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Beginners Guide to Tomato Varieties [Color, Shape, Size & Purpose]

Tomatoes have so much more to offer than the sad red balls found in the grocery store. When you grow your own tomatoes you have thousands of tomato varieties to choose from in dozens of colors, sizes, and shapes with specific types of tomatoes for each purpose.

variety of green, yellow, purple and red tomatoes on a wooden surface with text overlay "beginners guide to tomato varieties; color, shape, size and purpose"

There is no easy way to break down different types of tomatoes, there are too many ways to separate them so I’m going to do my best to make this information manageable.

One absolute certainty is that homegrown, garden-fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes are going to run circles around anything you can find in a grocery store. I’ll be honest, a lot of my tomatoes don’t survive to see the inside of my house, they get eaten in the garden still warm from the sun.

When it comes down to picking a specific tomato to plant I recommend trying a few each year. There are so many varieties of tomatoes out there that you could grow a dozen different kinds every year and still never run out of new ones.

Overwhelmed with garden planning? Here are my best tips to help you know What Should You Grow in Your Vegetable Garden

Where to Find Unique Tomatoes

If you want to grow a large variety of unique tomatoes you’ll need to start from seed. This year I replenished my tomato seed stash and ended up with 8 different types even though I ruthlessly cut back on my wish list, it’s way too easy to fall down that tomato seed rabbit hole!

Read more about Ordering Seeds

Growing from seed will give you the most control over your plants and the best variety but it can be a hassle, especially if you are new to gardening and don’t have the grow lights or space.

Learn more about Starting with Seeds Vs. Starting with Plants

The next best option is to find a local greenhouse that starts it’s own plants. They’ll likely have a better selection than the big box stores and the plants will have been started at the best time for your area.

There are two local family-run greenhouses that I always check out when I’m in the area and they always tempt me into buying at least one tomato plant. It’s all nice if your 20 something pound moose cat goes Godzilla on your seedlings.

If those options fail you can always get plants from Lowe’s or Home Depot. Try to find plants that aren’t overgrowing their pots or they might be stress and struggle in the garden.

Now that you know where to find your dream tomato let’s get into the breakdown of different tomato types.

Tomato Plant Growth Habit

When you’re looking for the perfect tomato for your garden you’ll probably come across a few confusing terms. Tomatoes have two different growth habits that determine the best way to grow them and how your harvest will come in.

Indeterminate Tomatoes

The majority of tomatoes fall into the indeterminate or twining/vining category. Indeterminate tomatoes grow continuously and their fruits ripen over a long period of time.

They will just keep going unless they are killed by frost, disease or an incident with chickens. Indeterminate tomatoes grown in a greenhouse where they are protected from the weather and kept safe from disease can live for years.

For best results indeterminate tomatoes should be supported and pruned while they are growing. They will send out suckers, or new stems, from the spaces between the main stem and the leaf stalks.

view of hand removing tomato sucker

Over time those suckers will create more suckers and you’ll end up with a tangled mass of tomato plants. The best way to remove tomato suckers is to pinch them off with your fingers when they are small, the plant will heal the small blemish and the sucker won’t grow back.

It might seem counter productive to remove healthy tomato plant but pruning will keep the tomato plant healthier by allowing for more air flow and reducing the chances of disease.

Indeterminate tomatoes will give you more tomatoes over the entire season which make them more popular for fresh eating than canning.

Determinate Tomatoes

Determinate tomatoes are also called bush tomatoes. They grow to a certain size, set fruit once and that’s pretty much it.

A lot of paste or sauce tomatoes are determinate, it makes sense if you’re going to need a lot of tomatoes at one time to have a few plants ripen all at once.

They are also popular for containers due to the more contained nature of their growth. Pruning is optional for determinate tomatoes, thy just don’t get as big and tangles as the other guys.

You can grow determinate tomatoes in the ground and they don’t require the support that indeterminate tomatoes need but for best results apply a thick layer of straw around the plants to keep the fruits and foliage off the soil and to prevent watering and rain from splashing soil (and potential diseases) onto the plant.

Tomato Uses

When it comes down to it a tomato is a tomato and you can use every tomato for each purpose. But you’ll have much better luck if you use the right tomato for the job.

Tomato Sauce & Canning

If you have your heart set on canning jars filled with delicious homemade sauce you should be looking for paste or Roma tomatoes.

small glass jar filled with red toamto sauce surrounded by other sauce ingredients

Paste tomatoes are meatier and have less juice than standard slicing tomatoes. The extra tomato pulp makes them ideal for making sauces where you cook, and cook, and cook out the moisture.

Most varieties of paste tomato are determinate, which means the majority of their tomatoes will ripen all at once. San Marzano is a popular Italian heirloom paste tomato that happens to be indeterminate.

