Queen of the Vegetable Garden: The Tomato

The tomato is the Queen of the Vegetable Garden!

When I plan out my vegetable garden, I always choose my tomato varieties first, decide which raised beds to plant them in, and then plan out the rest of the garden, working around the tomatoes.

When I choose tomato varieties, I look at the pictures and the descriptions and try to pick a nice mix of red, pink, yellow, slicing, cooking, cherry, old favorites, new varieties, and whatever else just looks good to me. This requires a certain amount of concentration and self-restraint, because in the dead of winter, every tomato variety looks good.

But I never ask myself when I’m looking at all the tomato varieties, “will this tomato variety do well in my garden”. It never occurred to me growing up or even later in life that there might be tomato varieties that wouldn’t grow well in my Zone 5 garden.

Sure, we have “good tomato years” and “not so good tomato years”, but I can’t recall, or have blocked it as too unpleasant to even think about, any “bad tomato years”. I live and garden where tomatoes just grow. Even at the state fair last summer, the sign proudly proclaimed that Indiana is second in the United States in growing tomatoes for processing.

But I’ve come to realize that in other parts of the country, tomatoes don’t just grow with such abandon, varieties must be chosen more carefully to withstand heat, short growing seasons, even nematodes. MSS at Zanthan Gardens is one of several gardeners who helped me come to this realization, as she continues to try to find varieties of tomatoes that will grow and produce in the heat of Austin, Texas summers.

She recently listed the tomato varieties she is considering and asked others with experience growing any of them to offer their opinions.

It appears from her list of tomato varieties under consideration that she and I will both be growing ‘Black Cherry’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’. ‘Black Cherry’ is a repeat for me. I grew it last year for the first time and liked it a lot. It tastes more like a big tomato but isn’t as prolific as most cherry tomatoes. ‘Cherokee Purple’, on the other hand, is a new variety for me to grow.

Here is the complete list of my tomato selections for this year, the 2009 Royal Family of my vegetable garden:

Ace’ – This is a bush, or determinate type tomato. I always buy indeterminate varieties and stake my tomatoes, but decided I would branch out this summer and try a determinate variety and cage it. (80 days)

Aunt Anna’ – I don’t have an aunt named Anna but this just looked like a nice red tomato and one that could grow to “massive size”. It might be useful if there is a biggest tomato contest this summer.

Beefsteak’ – Doesn’t everyone grow this variety? (85 days)

Black Cherry’ – see above

Cherokee Purple’ – Why not grow this one, and show everyone that I don't always grow the same varieties every year, that I'm not such a creature of habit as some might think. Plus, I’ve never grown a dark tomato like this one, so it is about time I did! (80 days)

Fireworks’ – I must do better with earlier ripening tomatoes. It was embarrassing how late in the summer it was before I harvested my first tomato last year. I think maybe this will be an earlier ripening tomato, maybe even ripening by early July. (70 days)

German Johnson’ – I grew this variety two (or three?) years ago for the first time. It’s a pink tomato, very flavorful, and I don’t share them with anyone. I eat them all myself. Last year, this is the variety that gave me the World’s Ugliest Tomato, but it still one of the best tomatoes I know of.

Gold Nugget’ – I grow cherry tomatoes like these so that I have snacks I can eat right in the garden.

Illini Star’ – It occurred to me while reading through all the tomato choices that there might be some that are better suited to the Midwest. Illinois, for those who don’t have a map handy, is the next state west of Indiana, and is a lot like Indiana, except they usually get rain a few hours before we do, so this tomato ought to grow well in my garden, right? (65 – 70 days)

Kentucky Beefsteak’ – This is an orange tomato, and might be a lot like ‘Beefsteak’. I’ll compare the two and let you know.

Pink Oxheart’ – It just sounded good. And it is heart shaped.

Red Currant’ – This is the tiniest tomato you’ll ever grow, as I found out two summers ago when I had a “tiniest tomato” contest and Chigiy beat me fair and square with this variety. Never again, though, because I grow it now, too. These are also very cute in salads.

