How do you choose which tomatoes to plant? If you’re me, you go to the nursery, see what seedlings they have, and get one of everything that sounds good, with double points for varieties with amusing names. Between the Green Zebras, Purple Bumble Bees, and Chocolate Sprinkles, my tomato patch is starting to sound like Willy Wonka’s kitchen garden.
A little boy who lives down the street saw me planting tomatoes and stopped to tell me about the tomato plant his family grew last summer. He informed me that you have to wait until the tomatoes are red before you pick them, that when the tomatoes are green they aren’t ripe yet.
I agreed, and then pointed out the Green Zebra tomato, and told him that this plant was different, that the tomatoes on this plant are green when they’re ripe.
He listened, thought about it, and asked, “And they’re red when they’re not ripe yet?”
I love the logic of small children. I told him I don’t think they turn red at all, but that I don’t know what color they are when they’re not ripe yet, that we should both keep an eye on that plant and find out.
I don’t just rely on clever names and descriptions of flavor, of course. I’ve found over the years that my area isn’t quite warm enough for the big tomatoes, so I mostly get the ones with smaller fruit (look for “cherry,” “pear,” “salad,” and “paste” tomatoes.) A good nursery will be able to tell you which varieties will do well in your area (and a great nursery will know which ones do well in your neighborhood).
On principle, I also try to stick to the heirloom and open-pollinated varieties from independent breeders. You can plant the seeds from an OP or heirloom tomato and grow more of the same tomatoes (as long as you’re careful about pollination.) But if the company that breeds your favorite hybrid variety stops selling it, you’re out of luck — you can’t regrow hybrids from saved seeds.
We’re losing seed diversity really fast, and the best way to make sure these varieties survive is to support the people keeping them alive and available. How can you tell? If the tag says F1 or something like that, it’s a hybrid. Unfortunately, some growers neglect to label all their plants, which I discovered only after I’d already bought and planted a few seedlings that turned out to be hybrids. If you do plan to save your tomato seeds (or just want to support open-source growers) look for “heirloom,” “open-pollinated” or “OP,” or ask the nursery to check.