There are thousands of tomato varieties available for home gardeners. From color, shape and size to determinate vs indeterminate and heirloom vs hybrid, choosing tomatoes to grow is exciting and fun but potentially overwhelming and certainly not one-size-fits all. The key to getting it right lies in finding tomato varieties that suit both the growing conditions of your garden and who you are as a gardener, cook and tomato eater. If you’re a beginner to growing tomatoes, this guide will help you make the best choices for your garden.
What are the Different Types of Tomatoes?
Before you choose specific varieties, there are two distinctions between types of tomatoes that are helpful to understand: determinate vs indeterminate and hybrid vs heirloom.
Determinate VS Indeterminate Tomatoes
Tomato plant varieties are categorized by their growth habit - some have a vine-like growth habit (indeterminate) while others have a bush-like growth habit (determinate).
Most tomato plants have an indeterminate, or vining, growth-habit. This means that the plant will continue growing, and setting new flowers and fruit, for the entire length of the growing season, until they are killed off by frost or disease. Indeterminate tomatoes:
- Ripen a few at a time over the entire growing season.
- Have more foliage relative to fruit, which makes them more flavorful.
- Grow to be about 6-10 feet tall.
- Generally require pruning.
- Need some sort of support like cages, stakes or trellis.
A small number of tomato varieties have a determinate, or bush-like, growth habit. These plants grow to a predetermined size, with a certain number of fruit, then stop growing and the fruit ripens. Therefore they have a short harvest window. Determinate tomatoes:
- Ripen “all at once,” which generally means over a period of 2-3 weeks.
- Grow to be about 3-4’ tall.
- Have more fruit relative to foliage, which can often mean less flavor.
- Do not require pruning, which will reduce yields.
- May not need staking or caging at all.
Should you Grow Indeterminate or Determinate Tomatoes?
Choose indeterminate tomatoes if:
- You want to have fresh tomatoes for most of the growing season for snacking, slicing, sandwiches and salads.
- You don’t have the time or inclination to process or can your tomatoes at the end of the season.
- You have plenty of space in your garden and are willing to install supports and prune regularly.
- You are growing tomatoes primarily for flavor, fun or an interest in the history of heirlooms.
- You have a long growing season with plenty of time for tomatoes of all types to mature before frost.
Choose determinate tomatoes if:
- You’re limited on space, you want compact plants that do well in containers.
- You want lower maintenance plants throughout the season that don’t require regular pruning or training up trellises or other structures.
- You don’t have the time to put towards installing or maintaining the structures needed for indeterminate tomatoes.
- Your goals are to preserve your tomato harvest in an effort to increase self-sufficiency.
- You have a short growing season and want plants that mature quickly.
Heirloom VS Hybrid
Tomato varieties can also be categorized by the level of human intervention involved in their development.
Heirloom tomato varieties are those that have been grown over generations (often understood to be a period of at least 50 years) as farmers and gardeners have saved seeds from their favorite tomato plants to grow again the next year. Heirlooms are:
- “Open pollinated.” This means that you can save seeds from heirloom tomatoes and when you plant them the following year the seeds will produce the same variety of tomato.
- Chosen over time by gardeners primarily because of their flavor, color and shape, history and tradition, or suitability for local climate.
Hybrid tomatoes are the result of botanists and serious tomato growers deliberately crossing different varieties of tomatoes with the intention of producing new varieties that combine some specific characteristics of the original plants, using hand pollination. Hybrids:
- Are not open pollinated. You can save seeds from hybrid tomato varieties and plant them the following year - but the seeds will not produce the same variety of tomato as the plant they came from. If you want to grow hybrid tomatoes, you will have to buy new seeds every year.
- Hybrids are not GMOs. GMO seeds are not available to be purchased by home gardeners. All modern tomato plants are the result of some level of human intervention, even heirloom varieties would not exist if not for gardeners saving seeds from their favorite and most successful tomato plants. Hybrid varieties are distinguished from heirlooms by more deliberate intervention with the intention to create varieties with specific characteristics.
