Tomatoes: The Crown Jewels of the Summer Kitchen Garden

The hustle and bustle of getting my vegetable garden planted over the last several weeks came to a halt yesterday (albeit temporarily — gardening never ends) when finally, I got my tomatoes in the ground. After a fun few days spent chasing down favorite plant varieties at local garden centers, I felt a peaceful sense of satisfaction as I dug that last hole in the ground and planted a Green Zebra tomato, scored from Gardens of Babylon at the Farmers Market. That the big planting happened on Earth Day made my gardening day even more special.
vegetable gardens vegetable gardening

This year, I am on a mission to get more than 5-10 tomatoes from each tomato plant. To that end, I chose plant varieties based on flavor, growth habit, success in prior years, and color. I even rebuilt my tomato bed to offer stronger vine support, did a soil test at the Elmington Agriculture Center, and then amended the soil based on the results.

The plants I chose to grow are Cherokee Purples, San Marzanos, Hughs, Bradleys, German Queens, a Mr. Stripey, and a Green Zebra. To see my choices for cherry tomatoes, check out my post, The Full-Bodied Cherry Tomato.

Cherokee Purples (6 plants): Indeterminate. Heirloom. Very sweet and large fruit. Their color is a dusty rose with what looks like purple bruises. When very ripe, and deep purple, they are gushingly good. They are my favorite tomato.
DSC_0107 lake barkley, ky july 4th week

San Marzanos (4 plants): Indeterminate. Heirloom. A meaty, deep red “paste” tomato. They have a thicker flesh and fewer seeds than the regular Roma tomato. They are sweet and low acid. This variety is my favorite for cooking.

Hughs (2 plants): Indeterminate. Heirloom. Strong, sweet flavor and very meaty.  I first tasted this tomato last summer while cooking at The Nashville Food Project. I’ve been lusting for them ever since. I’m grateful TNFP’s Garden Director, Christina Bentrup, saved two young seedlings for me from Project Growa popular Nashville vegetable plant CSA. The tomatoes are pale yellow and large.
TNFP tomatoes IMG_7166

Bradleys (2 plants): Semi-determinate. Heirloom. Fruit is pinkish-red and ranges in size from 7-10 ounces. This was my favorite tomato to grow until I learned about Cherokee Purples. They are sweet with just the right amount of acidity. As with other determinate varieties, they set their fruit and then they are done for the season.

Mr. Stripey (2 plants): Indeterminate. Heirloom. Fruit is large and very sweet. Their color is yellow with pinky-red undertones. These tomatoes are luscious. I love them sliced and in a sandwich. I tend to photograph them a lot!

tomato art vegetable gardening

German Queen (1 plant): Indeterminate. Heirloom. Fruit is sweet and low-acid. They are large and pinky-red with green undertones in the shoulders.  Great for slicing. This photo is from Bonnie Plants

Bush Early Girls (2 plants): Determinate. Hybrid. I planted these just to watch their growth habit. They are advertised as an extra-early variety, compact at 18 inches tall, productive and bred for disease resistance. This photo is from Burpee Seed Company.

Green Zebra (1 plant): Indeterminate. This tomato is the result of four heirlooms bred together. I grow it for its two-tone vertical stripes in shades of green which begin to become slightly pale yellow at maturity. The fruit is small, the flesh is pale green, and the flavor is mild. I grow them to round out my color palette.
tomatoes walkers RI Tomatoes

The Growth Habit of Tomatoes: everything you need to know is on the plant’s label!
IMG_6697 IMG_7195

Determinate & Indeterminate

Simply put, there are two types of growth habits for tomato plants: determinate where the plant bears all of its fruit at one time and indeterminate, where the plant bears fruit all season long right up to the last frost.

Determinate Varieties:
Also known as bush and patio tomatoes, this variety grows on one main trunk to a pre-determined height of two to four feet and sets a finite number of fruit. They should not be pruned. They produce tomatoes for a concentrated time span of four to six weeks and then they are finished for the season. This makes them great for commercial growers who can plan on one harvest for the season.

Indeterminate Varieties:
If you think of indeterminates as vines that need to be staked and pruned, it may help you plan ahead on how you are going to accommodate their unwieldy growth habit. Tomato vines grow like a weed and, left unpruned, will eventually topple over from the weight of their continuously growing stems, leaves, and fruit. I found this picture of my tomato garden taken on June 4, 2012. There are no subsequent photos of this garden. You know what they say; History is written by the victors. This kind of unpruned growth is unsustainable.

vegetable gardens vegetable gardening

Suckers! This brings us to the topic of pruning suckers, those new vines that grow in the crotch of the 90-degree angle formed by new leaf growth off of the main stem. Left unpruned, the new vines that they grow into, can each grow from 3-10 feet, depending on who you talk to! This year, my plan is to snip those suckers. I found an informative article on the topic of pruning tomatoes at Fine Gardening. Check out the article. I’m a believer now that I understand what is going on.
tomato sucker tomato sucker

Heirloom and Hybrid
Heirloom varieties are plants that have been around for at least 50 years and are either open or self-pollinated.

Hybrids are plants that have been bred for disease resistance, heat tolerance, fruit size, and flavor. “F1” on a plant label means it is the first generation of the cross-mating of two different parent plants. The next generation of hybrids will become known as F2, F3, etc. Hybrids that have withstood the test of time can become known as heirlooms after 50 years.

Open-Pollinated or Self-Pollinated
How a flower is pollinated is important to know if you intend to practice seed saving, otherwise, you do not need to consider it when growing tomatoes.

Open-pollinated (OP) flowers require insects or wind to move the pollen from the male to the stigma of the female. Once fertilized, the plant will set fruit in the ovary of the plant.

Self-pollinated flowers have both male and female parts in the same flower and do not need bees to set fruit. They are often referred to as the “perfect” flower. Have you ever noticed how flowers on a tomato plant point down? That’s nature’s way of assuring self-pollination through gravity alone.
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Now for a little tomato joy — last summer, these tomatoes, became a pie! This recipe and hopefully many more will come about once my huge tomato crop starts to roll in!

Tomato Update: May 6



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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

16 thoughts on “Tomatoes: The Crown Jewels of the Summer Kitchen Garden

    1. Me, too! So grateful to Christina for putting aside those 2 Hughs plants and one Black Cherry for me to buy at Project Grow. All six Cherokee Purples came from Project Grow, as well. xo

  1. Cherokee Purple is my favorite tomato above all others. The flavor is not found in any other. Beautiful variety of tomatoes, Judy.

  2. Love the posts on tomatoes! This morning is was 27 cold degrees so it will be a while before any planting happens here.

  3. Well, I did know about pruning suckers (thanks to years of working at 4H camp where we taught things like that) but I didn’t know about all of those varieties. We have cut back on the number of plants that go in the ground. Ours are so prolific that we decided to be realistic about how many tomatoes we actually wanted—enough to eat and cook with and share with daughters, but not so many that we end up throwing them away. Sad to admit I haven’t canned them in ages.

    1. Lordy, Mimi, too many tomatoes is one problem I have never had! When I have a lot of tomatoes I make a sauce and freeze it. Have never tried canning them. Have a nice day!

  4. We live in Pennsylvania and planted our tomato plants last weekend. What????? They are planted in a bed right next to our house so they will stay warm in the evening and they are protected on the other side. Yes, we are crossing our fingers. Will keep you posted. Love your column. Hoping to make your tomato pie early this year.

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