San Marzano’ – I’ve heard that this variety is one of the best for making sauces and pastes and canning. I’ve never canned before, but you just never know, I might try it this summer because my grandmother was a big-time canner. Or I might not. I’m mostly growing it to keep my options open.

Those are the lucky 13 tomato varieties that will be growing in my garden this summer, but it will soon be 14. MSS had such a good review of ‘Persimmon’, that I’m adding it to my list and ordering a packet of seeds for them as soon as I have my "oops I forgot to order" list ready to go.

Who else is growing tomatoes in their vegetable garden this year?


  1. I grew Cherokee Purple tomatoes for the last 2 years. I like the flavor, mildly sweet w/a smokiness that adds interest, so I'm keeping it as a staple.

    I'm also planting some German Striped tomatoes again and trying out a variety of yellow tomato I bought at the market last year. I thought the guy who sold it to me called it a Managold, but I can't find a similar name online, so I may have heard it wrong. Had a great flavor though. We'll see how it does.

    I'm trying an F1 saladette variety this year called Enchantment.

    Nowhere near as many as you...wow! Good luck!

  2. Good luck, from your list Ive grown gold nugget and san marzano-though the latter was prone to blossom end rot here because of uneven watering.

  3. I'd have needed a tripod to take that 1st shot - too funny!

  4. That is an impressive list. I have some ordered and will plant repeats from last year. Loved 'Mortgage Lifter'. Huge and tasty! Do you have a favorite?

  5. Sadly I'm one of those people that live in a spot where tomatoes don't like to grow. I grow them anyway, but we have nematodes and all sorts of leaf spot diseases. Last year we got so much rain that even the tomatoes that did grow were watery. I'm growing them anyway, but not 13 varieties. Oh and I love Black Cherry. It and Sungold still tasted good last year despite the rain.

  6. I need a few tomatoes that will grow in containers! So I am reading and learning all I can on tomato growing!
    It looks like cherry..sweet 100 will be on the list...any recommendations? gail

  7. Such a lovely variety. Ditto on the San Marzano blossom end rot.I have some cherokee purple on the balcony at present, and some Hillbilly, hoping to get a harvest before it gets colder.

    While you have the lush lovely summer vegetable gardens I am going to attempt to grow a tomato plant inside, by the large glass doors, which get plenty of winter sunlight (when it's around) If the experiment fails i look forward to being rewarded by the pics of the success of your crops!

  8. We are growing several of the same varieties, Carol. I'm surprised. 'Cherokee Purple' has always been good for me. 'Beefsteak' has wonderful flavor. Looking forward to trying 'Aunt Anna' and 'Kentucky Beefsteak' along with my friend's dad's tomato 'Royal Hillbilly.'

  9. I'll be growing tomatoes this year on the balcony -- I haven't the room for many plants, but I have Better Boy seeds (love them because they're so meaty!) and I definitely want to try those Persimmons, too!

  10. Wow! Carol, that is quite a lisk of tomatoes! I grow Beef Steak, but here in the NW it doesn't do well outside- that beauty is for the greenhouse only. I picked out an earlier one for the garden (which will also do well in the greenhouse) to try. I also try to grow cherry types that are great for salads! Yum! Nothing like a great tomato!

  11. I thought my tomoto list of eleven varieties was a lot. I grow cherokee purple and San Marzano every year. They are great producers. The San Marzano keeps going in the heat.

  12. I always grow San Marzano. It is very reliable and prolific here...no problems so maybe it likes lots of dry heat. Also Early Girl for a totally reliable decent, early and long producing tomato. Sweet 1000, Sungold, and then 2 or 3 that vary, usually at least one I've never grown before.

  13. Thanks for the link love and for getting in the spirit of the tomato discussion. This is what I've always hoped from garden blogging--to find out the experiences of real people in real gardens. After awhile all the descriptions of tomatoes from the many varied dealers begin to sound alike.