- Hybrids were initially created in response to the heirlooms that were available in the early 20th century. Hybridizers sought to improve upon existing heirloom varieties for things like disease resistance but also traits that make varieties more suitable for commercial agriculture, shipping and sale - like uniformity of size and shape. In general, taste is not a priority for hybrid tomatoes.
Which Tomato Varieties are Right for You?
Now that you know the difference between hybrids and heirlooms, determinate and indeterminate, there are two questions you should ask yourself before choosing tomato varieties:
- What are the growing conditions of my garden?
- Who am I as a gardener, cook and tomato eater?
What are your Growing Conditions?
You want to make sure the tomato varieties you choose suit the growing conditions of your garden. Some aspects of your garden space may limit the kinds of tomatoes you are able to grow successfully. The three most important elements of your garden that influence the sort of tomatoes that will grow well for you are:
- The length of your growing season
How much Light does your Garden Get?
Tomatoes need at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day, ideally more. You want to put your tomatoes in the sunniest location of your garden space.
If all you have is full shade, you won’t be able to grow tomatoes. If all you have is part-sun, tomatoes won’t thrive, but you may be able to get away with growing some smaller tomatoes - like cherry, grape or very small slicers suited to cold climates.
Consider not only how much light you get, but where the best light is. Your sunniest spot might be on a deck or driveway or a narrow side-yard. In this case, growing tomatoes in pots, grow bags or raised beds might be your best option. Unless you have very large pots or raised beds, the best tomatoes to grow in pots are determinate varieties and smaller types like cherry or small-medium slicers.
How much Space do you Have?
How much space a tomato plant takes depends on the tomato type and how you are growing them, but in general tomato plants should be planted between 18-36” apart in rows 24-36” apart.
If you have an enormous space you can grow as many tomatoes of any variety as you want using any staking method that appeals to you.
On the other hand, if your space is limited, you may need to get creative if you want to fit in more than a few tomatoes:
- Growing your tomatoes in pots is a great solution if your space consists only of a balcony, patio or driveway. Stick to determinate varieties and smaller tomato types to avoid pots toppling over, constant watering and elaborate supports.
- If you’ve got a small growing space but want to grow a lot of tomatoes, consider choosing indeterminate tomatoes planted closely together (as close as 12” apart) and heavily pruned up stakes or a larger trellis structure. This method is great for if you want big tomato harvests or if you want to grow one each of a wide range of tomato varieties and it works with all sizes of tomatoes from cherries to beefsteaks.
How Long is your Growing Season?
The length of your growing season determines the tomatoes that will reach maturity before it’s too cold for tomato plants to survive. If you have a long season you can reliably grow any type of tomato, including the late-to-mature purple and black varieties and the largest beefsteaks available.
If you live in a cold climate, your choices will be more limited. To be sure you are growing a variety that will have time to mature in your garden, make sure its “days to maturity” do not exceed the length of your growing season. Here’s how to do that:
Match your Growing Season to your tomatoes "days to maturity."
- Start by figuring out how long your growing season is. Find both the last expected frost date in spring and the first expected frost date in fall for your area. Count the number of days in between those two dates and that is the length of your growing season.
Keep in mind that not all of these days will be ideal for tomato plants to be outside. Tomato plants prefer nighttime temperatures to be at least 10C (50F) and daytime temperatures to be no more than 30C (86F). If you have long cool springs (often the case in coastal areas, for instance) you may want to subtract a few weeks from your growing season, to be safe.
- Then, match the length of your growing season to the “days to maturity” listed on the seed packet or website page of the varieties you are interested in. Choose only varieties that fit within or, even better, are a few weeks shorter than the length of your season.
Getting the timing right can be confusing, so check out a more in-depth guide to calculating when to start your seeds and when to transplant warm season crops, like tomatoes.
Days to maturity generally refers to the number of days from when you transplant your seedlings in the ground to when you can expect ripe tomatoes (not from the day a seed is planted or germinates). This means that, if you are starting your tomatoes from seed, you need to add the time it takes to grow your seeds into seedlings (about 6 weeks) to the total days to maturity, to know when to start the seeds.
