January 28, 2018

Rating Tomatoes - Which Ones are the Best to Eat and not the ones I grew last year.

I ordered my tomato seeds today, and even an old dog like me has learned new tricks.

I know - I overshared a bit in my last post. Enough of the 'Groaning with Plants' posts. Back to business and today, that means tomatoes. I've been writing my pages on tomatoes for my book, which reminded me that I had better order seed now before it is too late. I won't be sowing seed until late April or early May for setting out into the garden in early June, but I know from experience that the hard-to-get varieties will be impossible to get once spring comes around.

Believe me, gardeners can get seriously geeky about tomatoes.

First off, don't assume that all heirloom tomatoes are good to eat, also don't assume that the nursery will grow only the best varieties. You will need to do some research, read all of the catalogs and some of the best books on tomatoes out there (I share some of those later in this post), and then make your own decisions based on what you will be using you tomatoes for. You might want sweeter varieties or some that are more acidic for caning. Meaty or savory varieties might be preferred over slicers, or you might be planning on making sauce and not eating them all raw with sea salt. If you are like me, you night be able to find a reason to grow every one.

Tomatoes. I've neglected them, lately. Only grew a few last year (30 or so plant, which is 'just a few' for me, most of which I have to admit didn't do very well, which is surprising as it was a very good tomato year last year (very little Late Blight). I realized what my problem was half-way through the gardening season - I didn't do my homework, and I took a risk trying a bunch of heirlooms which I wasn't familiar with. Big mistake. Here is how it all happened.

I was writing my book so needed lots of space for other veggies that I knew I wouldn't be able to find elsewhere - like 15 varieties of okra, lots of melons and watermelons, dried beans, and odd cucumbers from Tibet and elsewhere. I didn't want to ever have to buy a vegetable from a market and photograph it for my book as it feels wrong. In much the same way that a garden writer should never write about a plant that they never have grown. It's just a pet peeve of mine along with photos of supermarket vegetables set into a garden scene. If I see asparagus spears shoved into the ground in an attempt to make look as if they were growing there, who knows what I will do.

Of course I grow flowers. I grow, well, everything, right? Don't you? Does anyone else have this pereption problem?

TOmato seedlings last April. Yes, it is far too early in much of the country to start planting tomatoes, but it isnt too early to order ones seed. The really good varieties will be sold out.

My tomatoes don't get planted into the ground until early June, when our soil warms up to near 70 deg. I've even sown seed directly before and the plants raced back large seedlings from the Home Depot. Soil temperature is key.  How many of you use a soil thermometer? Most commerical growers do.

SO-- my book. My hope is to introduce step-by-step images for more unusual veggies especially for those which few people grow - like Lima beans, Okra, Bitter Melon, Luffa, Parsnips.As for the common veggies like beans and yes, tomatoes, well, it looks like I need to touch on those deeper as well.

I suppose that I was being conscious and felt that I need to respect what information is already out in the marketplace for vegetable growing books Do any of you really need to know how I raise string beans, zucchini or tomatoes? I assumed that most vegetable gardeners already know how to plant the most common vegetable in the vegetable garden, or am I wrong?  And, I very well could be wrong, for even I screwed up epically with tomatoes this past year.

With thousands of tomato varieties now available, why limit yourself to the names you know? But be careful - for looks isn't everything. I still buy the rainbow, but look first to the flavor profile before I look at the color. First look for flavor, then for type (Beefsteak, cherry, pear, etc) then for use - sauce and stuffing tomatoes don't need to be sweet and flavorful, it's often OK to choose a variety which is bland or firm with pulp, others, may need to be acidic and low in sugar. Know what your ultimate use is.

Here's why.

I skipped sowing tomatoes last spring, as I knew that I would need space in the greenhouse for more unusual crops for my book.  Besides, I could find my favorite varieties at local garden centers or at plant sales. I wasn't worried about finding Striped German's and Prudens Purples. I can even find Green Zebra's at the Walmart garden center now.

But as luck has it, planting plans were altered In early June just after Joe and I drove up to Vermont to scout out some other sources for other vegetables that I needed. We stopped at Walker's Farm Stand a place I had heard of through Wayne Winterrowd's books but never found a reason to take the 2-hour drive to visit.]

Upon pulling into the parking lot a couple of customers and a worker there actually recognized us, which was funny - blog followers are everywhere, I am convinced, so once I was able to ditch the inevitable paparazzi and sign a few autographs (kidding, but close - really), we shopped.

