Home & Garden

You say ‘tomayto,’ I say ‘tomahto’ — what’s the difference?

Maggie King is a UC Master Gardener.
Maggie King is a UC Master Gardener.

Q: I love home-grown tomatoes, and would like to plant some this year. However, every time I walk into the nursery to buy plants, there are so many choices that I don’t know what to buy, and I leave empty handed. Help! —Desilyn Trahan,

San Luis Obispo

A: Choosing tomato plants for the summer garden can, indeed, be daunting. The variety of sizes, shapes and colors increases yearly. There are some considerations that can narrow the field down and simplify the decision, however.

The first thing to consider is your area of the county. While gardeners in North County can pick from the multitude of heat-tolerant plants, coastal gardeners should select from short-season tomatoes that don’t require much heat to ripen.

Tomato plants can be determinate or indeterminate. Determinate plants grow quickly to a compact size and ripen fruit at about the same time. Indeterminate plants continue to grow and produce tomatoes throughout the season. These plants tend to be larger than determinate plants.

Tomatoes are either heirlooms or hybrids. Hybrids have been developed to enhance certain qualities, including pest resistance. To determine the disease resistance of a particular tomato, look for the letters F (fusarium), N (nematodes), and V (verticilium wilt) that indicate resistance characteristics. Heirlooms are open-pollinated— by bees, butterflies and other natural pollinators. Their seeds will reproduce true to type and may be saved for future seasons. Heirlooms tend to be subject to more diseases, but some gardeners find them tastier than hybrids

Having considered these factors, you can tackle those nursery shelves. The Master Gardeners hold a Tomato Extravaganza every year. Attendees vote for their favorite tomato. Some favorite heirlooms over the years include Sarah Black, Stupice, Persimmon Orange and Cherokee Purple. Favorite hybrids include Celebrity, Big Beef, Early Girl, and Ace. Sweet 100 has been a favorite cherry tomato. Stupice and Early Girl are early season selections for coastal gardeners to try.

Try buying some plants with a sure success history, then adding a couple of intriguing new ones as experiments. Undoubtedly, with good care, whatever you raise in your garden will be head and shoulders above anything you’ll find at the grocery store.

The Master Gardeners have information on tomatoes, and there are also great websites through the University of California Cooperative Extension. Come enjoy the next Tomato Extravaganza on Aug. 21.