Take a Shortcut
If you want to skip figuring all that out or are worried you’ll make a mistake, take a few shortcuts to make sure you choose tomatoes you’ll have time to grow successfully:
- If you have a short season, stick with very early-maturing varieties (often between 55 and 65 days to maturity). Early-maturing varieties tend to be on the smaller side, either small slicers or cherry and grape varieties.
- Grow the most popular tomato varieties that other gardeners in your area grow. Ask gardeners in your neighborhood what varieties they grow, find out what varieties were growing in your grandparents or great grandparents gardens or check out small local seed companies and find which ones they list as their most popular or productive varieties.
Who are you as a Gardener, Cook and Tomato Eater?
This might seem like a silly question, but I think it’s an important and commonly overlooked consideration when deciding what to grow as a beginner gardener. You can learn to grow tomatoes, but you won’t truly feel like you’ve succeeded unless the tomatoes you grow get used.
How do you plant to use your Tomatoes?
Different types of tomatoes - cherry, plum, slicers, stuffing, beefsteaks - are suited to different uses in the kitchen, so think about how you like to eat and cook with tomatoes and the sorts of recipes you tend to make with them. Will you be canning tomatoes to use as sauces, chutneys or salsas? Or will you be eating them mostly fresh as snacks, tossed in salads or sliced on sandwiches or toasts? Make sure you grow the tomato varieties that are best suited to your favorite ways of eating and cooking with tomatoes so it is easy for you to make use of them as they ripen.
If you want to grow tomatoes for canning and preserving, opt for:
- Plum or sauce-type tomatoes like Amish paste or San Marzano.
- Hybrid determinate tomato varieties with smooth skins and uniform sizes that will ripen all at once for canning projects like early girl or big boy.
- High yield varieties that produce a lot of fruit relative to foliage.
If you prefer to eat your tomatoes fresh, cooked or raw, think about what each type of tomato is best for:
- Small cherry or grape tomatoes - like Sungold or black cherry - are perfect for snacking straight off the vine or anything that involves “tossing in a few tomatoes” like salads or pastas. They also make a great addition to kebabs or pan sauces for chicken or fish. Go for heirloom varieties with interesting colors, patterns and shapes.
- Medium to large slicers and beefsteaks - like Brandywine or Cherokee purple - are great for eating fresh in sandwiches or tomato toasts or breakfasts or for soups.
- Plum or Roma tomatoes - like San Marzano - are good for fresh pasta sauces or soups.
- Raw preparations like salads, sandwiches, toasts and appetizers are a great opportunity to show off the beautiful or unusual colors and shapes of heirloom varieties - like green zebra or Costoluto Genovese.
- Stuffing varieties, like striped cavern, have somewhat hollow interiors are best for recipes that involve stuffing and baking tomatoes.
What Motivates and Excites you about Gardening?
In other words, what are your goals for your garden; why do you want to grow tomatoes?
Gardening is a joy. But it can sometimes be overwhelming. Garden burnout is a common annual occurrence for even the most enthusiastic of gardeners that often occurs mid-late summer - exactly when tomatoes need regular attention for pruning, tying up supports and extra watering.
You want to grow things that will keep you excited and motivated to get out in the garden every day and put in the work required to care for them.
Think about what will keep you excited throughout the season and make you feel like your first few years of growing tomatoes have been a success. This should influence the types and varieties of tomatoes you grow.
For some people this might be any number of practical considerations. Maybe you’re mostly concerned with growing as many tomatoes as you can to feed your family or produce a lot of canned goods and preserves. Maybe you hope to develop over time the skills you will need to move towards self-sufficiency. Maybe you are looking primarily for ease; to grow tomatoes with as little effort as possible.
If this is the case, you want varieties that are reliable, prolific and disease resistant with uniform shape and size.
- Choose hybrid varieties and/or heirloom varieties that are known to be big producers in your area.
- Grow determinate varieties, including plum or sauce tomatoes, so you will have large harvests to can or process all at once.
- Consider planting varieties with a range of days to maturity - so you have both early and late season tomatoes for fresh eating.