Walker's Farm in Dummerston Vermont (relatively near us )offers hundreds of perfectly raised tomato seedlings each spring in individual pots. I just need to learn about which varieties to choose. Best to go prepared next year. Better yet - I will start some myself as one never knows if they will be sold out, or skipped a variety for a year.

It was late in the day and the place was about to close.

Walker's was, which I didn't know,  known for pre-started heirloom tomato plants - they had individual pots of over 250 heirloom varieties! So many that Joe and I instantly both entered plantamorphicparalysis or more accurately, Horticultimania - you know, that condition which afflicts only plant people when they become overwhelmed by awesome selection.

The same thing happens with a few female friends I know, at pop-up Manolo store sales (a couple of male friends, too). (I know as if there are Manolo stores and Manolo sales.).

The problem was, they had only one laminated list which was typewritten, with a single-line description along with the lines of "bright orange with a tart flavor:, for each variety, and it was chained to a bench. There was a woman who kept warning us that "Boy's - we're closing in 5 minutes you know" so that didn't help with anything except with the volume of plants we were grabbing. And grab, we did. You do what you have to do in such situations.

Quickly, I snapped at Joe "Just pick out 10 of your favorite names and I'll grab 10 names that I like. The only rule is to not choose a variety that you've heard of before."

So we grabbed ones with interesting Russian names or anything with 'Pineapple or Peach' in it. If it was a black anything, we grabbed it. If it said 'blue' or 'purple' that too.

Stop judging me! You would do the same thing. They were only about $3.00 each (I think, really, I don't remember), but they weren't $7.00 or anything near the price of a single 4 inch fancy Proven Winners type of annual.

With this strategy, we would surely end up with some very interesting choices. The 'Big Beefsteak types' and "Green Zebra's were varieties that are not rare,  and I could find those anywhere, even at Walmart.

For years I have grown tomatoes, both heirlooms, and new hybrids but after a disaster last year, I discovered that all tomatoes -heirloom or not, are not created the same.

As I said, space was limited so I only added a few more plants of black-fruited ones that I did start in the greenhouse, believing that I had a pretty good selection of both colorful and hopefully, flavorful tomatoes. Like most gardeners, I kept my fingers crossed that 2017 might be a good year for tomatoes and a bad year for Phytopthora infestans - the dreaded 'late blight' that can turn a bed of tomatoes into a wicked moldy mess of dead leaves and fruit by August.

As it turned out, it was a decent year for tomatoes, and it seems that I had everything in order. Three new bee hives were busy pollinating, lots of sunny days, and I was home so I could water and fertilize, prune, train and stake almost every day, but few tomatoes were forming, and the ones that were beginning to look uninteresting.

I turned to my friend Amy Goldman Fowler's landmark book  'The Heirloom Tomato' and decided to look up all of the names of those tomatoes we bought in Vermont to see how she rated them.

Amy goes into great detail not only about growing tomatoes, but lists many in here book each with their name, their synonyms (and there are many of those, so it helps with the confusion that exists between many heirloom varieties as the names were handed down, shared and traded, often changing along the way.

With my tags in hand, and gradually learned that each of the tomatoes we bought from that massive list in Vermont had indeed a great name, but the quality rating in her book confirmed my fears, In fact, I don't think that we had a single tomato variety worthy of a home garden.

I rarely plant tomatoes directly into the open soil without mulch anymore, but sometimes I need to. If so, I plant new varieties bred for disease resistance and hybrid vigor.

For example, rushed as we were, we both grabbed a healthy looking seedling of a variety that had the name 'Alberta Peach', an heirloom peach fuzz coated variety with very fuzzy leaves and enormous leaves. In Amy's book, I began to find varieties listed which began to excite me.

'Pink Peach'
Amy says that the flavor is 'Peachy keen' ,

OK, that sounds like it was a good choice.

Then Amy writes about one called'Yellow Peach'.
The Flavor the said is 'Excellent and well balanced.'

OK, that's good too,

Then'Peach Blow Sutton'.

Flavor: Excellent. Amy wrote that it is  "cool and refreshing" . A "tomato-lite flavor".
(OK, not sure what "tomato-lite" is, but it cant be that bad.).

'Peche', Amy writes, is a variety from 1891 with at flavor profile of: "Good, mildly sweet and refreshing".

Yes. I want that too,

Joe picking the last of last year's tomatoes. A bit of late blight, but it was nearly October.

