March Madness means a little something different on the farm and that’s because it is seed starting time!! Thousands and thousands of seeds that over the course of the winter went into draft pick after draft pick in order to make it to our seeding bench. (thats all I got for sportsball references) This year we are seeding over 1000 tomato plants chosen for their resistance to disease, yields and most importantly, flavor. When you browse through seed catalogs it can be especially hard to choose because gosh darn it, you want to grow them all! Same friend, same. Depending on your culinary goals, growing space and the time you have to tend to the plants are all factors that will help narrow your selection so you don’t end up growing an unmanageable jungle. Below is a breakdown of how I think about tomatoes so that my seed order is based on logic instead of emotion. Let me tell you from first hand experience…nothing overcrowds a garden and breaks your heart faster than a bunch of rotting tomatoes still on the vine as a result of your failure to say "no" to all the xyz varieties that batted their colorful eyelashes and flirted with you from the seed catalog in January with promises of juicy goodness to come July. Tale as old as time and we’ve all done it.
The first thing you need to decide is do you want to grow determinants or indeterminants.
Determinant - These bush varieties are on a mission called Hit It & Quit It. If you’re looking for a tomato that shows up earlier, has a good time, charms everyone in the room then bounces way before everyone else does…this is your fruit. Available in cherry, slicer and saucers and perfect for those with commitment issues.
Indeterminate - This reliable friend is the energizer bunny of the summer garden as it keeps going and going and going. This is a vine-er and does best if trellised in some way to keep it off the ground which helps with avoiding disease and rotting fruit and will require a bit of attention weekly in terms of pruning. You can absolutely allow it to run rogue and marvel at how, if left unchecked, tomatoes can absolutely take over the world, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the inevitable Little Shop of Horrors. Indeterminates come in every color, variety, shape, size and sass.
Now that you know the basics, whatchoo like eatin’?
Cherries / Pears / Grapes - Little gems bursting with the most concentrated sweet tomato punch to the taste buds. Perfect for snacks, roasting, salads and anything you can come up with, really. If I could only grow one tomato, I’d choose a cherry variety for sure because of their versatility. The only thing they’re not my first choice for is sandwiches cuz they tend to slide out but other than tiny infraction, I’m all in. The orange ones tend to be the sweetest in my opinion with the yellow being a bit more mellow. The red babes are all over the spectrum of flavor and will be up to you to figure out your favorite. Be warned of any varieties that are “bumblebee” or “tie dye” as the flavors are so muted and watered down you’ll find that you make your way out to the garden less and less because, why bother? Pick every two days to avoid over ripening and/or cracking.
Slicers - Every sandwich artists’ garden must. Also good for those that just want 2-4 tomatoes a week and don’t want to be stressed out by the abundance that cherries provide. If you go this route, heirlooms are the ones to get down with because nothing beats the flavor of a variety that has been untouched by science and is likely what your grandparents and their grandparents ate. Have you ever had a BLT with a Striped German or Black Krim? Or a tri-color caprese with Valencia, Green Zebra and Brandywine? These varieties will ruin a person from ever considering eating a tomato out of season again. Heirlooms, although superior in taste, usually yield less and can be prone to disease so whatever you choose to grow, consider growing an extra plant or two as backup.
Paste or Plum - When you buy canned tomatoes, odds are certain that what’s in the can is a plum tomato. Whether you're making Nana’s Sunday gravy for the dinner table, putting loads of sauce up for winter, dehydrating or putting a pico on deck, purists will tell you you need a paste tomato. They are meatier and have significantly less water in them so you’re not sitting by the stove for hours trying to thicken up a watery sauce. They’re also smaller in circumference so I do like them sliced as a salad tomato because they’re slimy guts are mostly non-existent. San Marzanos are the gold standard in this category and highly revered however, Amish Paste and other plum varieties will do. Unless your dinner guests are Lidia Bastianich, Massimo Botturro and Tom Colicchio nobody will be any the wiser.
Hopefully this helps you make good decisions but if you’re anything like me, you’ll say “eff it” and still order every lil’ cutie that caught your eye and promise yourself in August you'll pare back next season (pffft yea right). Get growing, kids!
Here are some of our favorite tomato seed companies:
Johnny Seeds (many organic varieties)
Tomato Fest (650+ heirloom varieties)
If you'd like to leave the growing to us sign up to our CSA and receive weekly vegetables including 12+ varieties of tomatoes to choose from - Rainfield Farm CSA