Saturday, January 21, 2012

Seed Catalogs - Tomatoes for 2012

I've been planning to do a vegetable seed catalog post for a few weeks, but neglected to get a round tuit. Now as I check the blog list to the right, I find that others have done a great job, so I'm going to link to them instead. The University of Maryland's GrowitEatit Blog has been running a series that you can read here. Dr. Leonard Perry of the University of Vermont has an article about the information in seed catalogs, and how to read/decipher them. I will share with you one that I only recently became familiar with, specializing in breeding new, and sharing others' weird and wonderful heirloom and open pollinated tomatoes. Wild Boar Farms has been around for over 10 years now, so I have no excuse for not knowing about them. From their "About" page:
The goal at Wild Boar Farms is to create the most amazing tomato varieties there are. Using heirloom genetics and mutations as a foundation, I Have been fortunate to discover and then improve on some very remarkable tomatoes. The main focus is on bi-color and striped varieties with extreme flavor and facinating looks. It's a hard business but appreciative customers drive me on.
-Bradley Gates.

I was introduced to these guys by a local grower in Greencastle, who sent a selection of seeds to Steve for us to try at Tomato Day. Minimally, we'll be starting them for sale at the plant sale. All are open pollinated, which means you'll be able to save the seed of any you grow for your 2013 season. Here are the ones originally obtained from Wild Boar Farms that I'll be recommending to Steve to include in our trial:

Pork Chop
Pork Chop - Most "yellow" tomatoes are actually orange. This is a true yellow, starts off yellow with green stripes which ripen to gold. Mid season, 75-85 days. indet. regular leaf. medium size slightly flattened beefsteaks. Great sweet tomato flavor with hints of citrus. Best yellow I have ever had.

Beauty King
 Beauty King - By far the best looking and tasting red yellow bi-color I have tried. Mid to late, 75-90 days. Indet. regular leaf. 12-20 oz. fruit. Good to very good production. Large stunning red yellow bi-color, yellow with flashy red stripes(not blotches). Interior is yellow with bright red streaks, very meaty. Very good sweet tomato flavor. Cross between a Big Rainbow and Green Zebra.

Berkeley Tie Dye
Berkeley Tie Dye - Warning, high acid content may cause flashbacks. This tomato blows me and alot of my customers away. A favorite to many of my chefs. Mid-late to late, 75-90 days. indet. regular leaf plants. 8-16 oz. Fair to good production. Green fruit with yellow and red stripes. Interior is a true tri-color. Creamy green flesh infused with various shades of red and yellow. Each of these colors has a different flavor resulting in a spicey, sweet, tart tomato with good acid all in one fruit. Originated from one plant 500 ,F-2 Beauty King.
Pink Boar
Pink Boar - Looks like a port wine colored Green Zebra. Striking looks,outrageous flavor that is sweet, rich and juicy. Early to mid-season. 70-80 days. indet. regular leaf. 2-4 oz. with good to great production. Aggressive grower. Port wine color with metalic silver green stripes. Dark colored flesh is juicy and very good rich and sweet flavor. Originally from Black and Brown Boar.
Another one on the list from the Greencastle grower from Solana Seeds:

Arbuznyi -Stunning tomato showing a unique pattern of lines similar to watermelons, hence the name Arbuznyi (watermelon in Russian). Beautiful dark red-brownish fruits with green shoulders. Click thumbnails for details. Medium to large, beefsteak-style, flattened and slightly ribbed. Delicious, tender flesh. Sweet, aromatic flavor. Early, one of the first in 2007. Productive. 65-75 days. Medium size plants (1 m). Rare russian variety.

Here's a new one that intrigued me from Territorial Seeds:
Indigo Rose
Indigo Rose - 80 days. Unlike any tomato that we have seen! Indigo Rose is the first high-anthocyanin tomato commercially available anywhere in the world. The high amount of anthocyanin (a naturally occurring pigment that has been shown to fight disease in humans) creates quite a vibrant indigo, almost blue skin on the 2 inch, round fruit. The purple coloring occurs on the portion of the fruit that is exposed to light, while the shaded portion starts out green and turns deep red when mature. Inside, the flesh reveals the same rouge tone with a superbly balanced, multi-faceted tomatoey flavor. The indeterminate plants have an open habit and are very vigorous producers. Bred at Oregon State University.