    I've learned from talking with gardeners from many different climates that the same tomato variety might taste very different depending on the temperature and the amount of rain. And, of course, there are personal taste biases to account for. I favor tangy, citrus-tasting tomatoes and grow a lot of yellow, orange, and even green varieties. Our tomatoes are always for eating fresh in salads or salsas. (We never have a big enough harvest to think of canning or cooking with them.)

    It's great that tomatoes come in so many shape, sizes, colors, and tastes because everyone seems to be looking for something different in his or her search for that perfect tomato.

    I resolve this year to take better notes so I can share specifics with other gardeners next year.

  14. Carol, I've heard lots of comparisons between Illinois and Indiana, especially when it comes to collegiate sports, but I think you're the first to point out that we get rain before you do:)

    This year I resolve to try a few new varieties of tomatoes (I tend to get in a rut); Cherokee Purple is at the top of the list after hearing so many people rave about it. I also resolve--please don't be aghast--to try starting a few tomatoes from seed this year, instead of just buying the plants. I have so many flower seeds to start, though, I have no idea where I'll put any tomato seedlings!

    And thanks, Carol, for your good wishes for my Dad.

  15. I couldn't agree more, and I love the photo--it illustrates the point perfectly. I've always loved growing tomatoes, even when I didn't grow other food. In fact, I can trace my whole gardening addiction back to one container tomato on my condo deck some nearly (ahem) 20 years ago. This year I got some heirloom tomato seeds, which I've winter sown, and am very excited to taste later on.

  16. The San Marzanos are great for sauce making... thick and rich, without all the water.

    Also, I am happy to recommend the best staking/support device for your plants. www.thetomatostake.com

    This will be my second year using it... its wonderfully simple, not to pricey, and so easy to support and tie up the plant.

    Happy gardening!

  17. I love your list. I posted mine on my blog here.

  18. Hi Carol, I'm so excited to be growing veggies again this spring, and tomatoes are at the top of the list.

    This year I'll be growing Rutgers, Early Girl, Black Krim, and Chadwick Cherry. Rutgers are my all-time favorites and have always been the heaviest producers for me. This is my first time trying Black Krim. I debated between it and Cherokee Purple.

    I haven't grown any of the yellow varieties before but I'm thinking about trying one. There's still time to add to the list, although my veggie bed is small and I've already gone overboard on other kinds of veggie seeds. We'll see! I want to try them all!

  19. oops, I forgot - I've got Bradywine seeds too. That's my second-favorite!

  20. Thanks for all this great info Carol. I picked up a Cherokee Purple last weekend, before reading this, so it looks like I lucked out. I do wish I had the room and the wherewithall to deal with the many tomatoes you plan to grow! There's nothing like a homegrown tomato to put a smile on your face. :-)

  21. Carol,
    Thanks for this very informative posts. Yours along with Zanthan Gardens certainly will help me narrow my choices for which ones to plant this season.

    Isn't is wonderful to think and drool about fresh garden tomatoes?

    Jon at Mississipi Garden

  22. I'm really looking forward to growing all these tomatoes and comparing notes with everyone. I just ordered 'Persimmon', so I'm all set with 14 varieties. Thanks, all, for the nice comments and lists!

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  23. My grandfather lived in southern Indiana, at the edge of the Corn Belt. Lots of hills and beautiful black soil. He grew monster tomatoes. They grew to over 6' in height and were loaded all summer.

    Here in NC I can only grow the most disease resistant tomatoes. My favorite are the black Russian tomatoes and Brandywine, but I generally only get one crop from those before they succumb. I think they're worth it though. Best salsa in the world!

  24. I'm jealous of your having space for several tomatoes. I have space for maybe a couple plants, let alone varieties. Cherokee Purple will be one of them, for sure, since it worked out so well last year: great fruit, nicely behaved plant. I hope you have as good luck with it as many people seem to.


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