What kind of tomatoes should I grow?
January 6, 2011 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Gardeners! Help me narrow down what three varieties of tomato to grow on my tiny urban deck.

I am a new and very excited gardener, having scored my first apartment with outdoor space last year. Last summer, I grew my first tomatoes (and a cayenne plant, and giant mutant basil, and lots of other herbs, and flowers, and wow it was fun.)
Now the seed catalogs are arriving and God, it's like porn, isn't it? I want them all. But I have very limited room, so I need advice from more experienced farming types.
I was thinking of two varieties of tomato and one cherry tomato. I want indeterminate varieties, because one crop just won't do. What are the best tasting, most tomato-y tomatoes you've grown?
I'm going to try starting them from seed, so there is a vast array of choices and I'm overwhelmed.
posted by CunningLinguist to Home & Garden (35 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You can't go wrong with sungold (cherry tomato).
posted by kirst27 at 3:51 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Early Girl and dry-farm them, SO so good!
posted by dolface at 3:56 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Dry farm?
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:04 PM on January 6, 2011

Sungold was always my favorite, but last year Black Cherry tomatoes surpassed them. Really good and really productive.
posted by mudpuppie at 4:12 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you don't have a space to grow a lot of varieties, you can try different experiments on one plant, like grafting a different tomato onto the one you grew, or cross pollinating and creating unique seeds. Growing from seed is very rewarding and I highly recommend it:)
posted by leigh1 at 4:16 PM on January 6, 2011

Seed catalogs are totally like porn, for those of us who love to grow things. Seed Savers Exchange's catalog is, IMHO, the sexiest.

Currently, I am a container gardener exclusively and I have found that tomatoes that are smaller grow the best in containers. I have done Cherry Roma, Yellow Pear, Black Plum and Amish Paste with notable success in the past. They are all beautiful and tasty. My favorite are the Yellow Pear.
posted by godshomemovies at 4:17 PM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

We plant Sweet 100s (cherry tomatoes) every year, and they are frightenly prolific. And delicious!
posted by LN at 4:22 PM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sungold were great for us last summer, despite a lot of benign neglect & not-overly-warm Minnesota days. I think the Brandywine did well, too, but I can't remember exactly which plant was where.
posted by belladonna at 4:32 PM on January 6, 2011

Second on the Sun Golds. Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes are also very easy to grow, and have a nice flavor. Romas grow well in a small garden, but they're not much good for munching; they're mostly sauce tomatoes. Also, Romas are determinate.

For your big tomatoes, I'd go with heirlooms. They have a lot more flavor than hybrid tomatoes, and they come in all sorts of weird shapes and colors to entertain your friends while you're sitting on the porch. Some heirlooms I've grown and enjoyed: Brandywine, German Johnson, Cherokee Purple, and Mr. Stripey (yes, Mr. Stripey. I didn't name it.)

Note, though, that heirlooms are less resistant to disease and more likely to attract insects. I haven't had any problems with them, but I know people who have. Also, many of them don't follow the standard red-to-green progression, so it can be harder for novice gardeners to tell when they're ripe. If you feel more comfortable with hybrids, you can't beat Better Boy and Early Girl for indeterminates.

Here's a website I like:


Have fun!
posted by steambadger at 4:33 PM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of the points of modern hybrids is they've been optimized to make great farming plants for easy mass-production. But as a 3-plant gardener, you can grown truly anything. I had a Brandywine last year and the tomatoes were huge, bright red, and delicious, can't recommend them enough!! My mom was astonished I'd had decent luck with them (and jealous), as they don't have much immune system, very disease-prone, but my advantage was that we had brand-new raised beds with brand-new soil, so a very low contamination risk. Since you're starting from scratch, I'll recommend them.

Do you want to eat you tomatoes in sandwiches, salads, and pies? Or are you wanting to make cooked sauce, stewed tomatoes, ketchup, etc? The difference between paste tomatoes (plum-shaped, Romas, etc) and standard sandwich tomatoes is huge. I don't like eating raw Romas (some do, not me), but when you heat a sandwich tomato for sauce, it's all juice, and boils down forever. If you want a paste tomato, go classic (Roma, Amish paste, etc). It's the sandwich tomatoes that are really fun to play around with colors and stripes. I find the purple/blacks tastier than the yellows, and particularly like Brack Crims.

