Guide to Different Types of Tomatoes (And How to Use Them)
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With all the different types of tomatoes available today it’s hard to know where to begin. This article will teach you how to differentiate between different types of tomatoes, including the top 5 different kinds and their corresponding varieties!
Tomatoes come in about every color from white to purple, pink, yellow, orange, mottled, or, yes, striped. (No polka-dots.) Commonly grown varieties include Beefsteak, Big Boy, Brandywine, and Boxcar Willie, to touch only on the Bs.
Other cultivars include the suggestively named Mortgage Lifter, an heirloom variety popular during the 30s, and Purple Haze, a large cherry tomato derived from Cherokee Purple tomatoes, Brandywine, and Black Cherry. How to decide what to plant?
When you choose what tomato type you want to plant in your garden, you’ll probably base your decision on at least three criteria: personal preferences (for shape, taste, size, and use), disease resistance, and climate. (Hint: a good plant for someone in Arizona probably isn’t ideal for Maine.)
Then, you’ll need to decide how many tomatoes to plant, and finally, assuming that you’re not starting from seeds, you’ll need guidelines for selecting seedlings from amongst dozens competing for your attention.
This is a lot of information, so we’ve put together the perfect guide that lays it all down and will help you find the right type of tomatoes for growing!
Tomato Basics: Understanding the Different Types of Tomatoes
If you’re new to the world of tomato gardening, and a nursery worker blithely recommends over her shoulder that you select a determinate hybrid, you may feel even more helpless than you did before you asked the question.
It helps to know a little about tomatoes, how they grow, and how they’re categorized so that the language on the back of seed packets or coming out of a gardener’s mouth doesn’t seem like pure gobbledygook.
Tomatoes can be characterized in many different ways. The most common way is to categorize it by shape and size. Other ways include heirloom vs hybrid varieties, determinate vs indeterminate varieties or the color of its skin.
This quick guide will explain all the different types so you know exactly which one you want to go for.
Types of Tomatoes by Shape and Size
There are five main types of tomatoes in terms of shape and size, and although there are more than a thousand different tomato varieties out there, they can all fit into one of these categories.
They vary in shape and size, with some being small and only an inch in diameter, to others that are a lot bigger. Some have an oblong shape, while others are rounder.
So if you understand these five types, you know most of what you need to know in order to pick the right type of tomatoes for your home garden.
Let’s look at each of them in more detail:
1. Standard Globe Tomatoes
Standard globes are the everyday grocery-shop varieties that we’ve all grown up with. They’re medium-sized slicers that make great salad ingredients and can also be used for cooking.
Globes are generally easy to grow and ship well, so they’re very popular among commercial growers. They’re also pretty versatile in culinary applications. Because of their popularity, most commercially grown produce is standard globes.
Standard globe tomatoes are typically around two to three inches wide. Most varieties are red, though there are also yellow, orange, purple, and green ones. These classic domesticated tomato plants are often found growing in greenhouse environments or out in the field.
Uses: Globe tomato seeds were developed to be able to survive long trips from farm to table, especially even it comes to commercial level shipping around the world. They’re able to withstand high temperatures because their thick skins help protect them from heat.
Plus, you can eat them raw when sliced and used in recipes. You can use versatile globes in sandwiches, hamburgers, pickles, grills, salsas, canning, juices, and in eggs such as omelets, frittatas, and quiches.
Varieties to try:
- Alicante Tomato
- Better Boy Tomato
- Bucks County Tomato
- Celebrity Tomato
- Early Girl Tomato
- Fourth of July Tomato
- Green Zebra Tomato
- Marion Tomato
- New Girl Tomato
- Rutgers Tomato
- Pierre Tomato
- Sweet Tangerine Tomato
- Valencia Tomato
2. Cherry Tomatoes
The next category is one we are all too familiar with: the small, bite-sized tomatoes known as cherry tomatoes.
Cherry tomatoes are small, snappy bite-sized tomatoes. It tastes similar to wild tomatoes that still grow in South America as wild berries. When cherry tomatoes are ripe, they’re extremely juicy and burst when pressed.
