Tomatoes in Oklahoma: Part I, Varieties/Types
We've been discussing several tomato-related topics on this forum this year, especially our favorite varieties and how to start and grow your own seedlings. I know we have many experienced tomato growers here and I know that y'all know all this info already.
However, for the benefit of everyone who is brand-new or relatively new to tomato growing (or new to growing tomatoes in Oklahoma), I thought I'd write a little about growing tomatoes in general, from variety selection to planting to harvest, since Oklahoma poses some unique challenges for tomato growers.
I know I'll forget some stuff, so I hope the rest of you "seasoned" gardeners will add your tips and fill in the areas that I forget to cover. And, instead of writing one long thread, I thought I'd break it down into several separate ones.
VARIETY SELECTION: Although some varieties produce more fruit per plant OR produce better in the heat, almost any variety can be grown in Oklahoma. There are, of course, exceptions.
Oxheart tomatoes produce very few tomatoes per plant (in general) in our climate.
Varieties that produce exceptionally large fruit, like Big Rainbow or Omar's Lebanese, tend to set less fruit per plant in our climate AND can take forever to ripen.
Hybrids, in general, may have less disease issues because they are often bred for disease-resistance. However, I have found that many heirlooms are just as disease-resistant--it is just that they haven't been scientifically tested to establish disease resistance, and can't be sold with "VFN" or whatever unless that testing is done.
Heirlooms often are not as "pretty" as hybrids, and that is because they were not bred to produce perfectly uniform, red, globe-shaped fruit free of cracking, zippering or catfacing. Often, though (and I would say, almost always) they have superior flavor.
PLANT TYPE: Tomato plants can be indeterminate, determinate, semi-determinate and dwarf.
Indeterminate plants tend to keep growing and producing all summer. Even as they are setting and ripening fruit on lower growth, they continue to grow taller and wider and set more fruit. In our climate, it is not at all unusual for indeterminate plants to get 8' to 10' tall or even taller.
Determinate plants tend to stay shorter, usually in the 2' to 4' range, and produce their crop "all at once" (more or less). Once the have begun to set fruit, they do not put out much more, if any, new plant growth.
Semi-determinates can offer the best qualities of both indeterminates and determinates. Dwarf tomatoes are especially well-suited to small gardens and containers.
DISEASE RESISTANCE: No matter where you grow tomatoes, diseases of many types can be a problem There are some tomato varieties that show some disease tolerance or resistance. There are no tomatoes that are completely immune to disease.
For tomatoes which have been tested and proven to have disease-resistance to or tolerance of certain common diseases, that resistance or tolerance is indicated by the use of certain letters of the alphabet. The most common are: verticillium wilt (V), fusarium wilt (F), tomato mosaic virus (T), alternaria (A) and nematodes (N). To further complicate matters, there are different races of some diseases. So, if you see a tomato name like this: Better Boy VFN Hybrid, you know it is resistant to or tolerant of verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and nematodes. If you see a tomato name like this: Big Beef VFFNTA, you know it is resistant to or tolerant of verticillium wilt, two different races of fusarium wilt, nematodes, tomato mosaic virus and alternaria.
So, suppose you see a name like this "Cherokee Purple" with no initals following. Does this mean it has no disease resistance or tolerance. No, it does not. What it means is that this tomato has not been officially tested and proven to have such disease-resistance or tolerance. Often, you will see this in open-pollinated or heirloom tomatoes that have been around for decades. They are sort of the "orphans" of the tomato world. Since no specific company or university owns the breeding rights to them, no one is willing to spend the money to test/prove disease resistance. However, many of them have just as much disease resistance as those that have all those Vs, F, Ns, etc. following their names.
There are many, many other diseases that affect tomatoes and entire books have been written about them. Some are rarely seen in smaller home gardens, but are more common in large commerical operations. Others are common in some parts of the country and not others.