Also, check Artistic Gardens for tiny 35-cent packets of just a few seeds, though with shipping that won't save you money over a regular store unless you're getting more than just 3 tomatoes.
posted by aimedwander at 4:39 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Coming in to N-th Cherry tomatoes, if you are growing in containers. Every disappointment that I have had (in terms of yield and taste) has been with attempting to grow full-size tomatoes on my porch. Every delightful surprise has been with cherry tomatoes. 3 plants in a large window box yield more than two of us can possibly eat. Cherry tomatoes go well in stews and stir-fries, as well as salads. I'd recommend Cherry Roma, Sungold and Tumbler (Tumbler can be grown in a hanging basket).
Just as important (or more) is using a good compost and watering daily in hot weather. I use Miracle Grow, simply because I get a really good yield and taste. You can mix your own potting soil - just make sure you have a lot of well-composted hummus in the mix. You'll need to add tomato food to the soil weekly after 6-8 weeks. Failure to feed the tomatoes is the main source of failure after allowing the plants to dry out.
posted by Susurration at 4:42 PM on January 6, 2011

Also: if you're growing indeterminate tomatoes in a small space, be sure to cage or stake them well, and pinch the suckers. If you let them get more than one or two stems, they can drive you right out of the house.
posted by steambadger at 4:44 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: No, I'm definitely not going to bother with paste tomatoes.

Thanks for the recommendations so far!
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:48 PM on January 6, 2011

Dry-farming discussion.
posted by dolface at 4:50 PM on January 6, 2011

Also also: be sure you match your tomatoes to your climate. Many tomatoes don't do as well if it gets cold at night. Susurration is right that you'll find it much easier to grow cherries in containers, but I've gotten good results with full-size tomatoes that way, too. Just make sure you use a large pot (16" diameter or bigger, in my experience) so they don't get root bound. And feed and water them plenty, but cut back on the water after the fruit sets, so you don't get watery tomatoes.

I'll shut up now. I tend to go on and on about tomatoes.

ps: Get some ladybugs to eat the evil insects. And if your plants start dropping leaves, check them for big, ugly caterpillars. These are hornworms. If you see any, terminate them with extreme prejudice.

I'll shut up now.
posted by steambadger at 5:02 PM on January 6, 2011

Response by poster: No! Don't shut up! I need to know everything!

I didn't know about cutting back the water after fruit appears. Or that I should be careful to use sterile potting soil. Or most of the other tips here.

My balcony is small and only a portion of it gets enough sun for tomatoes, but I find it's 10-15 degrees warmer than the rest of NYC, which means I can grow earlier, but also that it gets really crazy hot in August. I have a makeshift automatic drip system that I rigged when everything started swooning last summer, and I plan to get a really good one going this year.

So: Brandywine for sure. Maybe a black/purple heirloom. And Sungold cherries?

Three plants isn't enough.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:40 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Brandywines are finicky and have never been productive for me. If you can only have a few plants, I'd skip that one. Pick up some ripe Brandywines at the farmers' market instead. That way you can enjoy them -- they ARE delicious -- without having to cry over the fact that you only harvest two or three all season.

Another reliable bet, though not an heirloom, is Early Girl. Good flavor, easy to grow, produces earlier than most other varieties.

(Please please please trust me on the Black Cherry tomato.)
posted by mudpuppie at 7:10 PM on January 6, 2011

Best answer: Brandywines are finicky, as mudpuppie says; but they are very good. Among the heirlooms I've grown, German Johnsons are probably the most reliable. They're also considered an early tomato down here in the South, which makes me think they might do better up where you are.

My final suggestion:

Plant #1: Sun Gold, Sweet 100 or Black Cherry, depending on which makes your mouth water the most.

Plant #2: An heirloom: Brandywine if you're feeling bold, German Johnson if you're not.

Plant #3: Early Girl, so you'll have some tasty full-sized tomatoes if the heirlooms fail you.

And now you've got me jonesing for tomato season...
posted by steambadger at 7:34 PM on January 6, 2011

Have fun! I planted like 15 containers of herbs/veggies on my tiny apartment deck - we got a bunch of basil, a lot of parsley (which I discovered I hate), a bunch of yellow pear tomatoes, a medium bowl of green beans, and 1 lonely green pepper. I didn't go into it expecting a high yield (north facing porch, not a ton of sun, total gardening noob), but it was a blast. Even if you don't get actual veg, I swear there is a mental health benefit to surrounding yourself with green growing things and tasking yourself with their care.

