what are your top tomatoes?

Homegrown heirloom tomatoesNO, DON’T START TOMATO SEEDS YET, unless you are in some place far warmer than the snow cave I am lately residing in. But it’s prime time to shop for them—if you’re prepared to be overwhelmed at the choices. Some top tomatoes I have my eye on for 2014’s garden—and I hope you’ll tell me yours.

black is the new red

The “black” tomatoes (more brownish-purple than anything near black) often have a flavor that’s described as smoky, or earthy. You may have grown ‘Black Krim’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’—two very good ones—and now I’m eyeing ‘Carbon,’ which people are talking about. Same with ‘Paul Robeson,’ a tomato with a great taste (and a great story).

Indigo Rose tomatoWant a black cherry tomato to mix things up in the salad bowl (that link will take you to one, as will this one)? Thinking larger, and darker: At the extreme of dark tomato color there’s open-pollinated ‘Indigo Rose,’ an Oregon State University development (photo above from High Mowing Seeds). It’s the first tomato with a truly black outside, and looks just like a plum.

for reliable sauce

Is there sauce in your future? I was for decades a diehard ‘Roma’ person, but the last several years I instead make sure that lovely ‘Juliet,’ a sturdy hybrid with big clusters of a dozen or more 2-inch fruit, is here to guarantee a crop. The open-pollinated ‘Amish Paste’ (like ‘Juliet,’ whose photo is below, it’s juicy and tasty for use in salads, too) and ‘Gilbertie’ paste are my other top contenders.

Juliet small paste tomatoes

toughest tomatoes

Did you have tomato troubles last year—spotted leaves, defoliating plants and such? What about trying the first “triple-resistant” tomato, resistant to early blight, septoria and late blight, from the Cornell-North Carolina State breeding program? Well-named ‘Iron Lady’ is a determinate, mid-sized red slicer.  (Again: Among sauce-making types, ‘Juliet’ is one tough girl, too, in my conditions.)  If late blight, specifically, was your issue, this story from the archive offers additional advice (or read all about other tomato troubles at this link).

tasty golden cherries

I can’t imagine the summer garden without the tropical-fruity flavored ‘Sun Gold’ (a hybrid), but admittedly its can have the troublesome tendency to crack. The newer ‘Esterina’ is crack-resistant, and very sweet and complex-flavored (though admittedly without that tropical tang). And what about ‘Galina’? I’ve heard tell she is a distinctive little golden thing, too.

not your average ‘sweet million’

Want to try something different in red cherry tomatoes–not the same ubiquitous hybrids from the garden centers? Two I have enjoyed many times over the years: ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ (a profusion of small fruit, originally introduced by Johnny’s) and the larger, extra-delicious ‘Chadwick’s Cherry’ (named for the bio-intensive garden guru Alan Chadwick). Turtle Tree Seeds has both.

extra-early dwarfs, grown in pots

One for a pot, perhaps? My friend Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl dot com loves the little guys—dwarf tomatoes, which fruit faster than larger plants. To further speed them along, she starts charmers with names like ‘Whippersnapper’ extra-early (in March, versus April for her other tomatoes); here’s the lowdown on the tastiest of the lot, for pots.

Ywllow Brandywine-type tomato and fresh corn

but which brandywine?

I often say, “A Brandywine isn’t a Brandywine isn’t a Brandywine,” meaning with heirloom and other open-pollinated varieties, what you get depends how carefully the seed farmer selected to keep their strain true to type.  And then there are also the variations by color: a pink and a red, and even a yellow (photo above)—shall we try all three?

'Upstate Oxheart' heriloom tomato at Hudson Valley Seed Library farm.

biggest of the biggies

I can’t stop thinking of the whopper of a tomato I met at an event at Hudson Valley Seed Library last year, a tomato called ‘Upstate Oxheart’ (above). Insane. and so tasty, too. Oh, how can I make room for all of these varieties?

