Choosing which tomato varieties to grow is one of my favorite parts of the summer garden most years. When I first started gardening, I grew all my own tomato plants from seeds, indoors, because garden centers offered such a limited selection. Now, though, many more varieties, including some well-known heirlooms, are available. “Starting your own” is no longer essential for gardeners who would like to branch out a little in their tomato patch.
Anyone in the South who is new to gardening and planning to buy just a few plants to get started should look for varieties that are disease resistant. Those will have the letters “VFN” and possibly more letters and numbers somewhere on the plant label.
The presence of the letters VFN is important because the problems the letters stand for — Verticillium Wilt, Fusarium Wilt, and Root Knot Nematode — are commonly present in soils across the whole region. The letter-code shows that the plants can survive and produce food even if those diseases are present in the garden.
Organic gardens have few spray-type options for disease control. Growing some of the disease-resistant varieties means that your garden can be productive even in a “bad” disease year.
If you add in one or two plants that has an unknown record of disease resistance (like many heirlooms), growing the disease resistant plants alongside can improve your chances of getting actual tomatoes.
For me, some of the tried-and-true tomato varieties are ‘Rutgers‘, ‘Park’s Whopper‘, and ‘Better Boy‘. Further South, ‘Homestead‘ is a reliable standard for other gardeners. Newer varieties that I have not yet tried, but that are shown to do well (and be delicious!) in the South are in the Mountain series — ‘Mountain Merit‘, ‘Mountain Pride’, and ‘Mountain Spring’ are in the group.
I am a normal sort of gardener, one who is pretty easily seduced by seed-catalog descriptions of plants, so I have grown many different tomato varieties mixed in with the tried-and-true, disease-resistant varieties. For most of them, I have kept actual written records. An abbreviated list of tomato varieties I’ve grown is below, to give you an idea of how the experimenting has gone in my yard.
Here’s the list:
Brandywine—The tomato that so many people love, dies in my yard.
Mr. Stripey—Dies in my yard.
Glacier—Dies in my yard.
Dad’s Sunset—Dies in my yard.
Riesentraube—Survived in my yard the one year I grew it, but the tomatoes tasted like sugar water (I won’t grow it again). It probably tastes better when grown in different soil, because one of my friends thinks it is a great little tomato.
Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter “VFN”—Does well in the drought years, but keels over, from one of the soil-borne wilt diseases, in very wet years. When it lives long enough to produce tomatoes, they are large and delicious. Indeterminate type.
Heatwave—I planted this one year as part of the later batch that goes in where and when the onions and garlic come out. The Rutgers that I planted at the same time were more productive and tasted a LOT better (I won’t grow it again). There is a newer ‘Heatwave II’ that may be tastier, but I find that I am reluctant to try it.
Rutgers—Determinate, meaty canning tomato that I plant most years; it is productive and tasty, but most of the tomatoes come at once, so it needs to be accompanied by a longer-producing indeterminate type to make sure tomatoes keep coming in all season.
Roma—Widely available paste-type tomato that does well in my yard; I’ve grown it in many different years.
Wuhib—Paste variety with good flavor that produces well even in crazy rainy years. More productive than Roma.
Cherokee Purple—This produces well even in years with crazy rains, and it is incredibly flavorful. Indeterminate type.
Amish—Not productive, but it survives in my yard; the fruits are large and attractive (yellow with pink swirls), and the flavor is incredible. Indeterminate type.
Gardener’s Delight—A cherry type. This plant remained healthy and productive throughout the whole summer in my yard, but the tomatoes all cracked before they were fully ripe (I won’t grow it again).
Sweet 100 and its even more productive relatives—Cherry type that has done well in my yard in many different years. Productive and tasty.
Better Boy—Widely available indeterminate big tomato that has done well in my yard in many different years. I usually just buy one or two of these at a store instead of growing my own from seed.
Costoluto Genovese—The first few years I grew these, they were from one seed packet from a source that went out of business before I could order more, but I had loved these tomatoes. A few years later, I ordered some from another source, but they were not the same; the fruits were less flattened, less lobed and less tasty. Indeterminate.
Park’s Whopper (Park)–Large, tasty slicer that produces well over the whole summer. Some of the local “old guy” gardeners, the ones who have been gardening for 40-50 years, grow this variety exclusively. Recommended.
ArkansasTraveler—Pink tomato that does well in my yard. Indeterminate.
Winter Red Hybrid (Burpee)—A long-keeper type that I usually plant in late June. Does exactly what it’s supposed to do and performs well in my yard.
Matt’s Wild Cherry—Cherry type that produces a whole lot of very small red tomatoes on a very indeterminate plant; the branches reach beyond ten feet by the end of the summer, so it isn’t the ideal plant for a small space, but the flavor of the little fruits is excellent.
Yellow Marble—Cherry type. The one year I grew this the plant was in a container, which could have affected the flavor, which was very tart; its true flavor and viability in an in-ground Southern garden are still untested.
The written records have provided some entertainment over the years, as I compare my own notes to descriptions in seed catalogs. Hopefully, though, these notes will be helpful for other Southern gardeners!