It’s that time. Gardeners are jumping out of their skins to get their gardens started, and recent false summer temperatures just revved people up further.
Tomato, basil and even pepper seedlings suddenly began showing up at groceries around town. But what shoppers may not realize is that those plants will languish, or even die, if temperatures sink below 50 degrees at night.
So, if you have or want one of those seedlings but are unsure of upcoming temperatures, please keep it on a sunny windowsill or outdoors under a cloche or tent until the time is right.
But which type of seedling do you choose? Seattle is not the tomato’s native habitat, and we have a short-but-sweet growing season, so you need to pick well for a good harvest. You see labels mentioning saucers, slicers, heirlooms and hybrids. What the heck does “determinate” mean in a plant? It’s a fast decider? Let’s find out.
“Slicer” and “beefsteak” are used interchangeably, although there are slicers with beefsteak in the name. This means a tomato that is prime sandwich or salad material; it is somewhat juicy, with a firm texture, usually at least 4 inches across.
“Sauce” or “paste” denotes a meatier mater with fewer seeds that will cook down easily. “Cherry,” “grape” and the I-feel-silly-saying-this-one “Saladette” are salad tomato types of increasing size.
Heirlooms vs. hybrids
Heirlooms are all open-pollinated, meaning naturally pollinated and will “come true” or produce the same plant from its seed the next year. They are most often passed along from gardener to gardener, sometimes over 100 years.
The usual cutoff for earning heirloom status is when a tomato variety hits 50 years old.
There are new open-pollinated tomatoes that have been stabilized through seven generations of growing that will likely be tomorrow’s heirlooms, like “Green Zebra” or “Cherokee Chocolate.”
Hybrids have been bred by a gardener or a breeder, by hand pollinating and selection (not through genetic modification), but they have not been stabilized. If a seed packet or plant tag says “F1,” it’s a hybrid.
If you plant that seed, you might get a similar plant, and you might not. I’m not picking sides. There is great flavor to be found in both camps.
For me, heirlooms appeal to the history lover in me, and I don’t mind that they sometimes look lumpy. The tomato word for that is “cat-faced.” Sorry, cats.
Heirlooms were often not selected for shelf-life because they were saved by gardeners for gardeners. Sometimes they are not very productive, but I’d rather have three homegrown “Anna Russians” than 12 supermarket “Romas.”
Tomatoes bred for market usually have thicker skins to withstand travel, sometimes in preference to aroma, texture and that toe-curling flavor that makes me grow tomatoes.
Hybrids are usually bred for uniformity, productivity and disease resistance. If you are a chef and want a perfect-looking tomato, or you don’t care about saving seed, or you have had issues with a recurring disease in your soil, choose a hybrid labeled for that resistance.
“Determinate” means it grows to a compact height, usually under 5 feet, fruits and stops. Many sauce tomatoes are determinates and tend to be earlier-fruiting than indeterminates.
Pick determinates if you are short on space/time or are interested in one big haul harvest, say to bottle a pantry full of pasta sauce or juice for winter.
“Indeterminate” means the plant’s growing time is undetermined until cold temperatures hit. It will keep. On. Growing. Can be 10 feet or more — even if it’s an innocent-looking cherry tomato. Generally, indeterminates are more flavorful because they have longer time to gather up sugars soaking in the sun.
I’m all about the flavor, so I found a workaround to have my flavor and sauce too: “Oxheart” tomatoes. Oxhearts are a lesser-known part of the family tree, of which “Cuore di Bue” is the best known. They are usually roughly heart-shaped, sometimes with wispy foliage that barely seems like it could hold a marigold. They are also intensely flavored, indeterminate, great for fresh eating and have the smooth near-seedless texture of a paste tomato. “Anna Russian,” “Purple Russian” and “Taiga” are some favorites.
But back to choosing. First, remember, you live in Seattle, not San Antonio. Our summers are getting hotter, but we still have a comparatively short growing season. The first factor to look at is your risk tolerance. If yours is low, your best bet is to stick with tomatoes with a DTM, or days to maturity, of 60 to 75 days.
Feeling lucky? Stretch it to 80 to 85 with the help of season extenders like red plastic mulch, frost cloth and Wall-o-Waters that all boost air or soil temperatures for your plants.
Smaller tomatoes typically ripen faster than big, fat bruisers, but check that DTM.
Many Seattleites grow only cherries to avoid the heartbreak of nursing a single 2-pound tomato along all summer just to see it mold on the vine in September, still half-green.
Some early medium-sized maters are “Stupice” (pronounced Stoo-peech-ka), “Moskvich” and one I recommend despite its wince-worthy name: “Bloody Butcher.” Call it what you like, but it’s both productive and packed with rich flavor for such an early type. If you want to be almost guaranteed some homegrown slicing tomatoes, you can’t go wrong with these.
Next, pick varieties that like it on the cooler side, or at least tolerate it. Choose seeds or plants grown locally, and buy varieties selected or bred in places with cold nights — Russia, Czech Republic, the Ukraine, San Francisco and Oregon. Vaunted heirloom “Black Krim” is named for the Crimean Sea. Of those oxhearts mentioned above, two are Russian heirlooms, and “Taiga” is a new variety by independent breeder Karen Olivier from British Columbia.
Short on space? Go with a determinate, a tiny patio tomato like “Tumbling Tom,” or a new dwarf tomato. These are full-sized fruit with heirloom heritage and flavor on compact plants about 3 feet tall. “Tasmanian Chocolate,” “Copperhead” and “Firebird” are some great ones.
On “acidic” tomatoes: Studies have shown that tomatoes all have comparable acidity. Sweeter tomatoes have more sugar, masking acidity. So, if you say you like a “low acid” tomato, you probably prefer a sweeter one.
There are so many combinations of colors in tomatoes, it’s tempting to generalize and say all yellows are mild, purples are smoky and greens are tangy, but those attributes come in all sorts of colors. Craig Lehoullier’s “Epic Tomatoes” cites blind taste tests that show taste is not linked to flesh or skin color.
You can plant tomatoes in Seattle through about early June for a successful harvest now that you know how to choose wisely. When in doubt, ask the nursery staff or the grower for advice.