But the problem was that I could not find one called 'Alberta Peach'. Maybe I was missing something, or maybe it was just one of the thousands of names of heirloom tomatoes was just synonymous with another similar variety. Yet while I perusing the index in Amy's book,  I found a variety called 'Elberta Girl', and began to think that maybe the label was misspelled.

Sure enough, under the synonyms which Amy so thoughtfully lists for each variety found that another name for this tomato was indeed  'Elberta Peach'. Nice. This is a comprehensive book and the research that went into it shows.

The description though was nto what I expected. This wasnt an old heirloom at all but rather one from the 1980's. Amy's then wrote these notes:

'Elberta Girl'. Flavor: "A juicy hardball. The skin is waxy,
bypass the striped fruit of Elberta Girl-unless you want a hood ornament".

I didnt want a hood ornament.

Oh, Amy. Where did I go wrong?

Every summer we host tomato tasting parties, that is until last year. Many friends from California to the Netherlands are familiar with these dinners and some plan visits for late August and early September. Yum!

I guess I should have read every single entry in your gorgeous book and not be distracted by the beautiful photos byVictor Schrager.

So I did.


All of the varieties I grew last year had their flavor profiles and sometimes their brix numbers in their descriptions. When I looked up the varieties that I grew last year, I coudl see exactly where I went wrong. Sometimes, if not most of the time, the name and colors of heirloom tomatoes can misselead you.

Black Plum, Flavor, --"Bland"
King Humbert, Flavor-- "Bland"
Brown Flesh, Flavor: -- Fair to good"
Caro-Rich, Flavor -- "Fair to non-descript'
Black Prince, Flavor: -- "Poor"

The list went on.

"on the acidic side",
"mildly pleasing at best".

I suck at picking out tomato varieties.

I am not kidding here, and although I know this list is somewhat subjective, it's also not as if Amy doesn't know her tomatoes. Amy's husband is Cary Fowler, Ph.D., the former Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and instrumental in the creation of the Svalbard Global Seed Bank in Norway. Surely he knows good tomatoes. Amy herself is a noted plantswoman with many accomplishments; author of four books on vegetables, three of which have won  American Horticultural Society's Book of the Year awards. Amy is also sits on the Board at the New York Botanical Garden. Amy is known as a tomoto guru (and a squash, melon and pepper guru just to name a few). She grows hundreds and hundreds of varieties on her farm. She's even had tomatoes named after her. For that metter,  she's even named tomatoes.

When the skills of a serious scientist and serious gardener combine - in a kitchen, something tells me that they would know how to judge the flavor quality of a tomato.

Her books are worth getting and reading and rereading not just becasue they are beuatifully designed and photographed, but because they are well written and exceptionally well researched. The reader can tell that Amy didnt sit on Google 'researching', but  that she spent hours and hours in librarys.

Let me put it this way: Gregory Long, President of the New York Botanical Garden describes her as 'perhaps the world's premier vegetable gardener.", and I have to agree. Joe and I have spent hours in her fields of melons, squashes, peppers and tomatoes oogling at the diversity and trials. You want to read books by people who collected and grew all of what they wrote about - and then know that they did the research as well. Brilliant.

Clusters of tomatoes ripen in a beautiful way, from the bottom to the top, but we often nevert appreciate the coloring until the winter when we discover a photo like this.

So, I learned my lesson here. I made some assumptions about tomatoes, only buying the ones I was familar with, but when I stepped out of my comfort zone and tried some new ones, I didnt do my homework. Amy's book informed me in many ways. It showed me what tomatoes I should have grown, and after a couple of hours reading every page I ended up with lists. One had 30 heirloom varieties on it, all rated high on flavor performance. Each were described as being 'Excellent" in flavor, and a few as "sublime", "Sumptuous', "perfection, with both highest sugar and acid". I eliminated any rated as "good" or "sweet and nutty", "balanced" or even "Good to Excellent", clearly, I've been spooked.

Every year find the photos of tomato harvests from previous years, and it's fun to look at one's notes and the colors to see what worked, and what didn't. This shot is from 4 years ago, and with no notes, I cant remember now what varieties I had.

I am not going to share all of the varieties that I ordered tonight, as many get sold out quickly.  Amy does list sources, and there are many, in the back of her book. A couple here I will share:

Tomato Bob's and Totally Tomatoes, are two that I recommend aside from the sources we already know. Each offers hundreds of tomato varieties as well as other vegetables. If you want the full list I suggest that you get Amy's book. It wouldn't be right for me to post them all here, besides, the list is too long.