Lots of other bloggers and garden writers are talking tomatoes. Here's Dr. Lee Reich's list, and Adrian Higgins at the Washington Post discovers the Rutgers Jersey Tomato effort, with old time hybrids Ramapo and Moreton.

Steve also asked me to write up something about heirloom tomatoes for a Fact Sheet he's producing (I get a byline - Woo Hoo!). He had to edit it down a lot (I can get wordy and wax a little too poetic about tomatoes), but here's the whole director's cut version:

Heirloom Tomatoes - The simplest definition of an heirloom tomato is an open pollinated (OP) variety with a known history and provenance that goes back generations. Immigrants to America in the 19th and early 20th century would bring seed from their home country under their home country growing conditions and plant them here wherever they settled. Year to year, they would save seed from their best fruits and slowly build a variety with fixed characteristics for their growing conditions. Over time, a reputation would be built that made the variety famous for some characteristic like, shape, color, size, and of course flavor. German Johnson, Amish Paste, Brandywine, Striped German and Riesentraube are Pennsylvania/Ohio examples of tomatoes introduced to a wider market in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, whose original source of seed came from family, or regional plots that had been growing them for generations.

Another way that an heirloom can be introduced to the market is by growers in other countries sharing their own varieties with their own provenance. The early Czech variety Stupice is an example, which was introduced in 1976 by a Czech grower who shared some of his seed with a seed producer here in the U.S. during the early days of the organic growing movement, and it caught on.

Still another way to gain heirloom status is to have a colorful story behind the creation of the variety. Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter is a good example. “Charlie” owned a radiator business in the 1930’s. He also was an amateur tomato breeder. He self selected fruits from a couple different large beefsteak varieties (German Johnson is one of the progenitors) and came up with a fixed set of characteristics that were large, meaty, and productive. He marketed them to the public at $1.00 per plant (very high during the Depression) with the pitch that one plant would feed a whole family. He used the proceeds of this side business to pay off his mortgage, hence Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.

Other introductions that are open-pollinated, but the result of deliberate breeding are not technically heirlooms, but are often marketed as such. Green Zebra, a tomato bred by Tom Wagner of Washington State, was introduced in 1982 and usually appears in the heirloom section of most seed catalogs.

Nowadays, new introductions of recently bred open pollinated varieties are made yearly, and there is an active effort by some seed companies to travel the world and find varieties for new introductions.

So what’s behind the enthusiasm of many people for heirloom varieties? One reason is that you can save seed and continue the old practice and not have to purchase seed every year. Since tomatoes are self fertile, you can rely on open pollinated varieties to produce seed that will grow with the same characteristics of the previous generation. That differs from hybrid varieties that are deliberately and scientifically selected for certain characteristics from different parent lines under controlled conditions. The hybrid tomato grown will perform as advertised, with desirable characteristics like perfect shape, even ripening, earliness, bushy habit, disease resistance, and heavier yield. Those characteristics can be important for the home grower, especially the disease resistance and potentially the higher yield, if you’re only growing a few plants. However, until recently, the important characteristics that hybridizers focused on often came at the expense of flavor. In addition, seed saved from that hybrid tomato, were you to plant it the following season, could have characteristics more in tune with its grandparents, not the intended specific cross of the first generation, so the grower becomes reliant on the seed producer each year. Finally, the presumed consumer preference for a standard round red tomato, also meant that old tomato varieties that were oddly shaped, green when ripe, multicolored or striped also went out of favor, so it came as something of a surprise to people a generation or two removed from the farm, to learn that not all tomatoes are red or yellow and round. They can be ribbed, ox-heart shaped, green, black, orange, elongate, pear-shaped, striped and multi-colored. Re-discovering their unique colors and shapes also fueled the renewed interest.

With all that as background, and with the caveat that flavor is a very subjective metric, here are some of the varieties that I grow every year and will continue to grow, based on something about them that was initially intriguing, but won an annual place in my garden using flavor as the primary criteria to keep them around and at the top of their category.

