How to choose tomato plants


Wow. A forecast for nearly 90 degrees on Mothers’ Day! Public opinion is divided about our heat wave, but tomato plants love it. And a lot of mothers love tomato plants.

Maybe your mother would like one in a big pot. Or she might want you to dig up a place to plant several, so she can sample a few of the zillion tomato varieties now on the market.

If so, your tomato shopping task will not be simple. Choosing tomato plants at a nursery has become like trying to choose wine at a zillion-bottle emporium. If someone did a survey, I’ll bet they’d find most non-connoisseur shoppers at the wine emporium feel overwhelmed, confused and ignorant. Ditto average tomato shoppers. And the labels on nursery-grown tomato plants are about as helpful as the ones on wine: not very.

So here are three things to consider before you choose those Mother’s Day tomato plants:


Many of the varieties now available are heirloom tomatoes that have wide differences in flavors. You can drown in contradictory information about which is best, but here’s a pretty comprehensive source about popular varieties that have undergone taste tests.

Heirloom varieties are open pollinated, which means you can save their seeds and plant them and be sure you’ll get exactly the same kind of tomato from those seeds. Hybrid varieties, bred from two or more different parent plants are less predictable. Hybrids have mostly been bred for commercial farmers who prize vigorous growth, tolerance for long shipping distances and shelf lives. Taste is not their highest value.

But hybrid varieties aren’t all slouches in the taste department, and heirloom status doesn’t guarantee good taste. Also, growing conditions like heat and daily hours of sunlight can affect a tomato’s taste too.

Disease resistance

Tomatoes are vulnerable to a variety of diseases. Two are soil-borne fungal diseases – fusarium wilt and verticillium wilt – that will not only wreck your plants but infect your soil. You won’t be able to grow tomatoes in that infected soil for several years. All tomato plant labels should include information about disease resistance, but some don’t. Here’s a good geeky guide.

Time to harvest

We have a relatively short growing season, and fortunately pretty much all tomato plant labels will say how many days they take to mature. The range is generally from about 60 to 80 days. Most of the popular heirloom varieties take 70-80 days, which means you probably won’t get tomatoes until late August or even September. For an especially delicious tomato, that might be worth the wait. But you might also want to plant an earlier variety so you’re not tomato-starved until Labor Day.

Days to maturity also depend on the weather – the more sun the better, as long as it doesn’t get much over 90 for a prolonged period. The quality of the soil and faithful watering also matter.


Sun-warmed tomatoes, fresh from the garden, are the apex of summer eating.

But some mothers (and others) want to can them, juice them, freeze them, or dry them. They might want to preserve enough for the whole winter. So they might choose tomato plants that bear the heaviest crop. This is another trait that labels don’t always mention, but hybrids may have an edge.

How to shop

You can do all the research in the world and still get confused when you shop, so stay flexible. Research may just prepare you to make better-informed impulse purchases.

I intended to buy one Cherokee Purple and one variety that ripens earlier. But alas, they were out of Cherokee Purple. Even after reading and talking to friends, I was a little risk-averse about trying another heirloom, since I couldn’t remember which ones had which failings.

So instead I bought a Big Boy Beefsteak because a smart friend recommended it. I’ve always liked beefsteak tomatoes with slices as big as a piece of bread. They’re tasty and perfect for sandwiches.

I also bought an Early Girl – a disease resistant hybrid – which is both quite early and productive over a long season. It’s an ordinary tomato, flavor-wise, but ordinary is fine with me. And it’s the right size to match a slice of mozzarella in a Caprese salad.

With a Big Boy and an Early Girl, I also achieved gender balance. I was ready to go home.

But then my eye fell on a Sungold – a pale orange, very sweet cherry tomato. I swear it leapt into my arms. This is the best snacking tomato on the planet, and one plant is enough to satisfy everyone on my block.

A note about Mother’s Day

Honoring our mothers this Sunday is a cultural rule. But this can be a fraught holiday, clouded by troubled relationships and old grievances. All us mothers are imperfect, some spectacularly so.

But Mother’s Day can be a day of acceptance, and of turning over new leaves. We can’t change the past, but we can all do better in the future.

Like tomatoes, we can grow.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers, and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com 


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