I know—I’ve left out entire categories (such as striped tomatoes, or extra-early slicers, or…). But that’s where you hopefully come in. Any must-have tomatoes to suggest?

more tomato topics

  1. Madie says:

    Each year I try new tomatoes in search of the perfect one. I keep returning to my favorite Green Zebra. They are just perfect for my taste. Last year I grew Indigo Rose and liked it alot. It did take forever to ripen but the fruits sre so gorgeous they superceded all the flowers. Everyone who came to the garden wanted to know what they were and wanted tastes when finally ripe.

    We have a wonderful organic grower in our area who sells tomato plants for $3. Instead of starting seeds I buy the plants from him. The hard part is choosing from the hundreds he offers.

  2. Gina Chen says:

    My Brandwine Pinks are already seeded and growing well. But I live on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, so I should be able to plant in the ground by mid- to late March of April at the latest. 70 degrees today. Should be 80 next week!

  3. Michelle says:

    I miss tomato season. Made tacos for my kids on Fri. so bought a grocery store tomato. Why did I have hope that it might have some flavor?
    I had the best production year yet with my red brandywine and these have long been my favorite. Also grew green zebra & sweet million past season. This year I have seeds for Black from Tula and pink brandywine and will grow the green zebras again. I hope the pink is as good as the red brandywine. Still undecided on a cherry variety.

  4. TerryL says:

    I used to plant ‘Sun Gold’ cherry every year and just raved about it but I was looking for an open pollinated variety. Last year I tried ‘Cherry Roma’ and it has now become my favorite. It also was one of the top tomatoes in Seed Savers Exchange tomato tasting contest. For sauce and general eating I use ‘Amish Paste’.

  5. Philip says:

    I’ve grown many different varieties of tomatoes in the lower Hudson Valley, NY. Three favorites are German Giant, Anna Russian and Dafel. All are delicious and have performed well in my area. This year I’m going to try Sioux, Kosovo and Santa Clara Canner.

  6. MN.Reid says:

    I can’t do without Purple Calabash. It is the most unique tomato you will ever find. Smokey, winey, and tart. And the convoluted shape is out of this world!

    Supposedly Thomas Jefferson grew it.

    Black Krim and Cherokee Purple are definitely must haves for me too. CP was my first introduction to the black tomatoes, and I instantly fell in love!

  7. Mathew G says:

    My favorite tomato without exception is Cherokee Purple. A runer up would be Big Rainbow. I’ve decided to skip growing Cherokee this year, and have instead opted for Purple Calabash and Paul Robeson for my purple tomatoes. I’m also growing Indigo Rose, which I really enjoyed last year. All counted, I have ten varieties for 2014, including Hahms Gelbe, which Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl has featured on her blog on a few occasions. I am guilty of already starting my seeds – Feb 1, in fact. This is a month earlier than I usually start them, but usually I end up with 4-5″ plants in 4″ pots, and this year I’d like that extra month to move them to gallon pots for extra growing time before setting them in the ground May 15.

  8. Lisakaye says:

    A friend from Italy gave me a start several years ago of a tomato called “Canestrino” from the region he is originally from. Great tomato! I use it for slicing and for saucing…works well for both and is very productive. I save the seeds because I have not see the seeds or tomato for sale anywhere. Also, loved growing “Black Krim” until a friend gave me a tomato called “Black From Tula” which I liked and the plant seemed to be a better producer then BK. I saved the seeds and will be growing that one this year. I don’t usually grow cherries but I think I might try the “Black Cherry” this year… I’m partial to the black tomatoes…. I also have grown “Rose” tomato for the past few years and find it a wonderful pink/red tomato.

  9. Chris Baswell says:

    I had great luck with Mr Stripey last summer, productive and delicious.

    This year, I’m going to try Opalka again, first time in many years. In southern California, it grew me generous crops of large paste tomatoes. I’ll grow my reliable Amish Paste too. Juliet is so small and fiddly to process.

    I’ve also bought seeds of Black Cherry, new to me but looks pretty.