Great question - I am following this question with interest!
posted by shortskirtlongjacket at 7:48 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have strong opinions about this topic. The first is that if you are choosing to grow cherry tomatoes, there is almost no reason to grow anything other than Sweet 100's. If you have never grown Sweet 100s you should start with them, not another variety.

The second is that if you are growing container tomatoes, just order seedling starts of whatever Territorial Seed is recommending for containers this year. This year it appears to be their Beaverlodge early variety.

The third is that Brandywines need great soil, perfect climate and full sun, and then you'll be lucky to get 6 tomatoes per plant. I wouldn't spend 33% of a container garden on any heirloom variety.

Good luck!
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 8:14 PM on January 6, 2011

Response by poster: How do Sweet 100s compare to Sungold? (Or all the other popular cherry tomatoes?)
For what it's worth, I think I prefer the tangy tomato taste over pure sweetness.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:18 PM on January 6, 2011

Best answer: Early Girl, Patio Tomato and Sweet 100's are high on my list. Plucking the Sweet 100's directly from the plant and munching them fresh as can be is great. I agree with mudpuppie, Brandywine is inconsistant at best - often a lot of space taken up by a very big plant with not a lot fruit in return. They have great flavor but you can use your limited space more effectively. Tomato Hornworn is probably the only pest of concern. Watch for pellet droppings on lower leaves or having eaves that just seem to diasppear overnight are hornworm indicators.
posted by X4ster at 8:35 PM on January 6, 2011

That's leaves that disappear. If your eaves disappear it's an entirely different problem.
posted by X4ster at 8:38 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sungolds and Sweet 100s are both cherry type tomatoes, which is a good choice for container gardening. Sungolds are orange when ripe, not red. They are slightly more tangy than sweet 100s. I believe both are indeterminate breeds, meaning that they will produce as long as the vine keeps going, as opposed to determinate breeds, which set a particular number of fruit then stop.

Last summer, I planted about six varieties of heirlooms in containers, and sungolds were the only ones that took. Not sure what your heartiness zone is, but that makes a difference. We are in 8 or 9 I believe, so any big varieties (brandywine, any beefsteak, even early girl) are out of the question. Unfortunately, my sweet 100s vine was physically damaged, so I can't give you a report on the production for those.
posted by Gilbert at 8:45 PM on January 6, 2011

Sweet 100s and Sungolds are pretty much equal in terms of production, at least where I am. And by that, I mean that I plant one of each (in the ground) and with those two plants end up with MANY MANY MORE cherry tomatoes than I care to pick.

Their flavors are a bit different. Sweet 100s are sort of like the standard red cherry tomato you're probably used to, except they're smaller than than the cherry tomatoes you'll get in, say, a salad bar, and have waaaaaaay more flavor. They're very tasty. Their skin can be a little tough, but that's also part of the charm of homegrown cherry tomatoes.

Sungolds are orange, and slightly more acidic. They often win taste tests among cherry tomatoes. They're more prone to splitting than Sweet 100s. (Although there is now an improved variety out -- can't remember its name -- that's supposed to split less.) This is an important when growing them in containers, because it's soil moisture that you need to be concerned about w/r/t tomatoes splitting, and it's harder to regulate the moisture in containers.

It kind of comes down to whether you prefer red or yellow/orange tomatoes. Some people have strong preferences. Myself, I'd take Sweet 100s over Sungolds if I had to pick just one. But it's very much a personal choice.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:33 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another vote for at least one variety........Sweet 100. But cage or support them in some way !
posted by Taurid at 10:38 PM on January 6, 2011

For a slightly larger than cherry size tomato, check out Flaumme or Jeune Flaumme; they are orange and about the size of a golf ball. It was the only really productive plant I had last year, and they were delicious.
posted by sapere aude at 11:14 PM on January 6, 2011

Response by poster: I never thought to google for taste tests!

One last question: what do you do when you find a hornworm? I don't want to spray pesticides, and I don't want to squish the rather beautiful caterpillar. If I have to, what's the least gross way to dispatch them? Is there a good way to keep them at bay in the first place?
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:26 AM on January 7, 2011

Best answer: Pick the sucker off the plant and flush it down the toilet. Or, if you have a neighbor with chickens, take them a snack.

