It's time to buy your tomato plants! But what's with all the crazy terminology and what does it mean? The major tomato terms describe growth habit, genetic history, and fruit type. Whether your garden is sprawling, smallish, or in pots, you can find the right tomato for you by understanding these terms.
Open-Pollinated (OP) vs. Hybrid (F1)
These two terms indicate how the tomatoes were bred to begin with, and what you can do with the seeds saved from these plants. Open-pollinated types have been in existence for long enough that the parent plant will have the same characteristics as the child, which takes at least ten generations. The seed is considered "stable" or "true to type." If you save the seeds from this tomato, you can be sure that the plant that grows from this seed will be the same. The term "heirloom" refers to open-pollinated plants that have been handed down from generation to generation, or that pre-date WWII.
Hybrid plants often have the label "F1" following the name, which is short for "first filial generation." Hybrids are an intentional cross between two types of parent tomato plants so that the resulting child has characteristics of each. They are often bred this way for disease resistance, smaller sizing, thicker skins, or other features desirable for mass production. Flavor is not often a goal when hybridizing tomatoes, which is why some people feel that open-pollinated plants are superior.
UNRELATED BUT IMPORTANT TO KNOW: "Hybrid" does not equal "GMO." Hybrid plants could happen in nature on their own via regular pollen transference, although they are happening with human intervention and intention. GMO plants (and there are no GMO tomato seeds on the market in the U.S. at this point) are made by scientifically activating/deactivating/splicing genes in an existing plant to produce seeds with those genetic changes. The changes made could not randomly happen on their own via the regular processes of nature. So don't run away screaming from a plant labeled "hybrid," unless that plant is also trying to eat your leg, or wants to engage in a heated discussion of the 2016 presidential election.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate
Growth habit is described by these two terms, and your choice in this department can make a big difference when placed in the garden. Determinate plants only grow to a certain height, and their fruits generally ripen around the same time. They don't need any pruning and don't need a lot of staking or caging to stay upright. They are the perfect option for a small gardens, container gardening, or for gardeners that want a large crop harvested at once for canning or processing.
Indeterminate plants, on the other hand, will continue to grow and produce fruit until the cold weather sets in. The up to ten foot (yikes!) vines need to be well trellised to stay off the ground and they should be pruned to have only three main growing stems. Most heirloom types are indeterminate, so buying a dozen heirloom tomato plants for a 3' x 3' plot isn't the best plan.
Slicer, Beefstead, Sauce, Salad, Cherry, Grape, Blah Blah Blah....
There are lots of fun descriptions for tomato shape and size, and they are mostly intuitive.
Slicers and beefsteaks are the medium to large juicy tomatoes that are great for sandwich toppings and platters. Cherry, grape, and saladette tomatoes are the small guys good for popping into your mouth, or making bruschetta and salad toppings. And sauce tomatoes have less liquid and meatier flesh that makes them good options for canning or cooking. It's nice to have some of each type, if you have the space, but let's face it - a fresh home grown tomato is delicious and can be used in whatever way you choose.
Great, so now what do I buy?
First, consider the size of your garden and/or containers. If you are working with a smaller space and plan on planting tomatoes in the same soil every year, you might consider working mostly with hybrid determinate plants. They will be bred for resistance to common tomato diseases, like Fusarium and Verticillium wilts, which will be indicated by an "F" or "W" on the plant tag. Those diseases tend to stick around in the soil once they appear. They also won't get too large and overtake your small plot. If gardening in containers, be aware that indeterminate types will need a 10 gallon pot, while determinate types can grow in 5 gallon containers. Look for varieties referred to as "dwarf," "patio," or "balcony" for even smaller space use.
But don't let a small space stop you from growing one big mother tomato plant. It's fun, it's a talking point when you tour your friends through your garden, and you'll figure out very quickly whether or not you are the resourceful trellis builder type. I suck at that, and invariably walk out in my yard in August to find that an earthquake has struck just my tomato plot. Whatever, I just keep trying and maybe I will get better at it someday. (No, I will not.)
And now, I know you're dying to ask "Laura, what are you planting this year?" Good thing I have a blog and can answer that question in great detail in my next post!
As always, thanks for reading. You're a real peach. Or a real tomato!
I am Laura; lover of plants, fan of words, drinker of wine, practitioner of yoga, planner of schemes, and conductor of the family crazy train, Check here for gardening fun, harvest recipes, yoga philosophy, and whatever else I love to write about.