  10. Misti says:

    We started our seeds in mid-January here in greater Houston. Should get them out in the garden mid-March…maybe eating some tomatoes by May!

    My favorite of all time is Arkansas Traveler. Two interesting cherry tomatoes we grow are Galapagos and Everglades.

  11. JoeH says:

    Sun Sugar is just as sweet or maybe even sweeter than Sun Gold and it does not split anywhere near as much. For a super tasty, medium sized tomato, Marglobe is a great one.

  12. Sharon says:

    I’m a fan of the Ramapo hybrid available from Rutgers University. It’s not too watery, slices beautifully, and has got just the right amount of acid. I have not found it susceptible to blight, and I had a lot of success mulching with black plastic this past year – it was so wet that I would have had splitting issues like my mom did with the same variety using natural mulch.

  13. Sheryl at Providence Acres says:

    I grow an old heirloom from Portugal. We just call them “Portugal” tomatoes. It’s a extra large oxheart and it gets huge and it’s so sweet! I’m just stepping into the foray of heirloom tomato growing and plan to grow a few different varieties this year. There are so many out there and it’s hard to know where to start. This post helps. Thanks! I think I’ll go with some black ones. Sounds interesting!

  14. kathny says:

    My favorite tomatoes from last year were D. Landreth’s ‘German Red Strawberry’. They were huge and plentiful and definitely going into the garden again this year. I’ll also be trying ‘Oxheart’ and looking forward to seeing how they turn out., as well as the staples – Beefsteaks (for my mother), Paste (for sauce) and Grape (for salads) tomatoes.

  15. My “must grow” tomato is Lollipop, a yellow cherry tomato from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Everyone who tastes it loves it, even my late wire fox terrierXJack Russell. I grow 39 OP varieties in addition, but few repeat.

  16. Hannelore says:

    “Sun Gold” has been my favorite cherry tomato for years, but I also like “Lemon Drop” and “Blush”, both of which produce an amazing amount of delicious fruit. I can’t forget to mention the delicious “Striped German” among the heirlooms I grow.

  17. Patty says:

    I had quite a problem with cracking last year of 4 other heirlooms, but one that has done well for 3 years in a row is the monstrous “Aussie.” It get huge, sets a lot of tomatoes, but is late ripening, late August in Seattle. But it is such a durable plant that the cooler nights into September don’t faze it! The fruit is commonly 4-5 inches, and the flavor is wonderful! “Constaluto Fiorentino” did very well 2 summers ago, & was early, but this past summer it cracked. Can that be caused by a virus?

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know that one, Patty (‘Aussie’). As for cracking it’s a sort of mechanical problem — not a virus or disease. It happens when there is stress, such as from uneven moisture — dry followed by wet periods, for instance, or other such extremes that stress them out. Some varieties are more crack-resistant (which often can mean thicker skinned) than others, as well.

  18. Diana says:

    Kelloggs breakfast and Juane Flamme are two favorites of mine. I wasn’t at all impressed with ‘indigo rose. It’s beautiful but it takes forever to ripen, isn’t very prolific and tastes pretty blah. I grow a lot of vegetables as ornamentals but the first criteria is they have to be tasty!

  19. Nathan says:

    Two varieties I had to try last year included Costoluto Genovese and Polish Linguisa. Costoluto produces these beautiful, squat, deeply ribbed wonders that are bursting with tomato flavor. They were slow to ripen this past summer but once they did, they were non-stop until the first frost. The green tomatoes even held well and ripened in storage. We ate our last one at Christmas!

    Polish Linguisa is a massive paste tomato that is all meat and little water inside. So far, this has been our favorite paste tomato and we only wish we had grown more of them!