Most cherry tomato varieties are usually under an inch in diameter on average, though their size ranges from tiny currant tomatoes to bigger more golf ball-sized ones.
They can also be found in many different colors, from reds and yellows to oranges and even purple tomatoes.
Most cherry tomato varieties are spherical in shape and fall under the cocktail tomato umbrella. Others are oblong in shape and are known as grape tomatoes. Interestingly, you can even find ones that are shaped like a pear!
Uses: Cherry tomatoes are incredibly versatile! They’re juicy yet firm and the tomato flavor is perfect for fresh snacking, or to be used in salads, veggie wraps, or even for grilling.
They’re also perfect when use in quick appetizers or even on charcuterie boards. You can even lace them onto skewers or add them to your pasta salad!
Varieties to try:
- Sun Gold Cherry Tomato
- Sweet 100 Tomato
- Sweet Million Tomato
- Gold Nugget Cherry Tomato
- Black Cherry Tomato
- Green Grape Tomato
- Honeycomb Tomato
- Midnight Snack Tomato
- Napa Grape Tomato
- Sunrise Bumble Bee Tomato
- Wild Currant Tomato
- Yellow Pear Tomato
3. Plum Tomatoes
Another great category of tomatoes to consider are plum tomatoes. These ones are great to use to make a delicious tomato sauce, and are sometimes also referred to as processing tomatoes or paste tomatoes.
The whole purpose of these tomatoes is to be cooked. You can use them however you like, from roasting them, to blending them into a sauce or even canning them to enjoy delicious tomatoes all year long.
Plum tomatoes are oblong in shape and are usually around 2 to 2.5 inches long. They’ve been bred with canning and preserving in mind. They’re mostly pulpy fruit, with easy-to-remove seeds in compact compartments. A lot are also bred to drop their skins easily for easier processing into the sauce. Red plum tomatoes are generally red, although some varied cultivars exist.
Uses: These tomatoes are not only firm and solid, but they’re incredibly good when used to make classic Italian tomato sauces. They can also be canned whole or processed into a delicious tomato paste to be used for later. Since they’re not as juicy as other types of tomatoes, they’re great when used as a topping on pizza, or to make some sundried tomatoes.
Varieties to try:
- San Marzano Tomato
- Roma Tomato
- Amish Paste Tomato
- Juliet Tomato
- Big Mama Tomato
- Viva Italia Tomato
- Orange Banana Tomato
- Ropreco Paste Tomato
- Supremo Tomato
4. Beefsteak Tomatoes
Beefsteak tomatoes are the classic tomato for eating fresh off the vine. They’re big, juicy, and flavorful—the perfect summertime treat.
Their meaty texture means they can stand up to any sandwich filling without falling apart. And because they’re so easy to grow, you’ll find them everywhere during the warm months.
They’re great to grow in your backyard, and you’ll frequently find them in farmer’s markets and other local market gardens because of their incredible tomato flavor and large size.
These types of tomatoes are known to hold their shape when sliced, thanks to their thick consistency and texture. This makes them perfect to use in sandwiches and even burgers.
Beefsteak tomatoes are typically larger than any other type of tomato we’ve discussed so far and are generally around 3 to 4 inches in diameter and weigh around a pound each. Some are hefty and can weigh up to 3 pounds per piece!
Some varieties are slightly flattened, lobe-shaped, and have small seed pockets. They’re usually grown for their taste, color, or size, but they’re not often grown commercially because of their thin skin, long time to mature, and short shelf life.
If you grow them yourself or find them at a farmers’ market, you might be able to get hold of some good ones!
Uses: Beefsteak tomatoes are great for anything where you need some sliced tomatoes, including in salads, sandwiches, and burgers. This is why they’re also referred to as slicer tomatoes. They also go great in cooked dishes such as frittatas or even pasta.
Varieties to try:
- Beefsteak Tomato
- Big Beef Tomato
- Big Boy Tomato
- Beefmaster Tomato
- Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomato
- Mortgage Lifter Tomato
- Black Krim Tomato
- Brandywine Tomato
- Cherokee Purple Tomato
- Porterhouse Beefsteak Tomato
- Georgia Streak Tomato
5. Oxheart Tomatoes
The fifth and last type of tomatoes is called Oxheart tomatoes. They’re named as such for their interesting and unique shape that resembles a large strawberry, or a ‘heart’.