Some diseases have emerged only relatively recently, like Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus or Curly Top Virus, and haven't become a big problem for most Oklahoma gardeners yet. If you garden in a part of Oklahoma where the Spotted Wilt virus has already become a major problem, some of the recently bred tomatoes in the BHN group (BHN 444 VFF, BHN 589 VFFT or BHN 640 VFFF, for example) offer the best proven resistance to/tolerance of spotted wilt.
FRUIT COLOR: Mainstream agricultural interests decided decades ago that the ideal tomato was a round, red, globe-shaped fruit. However, tomatoes are available in many colors and dedicated seed-savers have kept many of these heirloom lines going for decades IN SPITE OF the commercial tomato industry's preference for red tomatoes. In the last 20 years, and especially in the last 10 years, heirloom tomatoes of all colors have made a huge resurgence. Nowadays, you can purchase seed or transplants of tomatoes that give you fruit which is described as red, orange, yellow, white, purple, pink or black. Bi- and even tri-colored fruit is available too.
Keep in mind that the colors of the tomatoes are relative and are a general color description--not an exact
crayon-type color match.
Black tomatoes, for example, are not black like a black crayon or a black olive. Rather, a black tomato is generally a dark red to maroonish to greenish to mahoghany in color. Often, black tomatoes are more green near the stem end and shoulders, and redder towards the blossom end. Some common black tomatoes are Black Krim, Black Cherry, Carbon, Black from Tula, Black Pear, Black Plum, Paul Roberson, Black Zebra and Carbon. Many black tomatoes have come to us from the former Soviet Union.
Orange tomatoes come in many shades of orange, and include Persimmon, SunGold, Aunt Gertie's Gold, Kellogg's Breakfast, and Nebraska Wedding.
Pink tomatoes are NOT Barbie pink or cotton candy pink, but are more of a pale pinkish-red. Some common pink tomatoes include Brandywine, Brandy Boy, Rosalita, German Giant, Pink Ponderoda, Stump of the World, 1884, Marianna's Peace, Mortgage Lifter, Clear Pink, Arkansas Traveler and Bradley.
Yellow tomatoes tend NOT to be a daffodil yellow, but are more in a range of colors from a yellowish-ivory to a deep golden-yellow. Some common yellow tomatoes include Lemon Boy, Azoychka, Coyote, Dr. Wyche's Yellow, Ildi, Dixie Golden Giant, Livingston's Gold Ball, Livingston's Golden Queen, Limmony, and Galina's.
White tomatoes can be a greenish-white to a yellowish-white. I don't grow many white tomatoes. White tomatoes include Dr. Carolyn, Sutton, White Beauty, Snow White and White Queen.
Purple tomatoes (with one or two exceptions that are not generally available) are NOT eggplant purple nor are they lilac purple. Instead, they are a little darker than pink tomatoes, but not as dark as black tomatoes. I guess the best way to describe the purple tomatoes is that they are a very, very deep pink. They include Cherokee Purple, Aunt Ginny's Purple, Purple Russian, Purple Brandy, Pale Perfect Purple (aka Purple Perfect or Perfect Purple) and Purple Calabash.
Green-when-ripe tomatoes (often referred to as GWR) usually are not the same green as unripened red tomatoes. They each have their own unique color, with some of them being a whitish-green and some of them being a more amber green. Some have different shades of green in the same fruit. To me, these are the hardest to grow as it can be hard to determine when they are "ripe". These include Green Grape, Dorothy's Green, Green Giant, Green Zebra, Lime Green Salad, Cherokee Green and Aunt Ruby's German Green.
Bi-colored and tri-colored tomatoes are all usually referred to as bi-colored. For the most part, they tend to have shades of red, orange, yellow and gold and those colors can be marbled, streaked, splotched, etc. Some are pretty much striped instead of marbled or splotched.