Another practical consideration is ease. Maybe you just want to grow tomatoes with as little effort as possible. But what will be easiest for you depends on a number of factors and involves tradeoffs. For instance, growing determinate tomatoes will save you time because they require minimal staking and pruning over the growing season, but because they ripen all at once, they require more time and energy at harvest to make sure nothing gets wasted. Indeterminate tomatoes require significant staking and regular pruning and tying up throughout the growing season, but there isn’t the same pressure or rush to use them all at once at the end of the season.
For other people the motivation to garden is more about the magic than the practical. Maybe you just want to grow a few tomatoes for fun. Maybe you want to grow beautiful or unusual looking varieties you’ve never seen before or experience tomato flavors you can’t find at a grocery store.
If this is the case:
- Go with heirloom varieties.
- Choose a variety of colors.
- Grow some varieties with bicolors or stripes or try to grow the biggest beefsteak variety you can find. Try some unusually shaped lobed or oxheart varieties.
- Focus on flavor. Ask local gardeners what was the best tasting tomato. Read through local seed companies descriptions to find which ones are known for their flavor.
Tomato Color and Flavor
There is some debate as to whether the color of a tomato tells you something about its flavor. Those who think color and flavor are related suggest that:
- Red tomatoes have a strong and acidic flavor.
- Purple, blue or black tomatoes tend to have a richer, more “savory,” salty and sometimes smoky flavor.
- Cherry tomatoes tend to be extra sweet.
- Yellow and orange tomatoes are sweet and mild with notes of tropical fruit.
- White tomatoes have a very mild flavor.
In my experience, these descriptions are pretty accurate. However, taste is subjective, and the flavor of your tomatoes will depend somewhat on the weather and how you grow and harvest them. Try growing a wide range of colors and see for yourself what you like best.
Growing your tomatoes from seed rather than seedlings? I’ve got a full guide to all of the basics of starting vegetable seeds indoors.
Some of my Favorite Tomato Varieties
No list of “best tomato varieties” will tell you which ones you’ll love to eat or will thrive in your garden. But if you’re looking for some examples of tomatoes that have worked well for another gardener, these are some of the best tomato varieties I have grown over 10 years of vegetable gardening:
Hybrid. Indeterminate. Medium Slicers. 55 days to maturity.
prolific, uniform shape with smooth skins and relatively early to mature. The flavor is good, but not a standout.
Heirloom. Indeterminate. Large slicer/small beefsteak. 80 days to maturity.
These pink tomatoes with stunning blue-black shoulders might be the best tasting tomato I’ve ever grown. Because of their red bottoms it’s easier to tell when they are ripe than other black varieties. The plants take a while to ripen in my zone 5b coastal garden and they tend to produce fewer tomatoes than other varieties.
Heirloom. Indeterminate. Plum. 75-80 days to maturity.
Some of the most beautiful healthy lush tomato plants I’ve ever seen. These have a heavy fruit set and are the best tasting plum or Roma tomato variety I’ve grown. Often listed as indeterminate, but they seem to have a bush-habit and only grow to about 3’ in my garden.
Heirloom. Indeterminate. Beefsteak. 80 days to maturity.
This bright orange-yellow tomato with a deeply-lobed shape is the biggest and one of the most beautiful tomatoes I’ve ever grown. It has a great flavor that’s mild, sweet and slightly reminiscent of tropical fruit. It takes a long time to ripen and is prone to cracking and catfacing because of its irregular size and shape.
Heirloom. Indeterminate. Stuffing. 75-80 days to maturity.
These red fruits with orange stripes and an unusual bell-pepper-like shape grow on incredibly prolific and healthy plants with heavy cascades of tomatoes. Maybe the most prolific tomato I’ve grown. The flavor is too mild for my taste, but the largely hollow shape and texture is perfect for stuffed tomato recipes.
Heirloom. Indeterminate. Cherry. Mid-late season.
I’ve yet to find a cherry tomato I really love, but these bright yellow tomatoes are my favorite so far. A lot of cherry tomatoes can be very sweet, which isn’t my thing. These have a nice flavor balance between sweetness and acidity.