Another helpful resource is the Cornell University site called VEGETABLE VARIETIES FOR GARDENERS were one can enter the name of any vegetable and see ratings by both professional and amateur gardeners. It's a site that will show you the highest rated tomatoes (or radishes, squash or what have you) as well as the lowest. Reviews are entered in daily and it's easy to waste a lot of time on this site. FYI - 'Sungold' was reviewed the most with 4 and a half stars.

I have no problem sharing my sources, however, if you think that will be helpful, I can write that list up in the next post - just let me know in the comments sections, sometimes there are secret sources that escaped someone, but most of the time I just assume everyone knows everything.

With thousands of 'heirloom' tomatoes out there, even the most experienced can get confused. What I've learned is to not trust the names, to not trust that all 'heirlooms' are indeed old tomatoes and that just because the big seed companies carry a pretty variety, it doesn't mean that there are not others out there which are better.

Amy's book has 6 pages of sources on-line, it's a book I use frequently to help me week out the trash tomatoes, for the catalogs, especially the heirloom tomato and pepper catalogs are full of hyperbole and "this is my favorite!", which really doesn't help me. Either that or I just don't trust anyone anymore!

I will share that I bought:
Casady's Folly, Dixie Golden Giant, Aunt Ruby's German Green, to name a few.

If you have a fav, please share it and tell us why.



  1. Hmmm, I like Black Plum. I've never really thought it tasted bad or didn't have a taste. My favorites are Arkansas Traveler and Amazon Chocolate.

    I love Amy's book---bought it 10 years ago when we were just getting into tomatoes. It's great to peruse from time to time. Last year was the first time I was able to get a peach variety to actually fruit---I'd never had them fruit before and it was a last ditch effort to try. The fruit was alright and interesting but I didn't get enough off the plant to want to keep growing it. So, it's back off the list.

    1. I need to try Black Plum again - I think all of the black tomatoes are goodie if just for their looks. I'm going to try a few more peach or Angora varieties this year, the foliage alone in fun - maybe in the ornamental garden!

  2. Boring, I know, but my favorite is always 'Sungold'. So easy to just keep picking and freezing them and then make tomato soup straight from the frozen marbles at least once a week all winter.

  3. Wow! You make tomatoes into art. :)

  4. Anonymous12:40 PM

    Thank you for the reminder to order seeds! I am taking a more contrarian approach to selecting tomato varieties. After years of optimizing heirloom tomato culture (mulch, fertilizers, irrigation, pest control, coculture) and still battling every imaginable tomato disease and pest, I grew tired of losing plants in late July. Now I ban almost all ‘heirloom’ types and only plant newer indeterminate and disease resistant varieties and hybrids. Also, most of these new introductions taste great, look gorgeous and survive until September. My favorites so far are ‘Chef’s Choice Orange (or Pink) Hybrid’, Artisan Blush Tiger, Artisan Purple Bumble Bee, and a few of the fun varieties created by Brad Gates from Wild Boar Farm that are available from Rare Seeds. And Sungold of course, which is also a hybrid and appears to be Teflon-coated against diseases.

  5. I learned a similar lesson last year after growing a free sample of heirloom tomato seeds from Baker Creek, Green Vernissage. The tomatoes tasted so awful that I just cut the plants down. With my greenhouse space at an absolute premium, I was disappointed to have wasted space on them. (Though other people have given them good reviews, so who knows?) I do always try to grow a couple of my favorites, Black Krim and Chocolate Cherry. It is hard to resist unusual varieties!

  6. Anonymous8:00 AM

    I grew Aunt Ruby's German green a few times. I thought it was really good.
    I grow Juliets every year...I dry them.
    I absolutely love green zebra. Sweet and tart.

  7. it really depends on the weather! just like wine.... In a hot, dry summer the blacks taste amazing; if the the weather is cold and there's lots of rain they turn to mush. the real question should be which tomato will not catch blight and taste amazing if August is cold and rainy. I have not found one yet.

  8. Sam Smith12:44 AM

    I think black plum is still the best among the varieties. Well, fresh tomatoes are always awesome.

  9. Tomato favorites: Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Honeydrop from Hudson Valley Seed Co., Supersteak, Artisan Pink Tiger (which is this elongated, thin-skinned cherry with cool fruit), Whopper, etc. There are so may tomatoes, so little time. This year, I'm trying a bunch of new seeds too. Mine are already started under lights. Happy tomato planting, and yes, her book, and Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier is wonderful too.


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