Growing tomatoes: best varieties to plant

JASON DORDAY/Stuff.co.nz

Cuisine's Ginny Grant whips up a speedy tart with the best of the summer tomatoes.

I'd be lying if I said I was on friendly terms with homegrown tomatoes. The last time I grew a cracker crop was 2013, the same year I developed a severe allergy to even the gentlest encounter with their hairy foliage. I'm a strictly gloves-on gardener now.  

But rashes and blisters aren't the only reason for my fraught affair with tomatoes. Blight is another perennial bugbear and the wet start to spring can't help. In the past 12 months we've had 2240mm of rain in Hunua, a metre more than the 22-year average. 

Every year my tomatoes succumb to blight but that only makes me more determined to find a practical solution. Rather than turning to sprays, I'm trying a new tack and only planting early-ripening bush or determinate varieties. I'm dead keen to see how the apparently crack-resistant cherry variety 'Gardener's Delight' (King Seeds) goes as it was one of the star performers from the Auckland Botanic Gardens' tomato trial last year. Results are summarised in the photo gallery below.

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'Marriage Big Brandy': Although this chubby variety had the heaviest individual fruit of any variety in the trial, it soon ran out of a puff, with a pathetically short fruiting period of just nine weeks. And given that this tall (2.1m), large-fruited (168.2g) hybrid with heirloom genes took 23 weeks to harvest, it simply wasn‘t worth the wait. An inconsistently big and beautiful tomato that's sadly fleeting in fruit. Overall rating: 4/10.

'Beef Maestro': An F1 hybrid with large fruit weighing 111g on average. Slow off the mark (it took 23 weeks from seed for the first fruit to ripen), the plants grew 1.88m tall and cropped for 19 weeks. A middle-of-the-road tomato. An average performer in the large-fruited category. Overall rating: 5/10.

'Country Taste': With large red fruit, this F1 hybrid produced the highest yield by weight, with individual fruit averaging 158.2g. The plants grew to 2.2m tall and cropped for 19 weeks. It fell just shy of the 8/10 rating it needed to make the cut as a star performer in Auckland. Overall rating: 7/10.

'Roma': This Mediterranean paste tomato struggles down under. I don‘t know anyone, including commercial growers with all the tricks of the trade at their disposal, who rates it here. Though long fruiting (21 weeks) in this trial, it was neither high yielding nor prolific, with fruit averaging 62.7g on short (1.57m) plants. This traditional saucing tomato is best left to the Italians! Overall rating: 4/10.

'Money Maker': An old-time F1 hybrid. The plants were shorter than most of their compatriots, growing only to 1.73m high, and took longer to crop (22 weeks). Fruit was picked for 19 weeks and weighed 59.5g on average. This popular old-timer is no longer the best in its category. Overall rating: 6/10.

'Juliet': The tallest and most vigorous of the medium-sized tomatoes, ‘Juliet’ grew to 2.13m. This F1 hybrid took 20 weeks to harvest but once she started cropping, there was no stopping her, with a very long fruiting period of 21 weeks. The fruit weighed 28.9g on average and recorded high Brix levels. Overall rating: 8/10.

'Chef's Choice Orange': Of the five medium-fruited varieties in the trial, this had the largest and heaviest fruit, weighing in at 131g each on average. (And, as a bonus, studies by the New Zealand Heritage Food Crops Research Trust have shown that orange tomatoes are richer in health-giving lycopene too.) This hybrid variety took 22 weeks to harvest and the 2.03m tall plants fruited well for 19 weeks. Overall rating: 8/10.

'Sweet Gold': Managing only a 50 per cent pass mark, this F1 hybrid golden cherry tomato took 19 weeks to harvest and continued cropping for 19 weeks, with fruit averaging 13.6g each. The plants grew 2.25m high. An average crop from this F1 hybrid cherry tomato. Overall rating: 5/10.

'Golden Nugget': Not worth the effort. This open pollinated golden cherry tomato was quick to crop, taking only 19 weeks, but didn't last the distance, fruiting for only 12 weeks. (Compare that to the 22 weeks of ‘Gardener's Delight'.) Individual fruit weighed an average of 11.4g each. Overall rating: 3/10.