They’re similar to beefsteak types of tomatoes as these are also known mainly as heirlooms for their size, flavor, and thickness.
The difference is, though, that these are more spherical in shape like the globe type than lobed like beefsteak tomatoes. However, they have a pointed end, that gives them that ‘heart’ shape
Uses: The uses for this type of tomato are similar to beefsteak tomatoes, and they’re great to use anywhere you’d need some sliced tomatoes, or if you’d like to can them.
Varieties to try:
- Anna Russian Tomato
- Cour di Bue Tomato
- Hungarian Heart Tomato
- Livingston’s Giant Oxheart Tomato
- Yellow Oxheart Tomato
Determinate vs Indeterminate Types of Tomatoes
The next way to categorize different types of tomatoes is by checking to see whether they are determinate or indeterminate tomatoes. Let’s see what that means in more detail:
Determinate tomato plants bloom and set fruit all at once and then decline. Their blossoms grow at the ends of shoots, thus stopping growth and determining their length.
These varieties are usually compact plants that require no pruning and little staking, the exception being “vigorous” determinants, which produce such large fruit that they do need support.
Indeterminate tomato plants are in it for the long haul. They continue to grow and produce tomatoes throughout the summer because the flowers grow along the vines rather than at the ends.
Since they don’t come to a determined point but grow until stopped by cold weather or a pair of clippers (hence their name), they generally need to be supported or pruned.
Heirloom vs Hybrid Types of Tomatoes
Just about any tomato outside the wild varieties remaining in Central and South America has been bred — its pollination and reproduction controlled — to promote certain specific qualities.
The difference between hybrid and heirloom varieties lies in how recently the variety has been crossed with others, and therefore how reliably their seeds will reproduce the plant on which they grow.
Heirloom tomatoes were developed over many years and many generations, by the old-fashioned method of growing tomatoes from seeds with desirable qualities, keeping the seedlings that retain those desired qualities and tossing those that don’t.
Gradually, the line was refined; more and more of the seeds produced plants with the desired characteristics until finally aberrant and undesirable qualities were bred out of the strain.
One of the keys to heirlooms is that they have been developed through open pollination over many years. Their key, defining qualities are therefore encoded in dominant genes, which will win out over competing, cross-pollinated varieties, at least for a while.
If you’re growing them beside other tomato varieties, cross-pollination will eventually lead to changes in seeds, but seeds from heirloom plants, grown in relative isolation from others, will breed true.
How old a variety needs to be to count as an heirloom is a matter of opinion. Some gardeners only recognize varieties that are more than 100 years old. Others accept cultivars that pre-date 1945.
Hybrids, a more recent development, are the result of forced cross-pollination between two different varieties (see What are Hybrid Seeds). There is no attempt to develop a seed “line” for a hybrid; it is produced anew each year, always by crossing the same two varieties.
Tomatoes generally self-pollinate, the (male) pollen in the flower fertilizing the (female) stigma, often with the help of bees or wind. (There’s actually more to it than that, but that’s enough for the moment.) Occasionally cross-pollination occurs when one of those helpers brings pollen from a different variety to the flower (see Pollination in the Garden).
Technically, tomatoes are self-pollinizing rather than self-pollinating, since they do need that bit of outside help. A truly self-pollinating plant does it alone. Corn pollen, for example, simply sifts down from the tassel at the top of the plant to the crotches where the leaves join the stem. Gravity is the only outside force needed.
In hybrids, that natural process (open pollination) is pre-empted by manual pollination, where pollen from one variety is used to fertilize flowers of the other variety. That cross-pollination occurs in the generation just before the one you’re buying (or growing).
The “parents” of the hybrid tomato plant, in other words, are two very different types, and the seeds from the hybrid contain DNA for both, in all kinds of combinations.
