A tomato review, vol. 2

As mentioned, we’ve had an utterly spectacular year for tomatoes. I knowingly overplanted simply because we’d gotten off to such a terrible start, and I honestly had very little faith that my scrawny, under-nourished plants would thrive. Once they received a compost tea shot, however, and then were planted out in our compost-enriched soil, all of the plants absolutely took off. In more than ten years of growing food, this is the first year where I was regularly behind on harvesting tomatoes – I simply couldn’t pick them fast enough.

To that end, we present our second annual tomato review. Each year we grow some old favorites and some new experiments to see what we might want to add to future seasons. We grow primarily open-pollinated heirlooms, both for exemplary flavor and so we can save our seeds, but we do also grow the occasional hybrid for interest and experimentation. Previously I’d only ever grown the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes, because I didn’t believe we had a long-enough growing season to produce the large heirlooms, but this magical season proved everything wrong. I’ll definitely plant the larger heirlooms again in upcoming years.

This was our first year growing Barry’s Cherry. This heirloom tomato, bred by the legendary Brad Gates, is small and pale yellow with a pointed “beak” at the end. The flavor is terrific, tangy and bright with a hint of acidity, and the plant produces unbelievable yields on huge clusters. I’d definitely grow this tomato again; my only complaint is that the fruit tends to fall off the vine with even the slightest sideways glance. This makes harvesting really challenging and would definitely render this difficult to grow in a large-scale commercial operation. For home gardens, however, it’s a great choice.

I organized the tomato photos in this year’s review alphabetically, rather than in order of preference, which does somewhat minimize the suspenseful awards-show atmosphere: Black Cherry is the 2021 Taste Winner. These seeds originated from a tomato I tasted from a friend’s garden last year, and she didn’t know the exact name, nor whether they were heirloom or hybrid. I took a chance on saving those seeds and lo and behold, now we have Black Cherry seeds in abundance. This tomato is gorgeous, with a blackish-purple coloration that indicates higher levels of anthocyanins. The flavor is incredible – that perfect blend of sweetness and acidity that I’m always looking for in tomatoes. The plants produced well, and I found that the tomatoes growing lower on the vine (i.e. out of direct sunlight) had better flavor and a darker color. Black Cherry has definitely earned its spot in Quiet Farm’s mandatory planting category.

We grew Chadwick Cherry tomatoes last year, and they’re in regular rotation now, too. They’re likely never going to win our taste test because the flavor isn’t quite as bright or sparkly as some of my other favorites, but the plants produce early and abundantly, and the tomatoes are perfect in recipes where their flavor will blend rather than dominate. This tomato is named for organic gardening pioneer Alan Chadwick, an interesting character if ever there was one.

I’ve long known about the Cherokee Purple tomato, a pre-1890 variety that was only reintroduced commercially about thirty years ago, but never thought I could grow it at 6300 feet in a high-plains desert. This season absolutely proved me wrong. We produced multitudes of huge Cherokee Purple fruit on heavy vines that should have been staked better than they were (lesson learned for next year). Like the Black Cherry above, the Cherokee Purple has rich, wine-dark coloration and a deep, almost smoky flavor. This is a certainly a full-size heirloom that we’ll grow again. (One caveat: we also grew Black Krim tomatoes this year, and thanks to an unfortunate tag mishap, it is difficult to tell which plants are which as the fruits are very similar. Perhaps our saved seeds will create a new Cherokee Krim crossbreed?)

This was our first year with Galina, a small, sunshine-yellow cherry tomato originating in Siberia. The fruit ripens early, as one might expect from a cold-climate Russian tomato, and produces well. The flavor is bright and cheerful and of course it’s lovely to have yellow tomatoes to accompany the red and green varieties for colorful salads. Galina didn’t win our taste test this year, but it’s a much more interesting tomato than Yellow Pear, a classic small yellow heirloom that we found rather bland and flat last year.

