When you look at a catalogue you’ll find dozens of tempting varieties in a range of colours. That’s easy, you think, tomatoes should be red. There are dozens of red heirloom varieties to choose from. Besides, some of the orange tomatoes contain more lycopene, which helps to prevent cancer, than red ones.
There are other characteristics you can look for to help with your choice and these are discussed in this article.
Tips to Help You Choose Heirloom Tomato Seeds
Time to Maturity
There is considerable variation in the time different varieties of tomatoes take to reach maturity. If your zone has long summers the length of the growing time is less important – unless, of course, you’re impatient for home-grown tomatoes. If you live in an area that has short or cool summers you should look for varieties with a short maturity time.
Catalogues don’t always give you this information, which is a pity because it is often very useful. From the time you plant out the seedlings, tomatoes can take from 52 days to 90 days to reach green maturity. A slight lightening of the green colour can be an indicator of this. Then they need a few more days to ripen to eating stage. The number of days to maturity will also be influenced by growing conditions. Ideally, tomatoes should have a minimum of 5 – 6 hours of sun per day and night temperatures of around 13° C (55° F) or more.
Determinate or indeterminate?
Tomatoes are classed as determinate or indeterminate.
- Determinate tomato plants grow as compact bushes and are usually smaller than indeterminate varieties.They will grow well in a large container.
- Their fruit ripens over a period of 4 – 6 weeks whereas indeterminate varieties continue to grow and ripen throughout the season.
- They need little or no support.
Most modern, hybrid tomatoes grown commercially are determinate.
On the other hand:
- Indeterminate tomato plants grow tall, some over 2 m (over 6 ft).
- They need to be supported by tying to stakes or they can be grown in tomato cages.
- The plants produce fruit over a long period until frost kills them.
- If grown out of the ground, they need a large container and require more care than determinates do.
You need to consider where you want to grow your tomatoes and when you want them to ripen. Home gardeners usually prefer to have a few tomatoes ripening at a time but doing so over a long period. If you want tomatoes for sauces or preserves, then you might want to consider including some determinate one for this purpose.
Shape and Size
At this stage, it’s a good idea to consider the ways in which you want to use your tomatoes. The following points should help.
- Small – 57 g–140 g (2 oz – 5 oz). About cherry size to apricot size. You are spoilt for choice here – you have the choice of round, pear or plum shapes.
- Medium size 170 g – 280 g (6 oz – 10 oz) These are probably the most versatile. They can be eaten whole, cut for salads sliced for sandwiches, cut and fried.
- Large beefsteak varieties – 300 g and over (10 oz and over). These are best for cooking. However, they can also be eaten raw in various ways.
- Long tomatoes. These tend to be meaty with minimal juice and few seeds. They are ideal for making tomato paste and rich sauces. Because they are less juicy they are good to use in sandwiches.
- Fancy shapes. The flute shapes look attractive when stuffed. There are also heart shapes.
When you grow heirloom tomato seed, you get a choice of colours, most of which are not available in hybrid tomatoes – red, pink, green, white, orange, yellow and black or purple. The black or purple colour is usually a very dark reddish-brown. There are also varieties where two or more of these colours are expressed as stripes, speckles or blotches. When you grow several colours you can add an additional touch of colour to both your tomato patch and your dinner table.
The main considerations when choosing tomato seed are where you live, the space you have and how you use your tomatoes. Bearing these factors in mind will help you to eliminate varieties that don’t suit your needs. This can save you disappointment.
In all of this, I have not mentioned taste, for a very good reason: only you can decide what tastes good. If you grow several varieties you and your family can choose what they like. The following year, grow your favourites and one or two more. Choose the best from them.
A word of warning: you may get hooked on testing heirloom tomatoes. They all look so interesting, tempting. I speak from personal experience.