Therefore, you cannot count on those seeds to produce a plant genetically identical to the mother plant; you simply can’t know which of the two “parents” contributed the gene for size, or for firmness, or skin toughness, in any particular seed.
Furthermore, what gives the variety its distinctive qualities (size, color, taste, firmness) is sometimes encoded in a recessive, rather than a dominant gene, so open pollination in your garden may “contaminate” the seeds with some other, dominant, gene.
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How to Pick the Right Type of Tomatoes for Your Home Garden
There are certain factors that can affect which type of tomatoes will work best for you. Let’s consider each of these to help you make the right choice:
1. Fruit Size, Shape, and Use
What do you want to do with your tomatoes? Do you want tomatoes for shish kabob or hamburgers? For tomato sauce or salads? The use will to some extent determine the variety of tomatoes you want to grow.
For shish kabob, the small cherry, grape, or pear tomatoes work well, while chunks of larger tomatoes would probably be a disaster.
But if you want a nice, big, thin slice of tomato to grace your hamburger, you want to grow large slicing tomatoes. For sauces, you can of course use anything, but the juiciness we prize in a salad tomato can lead to a runny, watery sauce. This is where paste tomatoes (such as Romas) come into their own, yielding a thick, hearty sauce. For salads, flavor is paramount.
Tomatoes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, pear tomatoes, etc. tend to be sweet and easy to grow. They take less time since they are smaller, so they can work well for gardeners with short growing seasons. They also tend to be disease resistant.
There are hundreds of kinds of slicing tomatoes, including the big gun of the tomato world, the Beefsteak. Because classic red slicers tend to be big and bulky, each plant will bear fewer fruits, but each tomato will be bigger.
They range in color from a deep red to yellow and even somewhat pink. The deep red tomatoes have the most intense flavor. Yellow tomatoes tend to be milder and pink ones are mild and sweet.
Paste tomatoes have smaller seed cavities and are denser than slicers and cherries. They are best used in cooking — for sauces, stuffed tomatoes, etc since they are less juicy than table tomatoes.
2. Plant Size
Everything from the soil, moisture, and sun exposure will affect the growth of a tomato plant, and of course pruning can significantly affect how tall and how bushy plants will get.
Nevertheless, different varieties do have a genetic predisposition to reach a certain height. Indeterminates easily reach five feet in height (the record is around thirty), while determinants generally cap out at about three feet.
There are also a number of dwarf varieties especially bred for containers; these are usually between twelve and eighteen inches high.
3. Fruit Development: Determinate and Indeterminate, Early or Late Starters
Another set of choices has to do with whether you want your tomatoes early in the season or late, and whether you want them to produce their fruit all at once or throughout the growing season.
As mentioned above, determinates tend to produce fruit all at one time, and usually fairly early in the season. Indeterminates, on the other hand, generally grow larger and can take longer simply to get underway.
Three factors, then, will probably affect your choice of determinate or indeterminate varieties.
The first of these is whether you want your fruit all at once or throughout the summer, and the second is whether you are ready to supply support for your tomatoes or want self-supporting varieties.
The third factor is simply size; as mentioned above, determinates simply tend to be smaller than indeterminates. An early starter produces fruit early in the season; a late starter takes its time. Think of them as early and late maturers.
This distinction interacts with climate in affecting your selection process: if your area has a short growing season, for instance, late starters are a poor bet, unless you’re burdened with an obscure masochistic tendency or blessed with a greenhouse.
Your own gardening style may also affect your preference for early or late starters. If you are a high-maintenance gardener, you may be happy starting tomatoes from seeds at various times during the spring and set them out in succession.
If so, you could work entirely with early starters which you plant and transplant at different times, so that you achieve a harvest that extends over the summer and fall. If, however, you want to do it once and be done with it, you may be happier with a variety of early to late starters that you transplant into the ground all at the same time.
4. Disease Resistance
Disease is generally not a major problem for small producers, especially if they rotate vegetable crops. It is even less of an issue if you choose to grow one of the many varieties that has been bred to resist common plant diseases.
You can find out from fellow gardeners or your local agricultural extension agent what diseases are prevalent in your area and shop accordingly.