You often see the words "Rainbow", "Stripe" or "Zebra" in their name. These include Big Rainbow, Mr. Stripey, Copia, Big Zebra, Marvel Stripe, Hillbilly, Black Zebra, Green Zebra, Indian Stripe and Oxacan Jewel.
Red tomatoes are, of course, red, but can range from bright red to deep, dark red to an orangey-red. Some of the more common red tomatoes that grow well in Oklahoma include Better Boy, Celebrity, Sioux, Rutgers, Big Beef, Beefmaster, Porterhouse, Supersteak Big Boy, Neve's Azorean Red, Boxcar Willie, Mule Team, Super Fantastic, Jet Star, Homestead, Early Girl, Sweet Million and Sweet 100.
Paste tomatoes are often determinates and are ideal for canning because they usually produce a large crop that ripens all at one time. There are many of these available, with the ones most commonly seen in stores including Roma, LaRoma, Rio Grande, San Marzano, and Viva Italia VFFNA. If you grow your own, seeds of many others are available, including Grandma Mary's Paste, Martino's Roma, Heidi, Opalka, Polish Linguisa, Jersey Devil, San Marzano Redorta, Sausage and Howard German.
You can dry any tomato, but the best for "sun-dried tomatoes" (which do better here if dried in an oven or dehydrator) is a variety called Principe' Borghese.
Cherry tomatoes aren't just cherry-sized anymore. There are many other sizes and shapes of small, bite-sized tomatoes available, often sold as grape, currant or cherry tomatoes. They come in all colors and sizes. Most are indeterminates, although a few are determinates or dwarfs. These include Sweet Million, Sweet 100, SunGold, Sun Sugar FT, Ildi, Galina's, Sun Cherry, Cherry, Juliet, Red Robin, Riesentraube, Red Pear, Yellow Pear, Coyote, Red Currant, Yellow Currant, Tommy Toe, Tiny Tim, Sweet Baby Girl and Sugary.
TOMATO "SEASONS": Early, midseason, late, all-season? Assuming you start from transplants, you can get ripe tomatoes in a certain number of days from transplantation. This is referred to as the DTM (Days To maturity). For example, an early season tomato like Early Girl will give you fruit about 52 days from the date it is transplanted into the garden. For a mid-season type like Celebrity, it is about 70 days. For a late-season-type like Brandywine, it can be about 90 days. In our climate, early and mid-season tomatoes (DTMs in the 50s to upper 70s) tend to produce the most fruit per plant.
Most tomatoes DO NOT produce well during the hottest part of our summer, although a few do. The smaller the tomato fruit, the better the chance it will "produce all summer". Thus, cherry, currant and grape types produce all summer. Paste or plum types produce all at once, but that "once" may be in the hottest part of the summer. Some tomatoes can be kept going all summer, but won't set new fruit during mid-July to late-August, although they will start setting fruit again when temperatures drop in the fall. Some people set out new plants in June or July for fall tomato production.
BRED FOR THE HEAT: As we'll discuss later in another thread, high temperatures impede tomato production. However, a few tomatoes have been bred to "overcome" this trait. For the most part, the ones I've tried do bloom and set fruit in hotter weather (though maybe not in the absolute hottest weather). However, when I've tasted them, I am quickly reminded that they were NOT bred for flavor. Oh, well, you can't have everything. If you are interested in this type, some of the earliest ones like Merced and Heat Wave have already been superceded by 'better' ones, like Sun Leaper, Sunmaster, Heat Wave II, Solar Set, Solar Fire and Sun King.
LONG-KEEPERS: There are a few varieties that can be picked while green or while just beginning to turn from green to red, stored for a long period of time in a basement or cool dry room, and eaten long after the fall freezes have wiped out the tomato plants. These are referred to as long-keepers. They include: Longkeeper, Red October, Sunray, Yellow Out--Red In, Old-Fashioned Garden Peach, Green Thumb, and Ruby Treasure.
That's about all I can think of to say about tomato varieties and types. In the next thread, we'll talk about soil preparation and planting techniques.