Tomatoes – more varieties than Heinz! Time to get sowing

There is nothing quite like the taste of a sun ripened tomato fresh from the vine, plus tomatoes are a good source of Vitamins A, C and E and they contain minerals such as potassium and calcium. Recent research has also shown that the pigment lycopene, (the chemical that makes ripe tomatoes red) may be effective in protecting the body against heart disease and some forms of cancer.
Did you know that there are over 3,000 recognised varieties of Tomato and about 1500 of these are currently grown somewhere in the world? Is it any wonder then, that it can be a bit baffling knowing which one to choose to grow at home.
Why am I telling you this now? Because February is the right time to sow some varieties of tomato if you have a propagator or just a warm window sill (although, if you don’t have a greenhouse, think about where your seedlings are going to go before they get planted outside, as tomatoes can’t tolerate any frost). Not all varieties need to go in this early, but as many take up to 6 months to start fruiting, if you want to be picking your own tomatoes in July you’ll need to start now.
So how to choose which tomatoes to grow? First thought, are they going to be indoor or outdoor? If it’s outdoor a prime factor has to be disease resistance, especially to blight.
Then, think about size and flavour and what you are going to use them for, e.g. salad or cooking? Do you want classic round salad tomatoes which are usually easy to grow and versatile, but maybe have a shorter cropping period – good for salads, grilling, frying and baking. Cherry tomatoes that are, as the name suggests, small, but often have a more intense flavour, long cropping season and sometimes heavier yield and are good for salads and cooking. Then there are the Plum and baby Plum tomatoes with their oval shape and denser, less watery flesh making them good for cooking especially for sauces or pasta dishes. Or finally, the ones to impress your friends and neighbours with, the Beef tomato. These are the heavy weights of the tomato world, much bigger than other tomatoes, making them good for stuffing or baking whole or just for showing off!
So now you’ve narrowed the field to just a few hundred ….. I have a few recommendations based on nothing scientific and solely on my experience of trying few varieties over the last few years.
Salad Tomatoes: You could do worse than some old favourites that have been popular with amateur gardeners for many years, such as: “Ailsa Craig”, “Shirley” and “Alicante”. In a good year these will give you a reasonable crop of medium sized, well flavoured, round, red tomatoes and you can grow them indoors or outside. Sadly though, they are not as resistant to disease as some of the more modern varieties and I have lost crops to both mosaic virus and tomato blight (which is caused by the same fungal infection as potato blight, so don’t grow your tomatoes and potatoes near to one another). For outdoor growing one of the most blight resistant tomatoes is a fairly new cultivar, “Crimson Crush” (and “Crimson Blush”) a large round red tomato. Slightly less resistant but usually reliable “Ferline” has a really good flavour and produces heavy crops of large tomatoes indoors or outside. Another relatively new variety “Mountain Magic” claims to be totally resistant to blight and a number of other diseases, but seed for this can be hard to come by and I haven’t tried this one yet.
Cherry Tomatoes – Reliable red cherry tomatoes include “Sweet Aperitif”, “Sweet Millions”, “Red Alert”, “Garnet” and old favourite “Gardeners Delight”. For orange/yellow cherry tomatoes, little can beat another well-known variety “Sungold” which has great flavour. However I tried some of the coloured variations of this popular tomato over the last couple of years and was not impressed by Sun Chocolate, Sun lemon, Sun Peach and Sun Cherry, which were not especially well flavoured and didn’t produce great crops. I personally don’t like the black cherry tomatoes such as “Black Opal” as it can be difficult to judge when they are properly ripe and the skins have been tough.
For outdoor tomatoes in hanging baskets or containers “Tumbling Tom”, “Losetto” and “Lizzano” are good choices.
Baby plum tomatoes have probably seen the most new varieties coming onto the market over the last few years and there are a huge number to choose from, including many in novelty colours like black, pink, orange, striped and even purple. “Apero” is a reliable glossy small red plum tomato much favoured by supermarkets and “Roma” which is similar also performs well. I’ve also tried the Artisan Bumble Bee range which have attractive striped fruit in a variety of colours, but these didn’t crop well for me, had little taste and tough skins. Probably the only one of the ‘novelty’ tomatoes I have found successful is “Rosella” which is an unusual dark red tomato with dark purple ‘shoulders’ it yielded well and had a great taste, but the skin is a bit thick, so prone to splitting if there’s any inconsistency in watering. A yellow baby plum tomato that does well and produces masses of fruit is Ildi.
Now to the big boys, the Beef or Beefsteak Tomatoes, I have to confess that I am not that fond of these although I have grown the old fashioned “Marmande” which I have never found do very well or taste of anything much, in our unreliable English summers, but you could try a more modern version of this “Tomande” which is reportedly much improved and bred to thrive in our cooler climate. I did try “Costolucco di Fiorentino” which are a sort of ridged, super-sized tomato. Although these grew well and produced lots of tomatoes they were fairly lacking in taste and I think probably better suited to their Mediterranean origins.
To coin a cliché, “this is to name but a few” of the tomatoes out there, so maybe grow something that you know works for you and then try out one or two new choices this year. Happy Growing.