'Early Money': Of the medium-fruited varieties, ‘Early Money’ had the highest yield by weight, plus (along with ‘Juliet’) had slightly higher Brix levels, indicating higher sugar levels. This F1 hybrid took 22 weeks to harvest and cropped for 18 weeks, with meaty fruit weighing 124.9g on average, on plants 2.1m tall. Sweet to eat. Overall rating: 8/10.

'Sungold': Fancy something other than red cherry tomatoes? This F1 hybrid had a respectable haul of small (10.3g) golden fruit over a very long period of 21 weeks. It took the 1.85m tall plants 20 weeks from seed to harvest. A worthy hybrid if you fancy golden-orange cherry tomatoes. Overall rating: 7/10.

'Sweet 100': When beginner gardeners ask me for tomato variety recommendations, I always suggest they start with ‘Sweet 100‘ – and my experience growing this popular hybrid was confirmed by the trial at the Botanic Gardens. I‘ve never had a crop failure with this vigorous, easy-care, prolific cropper. In fact, the only niggle I have with ‘Sweet 100‘ is that if you plant grafted plants, you‘ll never be able to keep up with picking and eating them all! In the Botanic Gardens‘ trial, ‘Sweet 100‘ came second only to 'Gardener's Delight' for yield (not surprising given that its fruit are about half the size), but it had a slightly higher Brix level, which means it tastes sweeter. It took 21 weeks to harvest and continued cropping for 19 weeks on plants up to 2.43m high. ‘Sweet 100' is widely available as either seed or potted plants. Highly recommended for sweet red fruit – and oodles of them. Overall rating: 8/10.

'Gardener's Delight': This open-pollinated, red cherry tomato took 21 weeks from seed to harvest and had both the longest fruiting period (22 weeks) and the best yields by weight for its category. Individual fruit averaged 21.6g each. The plants were the tallest (2.42m) and most vigorous. Organic seeds are available from Kings Seeds. Overall rating: 8/10.

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As a rule, if your climate thwarts your tomato crop – if it's too cold in spring or summers are short – seek out varieties with "early" in their name. Try 'Baxter's Early Bush', 'Early Doll', 'Early Girl' (or improved 'New Girl'). 

Every microclimate has its quirks. "When you grow on the margins," says Catlins gardener Wendy De Boer, "the biggest problem is getting the calves out of my polytunnel so the tomatoes can move in!"

Last summer, the Auckland Botanic Gardens set out to investigate how best to grow tomatoes outdoors without blight, bugs and blossom-end rot ruining your crop. The Botanic Gardens actively avoid using sprays so one of the aims of their trial was to find out how much (if any) chemical intervention is required to get a great crop in Auckland's humid climate.

Auckland Botanic Gardens' tomato trial was coordinated by Emma Bodley (pictured) with data collection by Matthew Savage ...
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Auckland Botanic Gardens' tomato trial was coordinated by Emma Bodley (pictured) with data collection by Matthew Savage and Julie Hubrich, and support from the Manukau Beautification Charitable Trust.

• For the trial, 152 plants of 13 varieties were sown (in mid-August), grown on, and planted out (at the end of October) in trial beds prepared with 1 cup of biofert/m². The plants were spaced 80cm apart in rows running north to south, in full sun, and exposed to the prevailing wind. The laterals were removed and the plants were tied to supporting trellis. 

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• Some plants were sprayed weekly with liquid copper, while control plants were not. However, last summer wasn't bad for blight and only one 'Money Maker' plant in the trial was affected, so it was impossible to tell if the copper sprays made any difference. 

• Is liquid fertiliser worth it? No. Despite fortnightly applications of seaweed-based liquid fertiliser during the growing season, there was no noticeable difference to either yield or flavour. "An unnecessary expense," the trial team concluded.  

In a public tasting, everyone agreed that 'Sweet 100' was the sweetest. But as for flavour, the public's palates showed ...
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In a public tasting, everyone agreed that 'Sweet 100' was the sweetest. But as for flavour, the public's palates showed variable results with no consistent preference and opinions didn't align with test results.