We’ve grown Green Zebra for a number of years now. The striated color is stunning, especially when paired with red and yellow tomatoes, and the flavor is terrific. It can be a little difficult to tell when Green Zebras are ripe – they actually turn slightly golden when they’re ready to be harvested; gently pressing on the bottom of the tomato is often a good indication of ripeness, if color is difficult to determine. This is a classic heirloom and one we’re happy to grow every year.

Jaune Flamme, meaning “yellow flame” in French, has quickly become one of our favorite tomatoes. It’s medium-size, about a golf ball or a bit larger, with abundant fruits and sparky flavor. Here, at least, it presents as more fiery orange than yellow, and it makes a stunning golden tomato sauce or soup. On the downside, this was the only tomato where we observed blossom end rot this year which may doom it for future plantings if the trend continues.

Juliet made its first appearance at Quiet Farm this year too. This is a small Roma-style hybrid tomato, and the plants remained relatively compact – as opposed to some varieties that have stretched and vined and tangled absolutely everywhere. Juliet ripened early but the flavor was nothing special; for me, it’s too flat and sweet without any of the acidity I seek. The fruits also fell off the plants regularly, which isn’t a plus. The tomatoes are fine in salsas and sauce, but I’d be hard-pressed to grow this again without experimenting with other interesting tomatoes first.

Lemon Boy is a rare hybrid here at Quiet Farm; a friend had extra plants that were headed for the compost, so we planted a few. The fruit is standard in size and a gorgeous, shimmering yellow that’s easy to spot when ripe. The flavor was delicious too and showed up perfectly on a salad platter against darker red and subtle green tomatoes. Although we’d be happy to grow these next year, Lemon Boy is a hybrid (the yellow version of Better Boy) so we won’t bother saving seeds and will hope to just be gifted starts again.

Lucky Tiger is an amazing tomato and was our hands-down winner in last year’s taste test. Developed by Fred Hempel, another legendary tomato breeder, Lucky Tiger has it all – stunning looks, spectacular flavor and reasonable productivity for a finicky heirloom. One seed catalog sums it up perfectly: “This tomato gets top marks for flavor: tangy, sweet and complex with tropical notes and balanced acidity.” Lucky Tiger is so impressive that it should encourage everyone to grow unusual heirlooms. This is another tomato that will definitely be planted every year at Quiet Farm.

We grew San Marzano and Roma tomatoes this year; these are both elongated paste tomatoes with meaty flesh and not too much in the way of juice or seeds. They’re typically used for sun-dried tomatoes or sauce making. Ours were mediocre at best; the plants took forever to set fruit and took forever to ripen, and only now are the plants loaded with green, unripe fruit. Spoiler alert: we don’t have enough time left in our growing season for these to yield much more. Overall, I was unimpressed. As always, I’ll save seeds but it could well be a couple of years before I’m willing to give these another shot.

This was our first year growing Supersweet 100s, although we grew Peacevine Cherry last year, which is the dehybridized version of this tomato. This is a glorious tomato, tiny and sweet and perfect for eating by the handful. It produces so abundantly and in such difficult-to-access clusters that we still have thousands on the vine that need to be harvested. This tomato is really too tiny to cook with but is ideal for eating fresh. We won’t save seeds from these, since it’s a hybrid, but will definitely grow Peacevine Cherry again.

Our final tomato this season is Virginia Sweets, another full-size heirloom that we were surprised to produce. These tomatoes are massive – well over a pound each – and gorgeous, with an unusual streaky yellow and red sunset appearance. The flavor, however, left a bit to be desired. Like sweet corn, many tomato breeders in recent years have focused on breeding sweeter and sweeter tomatoes, because that’s what the American palate seems to demand. (This is why lemon juice is now mandated in home-canned tomatoes, because too much acid has been removed and the pH is no longer suitable for long-term storage.) I’m thrilled to have successfully grown such large heirlooms, but I’d probably try another variety before growing these again, since the flavor wasn’t balanced enough for my tastes. A satisfying experiment, nonetheless!

What tomato varieties did you grow this year? Any that particularly captured your fancy? We’d love to know more about your favorites.

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