One of the most popular plants in the garden is the tomato. And if you like to grow them from seed, the best time to start thinking about your summer tomatoes is in winter. The reason to think about it when there may be snow on the ground is that you need to get your seeds ordered on time. Starting time for tomato seeds, depending on where you are located (which growing zone) is typically sometime between March and April. But, if you are too late to order seeds or prefer to work with starter plants, then springtime is a great time to get growing on your tomatoes, too.

Heirloom tomatoes

This is a collection of different heirloom tomatoes I grew in my Pennsylvania garden. I’ve found heirloom tomatoes very easy to grow with a superior taste.

Photo Credit: ©2004 Buglady Consulting

Determinate tomatoes

Indeterminate tomatoes need to be staked or on a trellis to support their height. The plants can grow quite large. I’ve had plants well over 6 feet tall!

Photo Credit: ©2002 Buglady Consulting

Finding the tomatoes that suit your needs – and tastes – is one of the most important things to start with. If you want the widest selection possible, seeds are the only way to go. An astounding array of tomato seeds can be ordered over the Internet, through catalogs or purchased at garden centers.

If it’s too late for that, another option is to buy tomato starts. These small plants can usually be purchased in the springtime from your local garden center, and also over the Internet. Using tomato starts allows you to skip the seed-starting stage, but it’ll limit you on specific varieties.

Tomatoes are usually broken into several categories, based mostly on shape and size: small, medium and large. The cherry tomatoes are small; moving on to a little bigger, you get the plums; and then you get into the slicers. Some of the slicers can weigh 2 pounds! Tomatoes also come in many colors, including red, pink, yellow, green, purple, 'black' and even speckled or striped – and each has its own special taste.

There are a few key terms to know that are used to describe tomatoes. Knowing them will help you pick the tomato varieties right for you.

Hybrid

Plants that are grown by genetically crossing two plants. Seeds from hybrid vegetables can’t be saved to grow new plants because they won’t produce true in the next generation (you’ll end up with different, not-so-good fruit). These tomatoes are typically more disease- and crack-resistant. They’re bred for specific qualities.

Low Acid

These tomatoes have a higher sugar content and may seem less acidic than regular tomatoes, but they actually have the same amount of acid in them. They have a more appealing taste to some people.

Heirloom

These are tomatoes the way nature made ’em. “Heirloom” simply means that the seeds from these tomatoes will be fertile and capable of producing another tomato plant. You can save the seeds from your summer tomatoes and produce the same plant the next season. These are open-pollinated plants that are not hybrids. Many heirloom varieties aren’t disease-resistant, but they have great flavors, shapes and colors. The drawback is that some heirloom tomatoes are susceptible to disease and may be difficult to grow well.

Determinate

This term refers to the growth habit of the plant. The determinate tomato plant grows to a specific height and then stops growing any larger. The fruit ripens all at once and are good for canning, freezing or drying. These tomatoes are good if you have limited growing space.

Indeterminate

This also refers to the plant’s growth habit: The plant’s genes tell it to keep growing and growing. Indeterminate tomato plants need staking or caging, and they’ll bear fruit all summer until the frosts arrive.

Number of Days

This number lists the number of days until fruit maturity (ripe fruit).

Organic

These are seeds grown under the USDA’s NOP (National Organic Program) standards.

No matter which kind of tomato you choose, you’ll enjoy a bounty of flavor once fruit ripens later in summer. After all, there’s nothing like home-grown ’maters!