The Quest For The Best Tomato

Tomatoes have long been America’s most-planted garden vegetable. But with a dizzying array of hundreds of named varieties, which are the best?

For most of us, the top criteria for the “best” tomato is taste. And it must be decent size and ripening timely for our region. How should a tomato taste? That’s hard to describe. Sometimes it’s called an “old-fashioned tomato flavor” (that doesn’t really pin it down either.) One description of how a tomato should taste might be to describe it as “anything that’s opposite the flavor of store-bought tomatoes.”

Tomato taste will always be very subjective, based on individual taste buds. Taste is further complicated because it can depend on growing conditions. A great-tasting tomato variety can turn bland during a too-cool summer.

We should realize these differences, whenever one of us gardeners swear that our favorite tomato is THE best, and everyone else should get up to speed. This is often the case when debating heirloom varieties versus hybrid varieties.

Hybrid tomatoes were first developed in 1945 with the Burpee Hybrid variety. Hybrids are formed when two parents are cross-pollinated to combine the desired characteristics of both. Hybrids occur in nature when bees travel between plants. Hybridization is a natural process, except humans select which parents to cross-pollinate.

Open-pollinated tomatoes are any varieties that weren’t formed by intentional hybridization.

Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated varieties that generally existed before the development of hybrids, generally before about World War II.

Hybrids vs. Heirlooms – This makes for interesting conversation, but it’s really personal preference. Neither can be called a healthier alternative than the other. Some people feel heirlooms have better flavor, others don’t. Some hybrids have greater disease resistance. Some heirloom varieties are late for our growing season. It’s fun to try some of each and decide for yourself which tomato variety is your own “best.”

Some recommended tomato varieties: 

  • NDSU recommends the following for 2018 – Hybrids: Big Beef, Early Girl, Celebrity, Goliath, Mountain Fresh Plus, Roma, Viva Italia Roma. Heirlooms: Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Striped German, Stupice, Wisconsin 55.
  • My own personal favorites: Sheyenne, Cannonball, Big Beef, Celebrity, Parks Whopper, Beefy Boy, Fantastic, Mountain Fresh.

Notes when checking variety descriptions:

  • check the days to maturity: early varieties are 45 to 60 days; main season are 60 to 78 days; late tomatoes are 80 to 110 days. These are the days from transplanting starter plants into the garden, not the dates from seeding. These are general guidelines to categorize varieties as early, mid, or late-season. Actual days depend greatly on warmth of growing season.
  • indeterminate or determinate: determinate types have a bush-habit and tend to consolidate most of their fruit ripening in mid-summer, which is helpful for canning, since ripening isn’t strung out as far. Indeterminate types continue to produce longer vines throughout the season, often requiring staking and fruit ripening is less consolidated.

Happy Gardening!