There are over 6,000 cultivated varieties of tomatoes, according to a New York Magazine article, and my garden isn’t big enough for all of them.
Last year’s tomato crop was problematic. When I was planning it, my cheapskates were on thin ice, and I decided to reuse extra seeds that had accumulated over the past few years rather than buy new ones. We had a lot of old seeds kicking around. I planted four flats worth, with sprinklings of about a dozen or so varieties, and then accidentally mixed them all up.
The seeds were up to six or seven years old, and I never expected them all to sprout, but they did, and they all grew vigorously. I wound up with over a hundred viable seedlings. I didn’t know their varieties until after they fruited, and wound up with a very large number of bland yellow cherry tomatoes. A little tedious.
I always have too many seedlings because I never have the heart to kill anybody, which is to the great detriment of my gardening life. One lesson I’m learning, though, is that the best gardeners are all ruthless murderers. Like, my mother-in-law has gorgeous gardens. If a plant even looks at her the wrong way, she’ll yank it. Even if it’s perfectly healthy, if it’s the wrong color, it’s out on the street. I, on the other hand, will often keep a plant around for years after it’s inarguably dead. My gardens tend to be awful, as a result. Hers are stunning.
Good gardeners pull weeds, water plants, add soil amendments, do soil testing, methodically mulch, and so on. I mostly just turn things loose and let Darwinian law rule. Miraculously, I still get a lot of good food from my admittedly haphazard garden, though it looks a chaotic mess. Every year I resolve to try harder and get more out of it. Maybe this year, I will.
So, I’m looking towards this upcoming spring, hoping to be more methodical and focused, and carefully over-researching varieties. This year, I will kill. But what’s the right number of tomato plants?
Always the source of helpful information, various respectable sites on the Internet estimate that I can expect between 5 and 80 lbs of yield per plant. And of course, some plants will befall some tragic circumstance and won’t yield anything at all. That means, I will just squeeze in as many varieties as I can into the garden, with duplications of the ones I care most about.
My chickens happily eat any extras or duds, and seeds are cheap, so an excess of fruit isn’t a problem. I will likely devote two 4x8 beds and a 20’ long stretch of fence to them. Figuring that each tomato plant needs 3 square feet, I can fit about 24 plants. Most varieties, I want two or three of, but some freak ones that I just grow for shock value, one will be fine. Call it a dozen or so varieties. There’s another optional stretch of fence that I can use too, in case I get carried away.
I like growing indeterminate varieties up the fence. Indeterminate tomatoes grow infinitely, like a vine; determinate ones grow until they reach a polite shape and then stop. For some reason, there seems to be a correspondence between better flavor and indeterminate varieties.
Anyhow, the fence provides an easy support, as opposed to those awful wire cages I picked up from the dump years ago. Someday, maybe I’ll make a tomato teepee so that the vines can climb higher.
Narrowing the 6,000 varieties down to 12 is tough, and I’m embroiled in the very painful process of decision-making regarding which ones to get. My process was to search about half a dozen Web sites listing of various like-minded-yet-respectable experts’ favorites, organize them into a large master list, and look at which duplications occur. Then, I checked this list against what seems to be a wonderful source of tomatoes, Tomatofest.com, which has a huge variety and good descriptions and photos of them. This will be my first time ordering from Tomatofest, but I have high hopes that they will be excellent.
My order of priorities is as follows:
- Diversity (i.e., I want wide variety in the collection)
- Size (which is really about function in the kitchen, but I generally have better luck with smaller tomatoes)
- Likelihood of success (my chickens adore even cracked tomatoes, so this is a little negotiable)
- Heirloom status
- Freak value
In the past, we’ve particularly enjoyed Yellow Pears, tiny current tomatoes, and Green Zebras, but have had bad luck with larger tomatoes cracking. I want more medium-sized tomatoes this year, and I’m interested in some of the Russian black varieties.
Here’s my current shopping list, all of which are available at Tomatofest:
- Red Currant: Piccolo
- Red Cherry/Pear: Gardeners’ Delight, Austin's Red Pear
- Orange Small: Flamme
- Yellow Cherry, Pear: Yellow Pear, Blondkopfchen
- Red Plum: Carmello
- Black Plum: Black Zebra
- Green Big: Green Zebra
- Red Big: Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter
- Purple Big: Cherokee Purple
- Black Big: Black Krim
- Yellow Big: Aunt Gertie’s Gold
- Yellow/Red Bi-Color Big: Gold Medal
Since posting this, I've had a number of recommendations come my way about people's favorites. Please post yours below! But I'll maintain an addendum list for those who don't post directly.
- Amish Paste
- Cuor di Bue
- Paul Robeson
- Mr. Stripey (aka Tigerella)