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Vail gardens: Choosing a tomato plant to grow at home

Stacey Jones
Dirty Hands
Vail, CO Colorado

I felt spring in the air this week. My, does it feel good. Spring gets me thinking about what veggie plants I might want to grow for the summer. I have limited growing space so tomatoes always make it to the top of my list.

I continually keep my eye out for tomato varieties that are worth it: not too much trouble and high producers. So, what do what I mean by “not too much trouble.”

First, I must choose a plant that, at maturity, will not be larger than my growing space. I want to be sure the plant can grow to full size to maximize production. Space is also an important issue to ensure the plant gets adequate air flow and sunlight.



The type of tomato plant that I choose can make all the difference. There are three types of tomato plants that have very different growing habits. The fancy terms for these three types are determinates, indeterminates and semi-determinates. Don’t let these terms scare you, they are actually a very important consideration when determining what to grow.

Determinate varieties form low squatty bushes. Clusters of flowers set at the ends of the stems, stopping the growth on the plant so that all the fruit forms at about the same time.



Indeterminate varieties set fruit clusters along a vining stem, which continues to grow all season. They never set a terminal flower cluster, so they grow indefinitely. They’ll produce fruit throughout the season, until their lifespan graciously or abruptly comes to an end.

Semi-determinate varieties stay short and bushy, similar to the determinates, but will produce all season long as the indeterminates do.

Determinate types can be either dwarf or bushy. The dwarf styles will easily mature in a 6-inch diameter pot. The bushy styles will easily mature in a small sitting pot or a hanging basket. For our climate and short season, determinate varieties may last most of the season, depending on how early the plant is started in spring.



Indeterminate varieties of tomatoes will mature best in the ground or in a large container. They can produce longer into the fall and early winter (if brought indoors away from the winter cold). If brought indoors in the in the fall, indeterminate varieties will need very good lighting and plenty of space.

My second consideration is maturity days. Given our short summer growing season, many of us look for the ‘shorter season’ tomatoes, meaning we want the number of days to maturity to be as few as possible. Long season tomatoes can take upward of 100 days to mature. Short season tomatoes can take as little as 50 days to mature. Obviously, here in the mountains, the shorter the better.

My third consideration is which varieties will best tolerate the colder nights of the Rocky Mountains. I believe I am blessed to live in the mountains, but too often my tomato plants disagree. I live in Edwards where it can get pretty cool on some summer nights. For this reason, I prefer to stick with varieties that tolerate cold.

My final consideration is flavor and shape and how I want to use the tomato in the kitchen. Standard globe varieties are best as “salad tomatoes.” Beefsteak varieties are best as “slicers,” especially on a nice juicy hamburger.

Cherry and plum varieties are smaller, but also tend to be sweeter. There are also the weird-shaped varieties that don’t fall into any category but are fun to serve. And the good tasting heirloom varieties can be notoriously gnarly looking but produce lower yields.

Once I make my variety selections I can’t forget the basics. Nutrients and the soil, as well as growing conditions (temperature and light) are key ingredients in ensuring my tomato plant will produce abundantly. I can’t say enough about nutrients. The minerals in the soil (or water) are essential to keep a tomato plant healthy and happy.

Stacey Jones works with the team at Colorado Alpines and the Wildflower Farm, located in Edwards on Highway 6. Your feedback is valuable! Please send your thoughts to thewildflowerfarm@msn.com Join the Wildflower Farm’s educational newsletter for more great gardening tips and education, and to receive monthly discount opportunities.


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