Looking to dip your toes into food preservation? Maybe Small Batch Canning is right for you

My favorite tomato of all time is Principe Borghese, a golfball-sized paste tomato that was traditionally used for sundried tomatoes. They have the best tomato flavor, not a lot of seeds or goo and those plants are prolific.

In my opinion paste tomatoes are the best tomatoes, they’re amazing on sandwiches (they don’t soak the bread), great for sauce and perfect for snacking. If you can only grow you tomato plant get yourself a Principe Borghese or at least a paste tomato.

Slicing Tomatoes

Our next category is the slicing tomatoes. This is where you get a lot of the variety in appearance.

Slicing tomatoes are usually larger than paste tomatoes and they have more seeds and goo in them making them jucier. They are perfect for slicing and at home in salads and on sandwiches.

If you want a large tomato look for a beefsteak variety, the tomatoes can be over a pound. This year I’m excited to be growing Pineapple tomatoes for the first time, they’re a large yellow-orange beefsteak slicer with pretty red stripes on them.

My favorite way to enjoy a slicing tomato is on a piece of white bread with mayo. My grandma use to make me tomato sandwiches when I was a kid and eating that takes me right back to my childhood.

I haven’t found my perfect slicing tomato yet but I’m enjoying the search. My favorite right now is Cherokee Purple, you can’t beat the flavor but when I grew them I had trouble with them cracking. That was very likely weather-related.

Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes (and grape tomatoes and pear and all the little tomatoes) are fun to grow and like the slicers, you have lots of options for different types of tomato.

I prefer to grow smaller tomatoes, I feel like I have more opportunity for success with dozens of little tomatoes vs putting all my hope into a few big ones. I’ve never had cherry tomatoes break their own vines, something that can happen with the larger tomato types.

The smaller size also lines up with my fresh tomato appetite, I like popping the small fruits in my mouth straight off the vine. I’m not above eating a honking slicer like an apple but it’s messier and people already look at me strangely.

There are so many options out there for cherry tomatoes, just like with the slicers I like to mix it up and try new things. We love Yellow Pear Cherry Tomatoes, their funny shape and low-acidity make them popular with my kids.

Tomato Colors

Color is the most obvious characteristic if you’re looking to grow a unique and different type of tomato. I’ve always been drawn to growing weird things and funny colored tomatoes scratch that itch.

Red Tomatoes

Most tomatoes are red, and most people will only ever eat or grow red tomatoes. There is nothing wrong with red tomatoes, my favorite tomatoes are red!

Not all red tomatoes are boring though! You can find striped and mottled tomatoes with stipes of bronze and pink.

If you find smooth, round tomatoes boring you need to check out the funny-shaped deeply ribbed options. Oxheart is a crazy-looking red tomato with deep ribs that looks almost too pretty to eat.

Green Tomatoes

There are two kinds of green tomatoes, green tomatoes that will eventually rippen into other colors, and green tomatoes that are green when ripe.

If you find a recipe calling for “green tomatoes” chances are good they’re asking for unripened tomatoes. Those recipes are nice to have on hand at the end of the season

two green zebra tomatoes on the vine

We’re here to talk about the other, more fun green tomatoes. The most popular green tomato by far is the Green Zebra. Green Zebra has a pale green color with darker green stripes, you aren’t going to confuse this one for an unripe red tomato.

There are two downsides to green tomatoes, the first is that the tomatoes blend into the foliage and it’s easy to miss them if you aren’t careful. If you keep your vines prunes and supported you’ll be less likely to miss the fruits.

The other issue is it can be hard to know when green tomatoes are ripe. Some varieties of green tomato get a blush of color when they’re ripe but the most reliable way to tell if a green tomato is to grab it (gently) and give it a squeeze (gently). A ripe tomato will yield slightly to pressure, ripe tomatoes are softer and you’ll learn the difference pretty quickly.

Yellow Tomatoes

If you find tomatoes too acidic but you love the flavor try a few yellow tomatoes. From what I can tell, they don’t have less acid but they do have more sugar which hides the sharp bite.

Yellow tomatoes can have the same issues with determining ripeness that you get with green tomatoes and the same solution applies. Just give ’em a squeeze to determine if they’re ready to eat.

Purple Tomatoes

Purple tomatoes are more of a deep burgundy than true purple but that doesn’t make them any less attractive. On the inside purple tomatoes like Cherokee Purple and Black Cherry tend to have a deep greenish color.

The dark tomatoes can be tricky to find in the foliage, especially the smaller varieties, but they will make a impact a bowl of mixed tomatoes.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our journey through different types of tomatoes. I think the best plan is to plant a bunch of different tomatoes every year and eat them until you can’t move.

Check out my Vegetable Garden page for more ideas or start here:

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