioned, we think about genetic material that has been preserved through seed saving for a period of time. The estimated time period through which the protected seeds have been saved and passed down varies with each heirloom. Some heirloom seeds were found in the 1800s, while others have been around for 50 years or more. Some seed companies consider any 50-year-old, non-hybrid tomato an heirloom. Heirloom tomatoes must be open-pollinated so their seeds remain true to the mother plant and can be viably saved for the following year. An organization called Seed Savers Exchange verifies and documents the generational history of heirloom seed stock, which has been preserved and passed on. Heirloom tomato varieties are extremely flavorful because they retain many flavor compounds that have been unintentionally bred out of commercial stock. Most heirlooms are juicy, have a soft texture when ripe, and have thin skins that easily rupture. When you plant an heirloom, it's preferable to add potassium and sulphur. For most tomatoes, a clay-based soil produces a tastier fruit, and it's even been suggested that reducing the watering of the plants as the fruit ripens can intensify the flavors. As for all tomatoes, the more sun, the more flavor.

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