  20. Mathew says:

    I posted earlier here on Feb 17 that I had started my tomatoes on Feb 1. I have come back to say I was too eager, and this was WAY too early! I now have 30 tomato plants, 4-6 inches high, already moved up to 5 inch pots and I’m wondering what the heck I am going to do with all of these until Mother’s Day (the traditional plant-out date for the Denver area). They are so robust, and healthy – by far the best crop I’ve ever grown! I’m truly proud of what I’ve done, but seriously wishing I had been more patient and waited. I might have to plant out April 15 and use Wall-o-waters, but that’s still 6 more weeks of indoor growth.

    Never again!

    If only I had a greenhouse…or a magic tomato growth-inhibitor wand. Lesson learned!

    1. margaret says:

      I do mine April 15, Mathew; I suspect mid-March or thereabouts might have been a good time for you to start. At the very least carry them outside to get sun each day (in a sheltered spot) if the weather allows. Even at that, it’s a lot to ask that they stay in the little pots for a month or 6 weeks longer than usual. What about starting a fresh batch now?

      1. Mathew says:

        My plan (for now) is to leave them in the 5 inch pots until April 1; they’ve been in them for 2 weeks now. At the beginning of April, the 9 non-dwarf varieties I’m keeping will go into gallon pots and will live outside during the day, weather permitting, coming in at night. The rest (17 indeterminates and 2 dwarfs) will be rehomed. I thought about starting over…I really did seriously consider it, but cannot bear to toss the current batch!

  21. Jo Ann Davis says:

    I’m a big fan of Jaune Flamme. I know someone else mentioned it, but I need to give it another plug. Beautiful orange color, perfect balance of sweet and tart and a true tomato flavor. I buy mine from Swanson’s nursery in Seattle. Haven’t had good luck with Cherokee Purple in Seattle. I also like Early Girl which produces well, is juicy and never mealy, with a good flavor.

  22. I grow about a dozen different varieties each year… about half tried-and-true and half experimental. I have a challenging short growing season and chronic blight issues so many of my favorite tasting tomatoes fail to thrive here. My current workhorses are Amish Paste, Opalka, Polish Linguisa, Sungold and Whopper. I am going to give Juliet a try this year based on your recommendations, Margaret.

  23. Julia says:

    I like the crimson carmelo (a hybrid from renees garden). Great productivity, taste, and highly resistant. I was really disappointed in Chadwick’s cherry, which you recommend. I found the lacking in flavor and a bit mealy. But your list has convinced me to grow sungolds again this year–they are so good!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Julia. Sorry about Chadwick’s! Dare I ask where you got the seed? Both seed quality and environmental factors can affect tomato flavor.

  24. Blair Grigg says:

    I live in Goochland Virginia. I was thinking about starting some tomatoes from seed next year. We have bought the small plants in a local nursery the last couple of years and we have done alot of reading but our plants don’t yield a great deal of fruit. We water at the roots and fertilize with organic fish oils but nothing seems to help. What kinds of tomato do you suggest for this area? When would you start the seeds? We have had some luck with Juliet but would like a bigger fruit. Thanks!!!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Blair. There’s a bigger-fruited “sister” to ‘Juliet’ now called ‘Verona’ that I am trying this year for the first time, by the way. Low yield can be from various factors, from too much shade, to too much Nitrogen fertilizer (meaning lots of foliage but little fruit), but most of all incomplete pollination when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Too-hot days and nights, and even high humidity, can affect the viability of the pollen, so you may get flowers but few succeed in maturing to fruit. (By the way, flowers can fall off before they set fruit if it’s too cold, too…but you say Virginia, so I am thinking heat maybe?)

      There are some more “heat tolerant” tomatoes — for example, read what Southeast specialty seed company Southern Exposure has to say here, and there are others — but nothing can successfully pollinate in the most extreme heat and humidity conditions, when days are very hot, and nights stay 75F or above and humidity is up, too. By the way, plants with biggest fruit (like Beefsteak types) will be harder to succeed with than small ones.

  25. Margit Van Schaick says:

    Margaret, do you know whatever happened to Matthew’s tomato seedlings, which he started so early? I hope that he succeeded in getting a good harvest. Can you get an up-date?

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