Most work on resistance has been done in the past fifty or sixty years, so if you covet disease-resistant strains, you are pretty much confined to hybrids. This is a bit like being “confined” to North America, as there are hundreds of hybrids to choose from.
Capitalized letters after the tomato name indicate what diseases that variety can resist. For example, a late starter called Beef Master carries the notation of “VFN,” which means it is resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematodes, three of the most common problems that afflict tomatoes nationwide.
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Tomatoes can have genetic resistance to the following diseases:
A — Alternaria leaf spot
F — Fusarium wilt
FF — Race 1 and Race 2 Fusarium
L — Septoria leaf spot
N — Nematodes
T — Tobacco mosaic virus
V — Verticillium wilt
Actually, you don’t have to get into the zone, since you’re already there. What gardeners need to do is learn what zone they’re in.
The US and Canada have been divided into ten zones depending on average temperatures, with 1 being the coldest, and 10 the overall hottest. These zones do a lot to indicate what will or won’t grow in a certain area, and help to standardize such information.
Many plants will be designated “zone 4 & 5, ” for instance, so knowing your zone gives you a quick head start on choosing varieties. Visit the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map here.
The zones, though, only take into account average temperature — not humidity, not even daily temperature range, nor rainfall. Nor do they take into account mini-zones: small areas within the larger ones on the map, with their own local conditions.
If your backyard is protected by trees, shrubs, or fences, you may get more shade than you want, but your yard is also somewhat protected from winds and low temperatures. You will probably be able to put your plants out earlier and keep them bearing longer than if you’re trying to grow in a wide-open area.
And so, the more you know about your local weather conditions, the more precise your choices can be.
Plan on two plants per person if you live in an area with a long and warm growing season. For folks like me who live in Montana and other areas with shorter, cooler summers, you’ll actually need to plant four plants per person because each plant will produce less than it would in a more hospitable climate.
How to Select Tomato Seedlings
Here are a couple of tips about picking out your plants. Big is not necessarily the best. If the plant is tall but seems inclined to fall over, especially if the leaves are widely spaced on the stem, it is “leggy”, and may have been struggling to get enough light. Don’t buy a stressed plant.
Therefore, go for leafy rather than tall. However, there should be a clearly defined main stem, not a lot of competing ones. A favorite term used by numerous experts is “stocky,” and the favored height is 6-8 inches.
If you have a choice between two dark-green, bushy little seedlings, only one of which is in flower, take the other one. This runs against most people’s instincts, but the reasoning is sound.
You don’t want a plant that’s in a hurry to grow up. A plant that starts producing fruit before it’s well-established can be seriously out of whack with its own growing needs.
Sometimes such a plant will produce one fruit cluster and then try to go back to its vegetable childhood, and not produce another flower for weeks.
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Using All This Info
Select one or two things that can function as a “bottom line,” and base your choice of varieties on these.
- Do you need all your tomatoes to ripen in mid-August when you have a week off work to can them? (Then you need a determinate variety and, if you live in a climate with a short summer, you’ll need an early starter that was planted sometime in February or March.)
- Do you have only a couple of barrels or baskets to grow them? Then the key is a variety that can grow in a confined space.
- Does your patio only get sun in the afternoon? You’ll need a variety that will tolerate shade.
- Do you have a long but cool growing season? Try one of the varieties listed on this site under Cooler Climates.
Take these key points to a sympathetic, knowledgeable nurseryman, and leave with the plants he hands you. Or click on any of the links here to get your seeds shipped directly to you.
Soft Ties (15ft)
Gentle on plant stems, yet strong enough to secure heavy vines and limbs.$6.50Read more
Tomato Maker (4-2-6)
Ideal for use from seedling stage to harvest. Each bag treats up to 30 plants!$12.95Read more
Blossom Set Spray
Use to promote blossom set and fruit development in tomato and vegetable gardens.$6.95Read more
Rolling Plant Stands
Use indoors or out to move and rotate heavy plants -- supports up to 500 lbs.$29.95Read more
Tomato Clips (100pk)
Use to improve air circulation and reduce disease in tall crops or vining vegetables.$14.95Read more