• Of the 13 varieties chosen, five were cherry tomatoes, five were medium-sized and three were large meaty types. There wasn't much variation in the weight or size of the cherry varieties, regardless of how they were grown, but 'Sweet 100' and 'Sweet Gold' produced the greatest numbers of tomatoes.

• Of the medium-fruited cultivars, 'Juliet' had a significantly higher number of fruit but because they weighed less on average, the other cultivars produced similar yields. The individual fruit of 'Chef's Choice Orange' and 'Early Money' were larger and heavier.

• Big isn't always best. Of the three large-fruited cultivars, 'Country Taste' was the most prolific. The plants of 'Beef Maestro' weren't particularly vigorous and were first to die back (before the end of the trial), causing their grades to slip! Meanwhile, 'Marriage Big Brandy' didn't always live up to its name, with some plants producing juicy big whoppers while others yielded cherry-sized tiddlers. 

Last summer, the Auckland Botanic Gardens set out to investigate how best 
to grow tomatoes outdoors without blight, ...
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Last summer, the Auckland Botanic Gardens set out to investigate how best to grow tomatoes outdoors without blight, bugs and blossom-end rot ruining your crop.

• If you're impatient, note that there was a one-month difference between the earliest and latest varieties to ripen. 'Sweet Gold' and 'Gold Nugget' were quick to colour up, while 'Beef Maestro' and 'Marriage Big Brandy' came in last. This isn't unusual, as cherry tomatoes always ripen first. In general, cherry varieties seem to do better than other tomatoes.  

• A public taste test of all 13 varieties threw up some surprising results. When asked to rate each tomato for flavour, sweetness, appearance and personal preference, everyone agreed that 'Sweet 100' was the sweetest. But as for flavour, the public's palates showed "variable results with no consistent preference" and opinions didn't align with the Brix testing results.

• 'Sweet 100' had the highest sugar levels for a cherry tomato; 'Juliet' won the medium category; and 'Country Taste' was the sweetest large fruit.

Lynda Hallinan shares helpful hints for bigger, better tomato crops.
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Lynda Hallinan shares helpful hints for bigger, better tomato crops.

Tips for growing tomatoes in New Zealand
• Don't transplant tomato seedlings until Labour Weekend. The weather is too unsettled until then.

• Tired of tasteless tomatoes? Try "dry farming" (halt all watering once the fruit is forming) or give them a splash of sea water. Research at Rutgers University in the US found that tomatoes given a one-time drench with 1.5 litres of sea water (or 4 teaspoons of salt dissolved in the same volume of water) tasted better and also ripened up to 15 per cent faster.

• F1 hybrids are the work of plant breeders. They are the first generation raised by cross-pollinating two different types of tomato. You can save your own seed from F1 fruit but when they grow the following season they won't necessarily turn out the same (be "true to type"). But open-pollinated tomatoes, such as heirloom varieties, are more stable and will look like their parents. 

• Indeterminate varieties grow as tall vines. They keep growing and produce fruit until the first autumn frosts kill the plants off, whereas determinate or bush types are more compact with a strong central leader. They don't need as much staking but fruit for a shorter season. 

Tips for growing tomatoes in containers
• If you want to grow tomatoes in pots, choose varieties bred for this purpose. Stick to cherry tomatoes, tumbling tomatoes and determinate or bush tomatoes. Most are quick to crop within 120 days from seed. 

• Take your pick from 'Tumbling Tom Red' (Egmont Seeds, pictured) or its cousin 'Tumbling Tom Yellow'; 'Tiny Tim' (Yates); 'Balcony' (Egmont Seeds), 'Container Choice Red F1' (Kings Seeds) or 'Patio F1' (Egmont Seeds).

• Aim for non-permeable pots at least as big as a 10-litre plastic bucket (for a single plant) or cut holes in a 40-litre bag of potting mix and slip seedlings straight into it. 

• The main challenge is always watering. Tomatoes in hanging baskets need a good soak twice a day; an automatic irrigation dripper is best. Never water the foliage. Use a potting mix that includes a wetting agent. 

Read more about growing veges in pots and small spaces.

'Indigo Rose' (Kings Seeds) is an unusual variety.
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'Indigo Rose' (Kings Seeds) is an unusual variety.

 - NZ Gardener

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