The Types Of Tomatoes Available To You For Edible Landscaping



So many types of tomatoes, so little time! For a real tomato-lover who is learning to grow their own, all the terms can be confusing.

Hopefully, this will help you know what to look for when you're planning your edible garden.

Types of tomatoes by growth pattern

There are two major tomato growth pattern types: determinate and indeterminate.

There is also a type called "dwarf indeterminate" or indeterminate short-internode (ISI), but those are less common.

Determinate tomatoes

Determinates -- otherwise known as bush tomatoes -- are relatively shallow-rooted plants which grow into small bushes.

Each variety grows to a specific height depending on the variety -- they come in all sizes, but generally up to about four feet/1.3 meters tall -- then the plant stops getting any bigger.

Determinates tend to flower early compared to indeterminate types, and they make a set number of flowers (and therefore fruit) each year.

Determinate tomatoes produce a single crop which ripens all at the same time, then the plant is done producing for the year.

It doesn't die back (unless the plant becomes ill or freezes): it just won't make any more flowers that year no matter what you do.

These plants are wonderful for those of you who love canning and preserving, unless of course you plant too many!

Use determinates as hedges, backdrops behind smaller herbs or vegetables (basil, oregano, and carrots are great companion plants), in containers, or anywhere you can grow them in a healthy manner.

Determinate tomato plants need support for their fruit, which depending on the variety can each weigh over two pounds (1 kg)!

Indeterminate tomatoes

Indeterminates are vines, which can grow up to 50 feet in the right climate.

They might flower a bit later than their determinate cousins, but once they reach maturity they continue to flower and fruit as long as conditions are right.

The famous 'tomato tree' at the Epcot Center

In some areas, indeterminates will flower and fruit all year long!

These plants need support for their vines -- consider trellises, cages, or ladders which can be added to as the plant gets taller.

Another nice use for indeterminates is on arbors, fences, pergolas, or gazebos, just like you would use a grapevine. 

The most popular of the indeterminates is the "cherry" tomato, which can be used in hanging baskets of all kinds on a short term basis, or added to trellis containers with vining flowers such as nasturtium, passion flower, or climbing roses.

Indeterminates tend to have deep roots, so if you want to keep one in a container permanently, it will need to hold at least 5 gallons (18 liters) for the plant to stay happy.

Dwarf indeterminates, as their name implies, are really just smaller versions of indeterminate plants. If your climate is very good for tomato growth yet you have limited space, these types of tomatoes might be best for your situation.

Check the information on the particular variety you want in order to see how large it will get.

Types of tomatoes by pollination

There are a lot of labels put on tomatoes which can be confusing. Here are some of the most common types:

Open-pollinated means that the tomato was naturally bred through wind or insects, and wasn't deliberately mixed by hand to get a particular variety.

The trouble with open-pollinated seed is that it may cross with any other nearby tomato variety, giving you different tomatoes than you hoped for. To keep that from happening, you should keep open-pollinated varieties away from other tomato varieties to avoid mixing.

Ways to do this include putting the tomatoes some distance from each other (500 feet/175 meters is recommended), separating them with walls, putting them in a greenhouse, putting small paper, cheesecloth, or tulle bags over the blossom clusters until they set fruit, and so on.

It's easier (I think) to plant one open-pollinated variety at a time in your yard unless you have a huge lot.

Hybrid tomatoes (or F1 tomatoes) are a cross of two different types of tomatoes, whether done deliberately or accidentally in your garden.

Most types of tomatoes in grocery stores are hybrids, deliberately cross-bred for disease resistance or special color or some other such trait. "Celebrity" tomatoes and the "Big Boy" tomato are popular hybrids.

The main things you need to know about commercially purchased hybrid tomato seed is that:

  • assuming it was labeled correctly, you're sure to get the tomato you want -- no surprises
  • the seeds are a known quantity as far as disease resistance, final plant size, tomato characteristics and so on
  • it's very unlikely that commercially grown hybrids will cross with your open-pollinated tomatoes, so they're relatively safe to grow nearby.

If you want to be completely sure (for example, you have a rare heirloom variety that you want to save seed from), put bags over your prized tomato flower clusters until they set fruit so that they won't be wind or insect pollinated by any other plant.

But:

  • if you save the seeds from a hybrid tomato, the tomato that you get probably won't be like the one you took the seeds from. Seed from a hybrid tomato may grow like one of the parents, may grow totally differently, or may not set tomatoes at all.

Saving seeds from hybrid tomatoes is a gamble. I do it all the time because I like to see what I get (and it's a very inexpensive way to have tomato plants all year!), but some experts on growing tomato plants say don't bother. It's up to you.

Hybrid tomatoes are NOT the same as GMO (genetically modified organism) tomatoes. GMO tomatoes are created through gene-splicing in a lab, and may be crossing a tomato with an entirely different species such as a bacteria.

GMO seeds are patented and often deliberately made sterile, so it makes no sense to save the seed even if you wanted to.

Heirloom tomatoes are open-pollinated tomatoes which have been bred for generations.

The exact definition of an heirloom tomato (as far as how old the tomato variety has to be to qualify) is up for some debate, but is generally accepted to mean a tomato variety which is 50 years old or more.

There are no "new" heirloom plants.

The idea is that the tomato variety is stable, so you aren't nearly as likely to get a different tomato than the one you planted as with other open-pollinated tomatoes.

This means that if you save the seed from an heirloom tomato and plant it next year, you'll get the same tomato as you had the year before -- which is a great way to save money.

There have been instances of unscrupulous people labeling any familiar tomato variety (even hybrids) as "heirloom", so double-check the variety to make sure it's what you want.

Do you like the idea of saving your own seed? Did you know that you can make your own types of tomatoes that are suited to your yard and climate?

Suzanne Ashworth's classic book "Seed to Seed" is a great book to learn about doing this. I have it and it's helped me quite a bit.

Types of tomatoes by fruit characteristics

You'll find as many ways to classify the different types of tomatoes as there are gardeners, but this is a simple way to think about tomato fruit:

1) Tiny tomatoes -- 1 1/2 inch (3 cm) or smaller. These types include the "cherry", "currant", small "plum" and "pear" tomatoes.

2) Paste tomatoes (also called plum tomatoes) -- these types are grown for drying, sauces, or processing into paste. They have a large amount of meat and very little juice. The classic paste tomato is "Roma".

3) Salad/slicing tomatoes -- these types range from 2-6 inches (5-15 cm) in diameter and are up to 2 pounds (a bit under 1 kg), tend to be juicy, and have a lot of seeds inside. The smaller ones are used in salads, the larger are sliced for sandwiches. "Brandywine" is a typical slicing tomato.

4) "Giant" tomatoes are larger than 2 pounds (1 kg) and generally have "big shoulders" due to their large internal cavities. "Mortgage Lifter" is a classic giant tomato. These are the types that win contests at county fairs!

Some people put the salad tomatoes in their own category and combine the larger slicing tomatoes and the "giant" tomatoes into a category called "beefsteak" tomato.

How to put tomatoes into your edible landscaping


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