Dave's Garden has some good pages with tomato reviews. Make sure you pay attention to the reviewers' USDA zones, though.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:37 AM on January 7, 2011

Best answer: My wife thinks I'm being too ambitious in recommending heirlooms to a first-time gardener in a cool climate, but here's a possible compromise: grow your cherries in hanging baskets, then plant two vines of Early Girls or something similar in your pots, and one cool-weather heirloom in the last pot. Even if you only get a few heirlooms, you'll have plenty of hybrids to make up for it; and the taste of the heirlooms will be worth it.
posted by steambadger at 9:13 AM on January 7, 2011

Best answer: If you're only growing three plants, starting from seed isn't really practical. (It's also trickier than it sounds...) Because you're in NYC, I have a specific sourcing recommendation. Silver Hill Farms at Union Square Greenmarket (Weds. & Sats.) sells organic heirloom seedlings early in the season, usually in mid to late April. I don't know the woman's name but she's very, very helpful and will answer any questions you have about specific varieties. She always has a HUGE selection of tomato seedlings, sorted by size. I can recommend Matt's Wild Cherry, which bears a ridiculous number of 'maters that are less sweet and more tomatoey than most cherries. Stop by the market in early April so you know where she is and when she expects to have seedlings; they go FAST. Unless something changes, she'll be on the west side of the market, west side of the aisle (towards 5th Ave), around 15th St.

About the crazy-hot Augusts -- rig up a sunshade. It can be anything sturdy enough to filter out sun (you don't want to block it completely) and stand up to wind and rain. I've used a matchstick blind and some bamboo poles.

Memail me anytime; I've been gardening in NYC for a while and would be happy to share the joy of homegrown tomatoes.
posted by dogrose at 9:40 AM on January 7, 2011

Best answer: Be careful about dry gardening since you'll be growing in containers - container gardening generally requires more water because there's less soil per plant and the soil heats up faster.

Also, do NOT, DO NOT buy starts so large they already have flowers/tomatoes on them. Even in a gallon pot, it's a sign that the plant is stressed and probably won't grow very large, which will decrease your yield. The green part of the plant shouldn't be much bigger than the pot, and should be straight, sturdy, and not leggy. April seems really early for buying tomato starts, I'd check a planting calendar for your area.

I worked on a tomato farm for a season and teach container gardening classes, you can memail me if you want to hear me go on and on.
posted by momus_window at 11:27 AM on January 7, 2011

You need to look for tomatoes that are suited to your environment. Find your hardiness zone. Do you have 8 hours of sun a day? Is it humid or dry? If I was only growing three tomatoes, I would buy plants, not seeds. When you buy plants from a local grower, you avoid the problem of getting seeds unsuited to your local conditions from a mail order company. Don't buy them too early, because tomatoes planted in cold soil don't thrive. If it is a cold wet spring, you may even have to wait until May to plant. It's always better to wait for warmer weather and then plant an early season tomato (which may mean a determinate) than to plant too early. This is the downfall of most novice tomato growers. Early Girl is very reliable for many people all over the country.

Do not use sterile soil. Sterile soil is dead soil. You need the microbes in soil to make nutrients available to the plant, and if you buy sterile soil there aren't any. You just want to use soil that hasn't had tomatoes or other plants that had any sort of tomato disease growing in it previously.

Do not dry garden in containers. Dry gardening is for plants in the ground.

Do not plant tomatoes outdoors until the temps at night stay above 50 degrees. If you grow from seed, you must acclimate them first.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:46 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A late word on the hornworm question:

Hornworm; Autumn Lamentation

posted by steambadger at 8:18 AM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers. I can't wait for spring!

Based on the advice here, I'm currently planning on 1 SunGold, 1 Early Girl, 1 Big Boy or Brandy Boy, and (breaking my own rule) a 4th plant that will be an heirloom, Brandywine or Black Krim maybe, which I won't feel bad about if it doesn't produce much.

Also, I am rethinking starting my own seedlings with any degree of seriousness. I may try to grow a few as an experiment, but now plan to rely on a Zip Car trip to the burbs in the spring to pick up professionally-grown plant starts. And dogrose's Union Square lady.

Also, I never thought about flushing the hornworms! Brilliant! (And I loved that sad ode steambadger posted.)

(So last fall I went batshit at a spring bulb sale. Planted them in layers in largish pots when it got cool, then immediately forgot what was where. It's still January, but my first shoots came up today! I'm so so so so excited!)
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:05 AM on January 20, 2011

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