Stupice - TomatoFest
Early varietyStupice (pronounced STOO-PEECH-Ka) – A Czech variety, with smallish (larger than a golf ball) sized fruit. They are the first ripe fruits in my garden each year, around 55-60 days. Potato leaf variety. Very juicy, excellent for fresh eating. Some tendency toward green shoulders (unripe parts at the stem end). Full, complex tart/sweet tomato flavor. No other variety, hybrid or heirloom, in the under 60 day category has come close to beating Stupice for flavor. They will also continue to produce all season long, with a short hiatus during the hottest part of the summer, but pick up again as the temperature cools.

Arkansas Traveler - TomatoFest
Old Brooks - TomatoFest
Round Red – mid season. Arkansas Traveler. Introduced in 1971 by Joe McFerran of the University of Arkansas. Just under baseball-sized pink fruit, good yield, good flavor more sweet than tart. Good yields. Good, standard tomato that will still set fruits in hotter weather. In the 2011 Franklin County taste test, Old Brooks, a red variety did very well also, so I will be growing it again this year to compare. It’s a mid-season, baseball sized red with good yields.

Lucky Cross - Tomato Fest

Pineapple - TomatoFest

Striped German - TomatoFest
Bicolor – these are tomatoes that are beefsteak sized, mostly yellow, but with red streaks throughout the flesh. Flavor is milder, on the fruity side, and they are absolutely gorgeous sliced for a platter. For best yield, Pineapple is number one. For large size (up to 2 pounds), Striped German would be my pick, and a recent introduction called Lucky Cross, while low yielding, has won taste tests for a more complex flavor. These are all later season varieties ripening in 85-90 days. I’ll alternate year to year on these, not having any one crowd out the others.

Orange Russian 117 - TomatoFest
I should also mention Orange Russian 117 in this category. A unique, bicolor oxheart shape – late season, but among the last producers with good flavor well into late September and early October when most varieties have stopped producing, or the shorter days affect the flavor you’re expecting.

Mortgage Lifter - TomatoFest
Red or Pink BeefsteakMortgage Lifter, Brandywine, and Marianna’s Peace. I’ve included Brandywine because of its marvelous flavor, but it’s a rather finicky variety. Potato leaf, very late (90-110 days), low yield, and susceptible to disease, which can make for a very disappointing season if it’s the only variety in your garden. Its flavor is excellent, mildly sweet, but complex tomato flavor. Large, softball sized irregular shaped fruit with a dark pink color.
Brandywine - TomatoFest
An alternative, similar tasting variety is Marianna’s Peace, which has better yields and disease resistance, but a little smaller. I will always grow a Brandywine, even if I only get a dozen fruits all season from 3 plants. I don’t share too many of them, though. Mortgage Lifter lives up to its reputation as a large, red, beefsteak, perfect for summer slicing on hamburgers. Juicy, good yields and good old fashioned red/pink tomato taste. 

Marianna's Peace - TomatoFest

Cherokee Purple - TomatoFest
Blacks – Two varieties top my list. Black Krim and Cherokee Purple. Both are baseball sized, early to mid season, very thin skinned, and very dark, brick red colored skin and flesh. The flavor is best described as smoky or salty. Both have similar growing times (70-75 days) and may peter out as the season progresses, reducing total yields.

Black Krim - TomatoFest

Green Zebra - TomatoFest

Aunt Ruby German Green

Green – two varieties – Aunt Ruby German Green and Green Zebra. If your flavor buds tend more toward tart than sweet, then these are the varieties to try. Green Zebra is a 75 day mid season variety, good continuous yields, with an unusual darker green stripe on the skin. The ripe flesh is a bright, almost chartreuse color. Size-wise, larger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball. Aunt Ruby German Green is a larger, not quite beefsteak, but more baseball sized fruit that has a slight pink blush at the blossom end that signals when it’s ripe. It’s my personal overall favorite for flavor, although again, like Brandywine, finicky, low yielding, and prone to disease. Another one that I don’t share much. More tart than sweet, but very complex tomatoey goodness.

Dr. Wyche Yellow
YellowDr. Wyche Yellow. Large Beefsteak late season (85-90 day). Although there is a sense that yellow tomatoes are less acidic than the other varieties, it’s mostly a myth. The pH range for all varieties is pretty small, but yellow tomatoes do tend to have milder flavor, which probably led to the myth. Dr. Wyche is an exception to the “mild” reputation. Rich, robust, tomato flavor in a large yellow beefsteak.
Orange Strawberry - TomatoFest
Orange Strawberry is an oxheart shaped tomato, very meaty with few seeds and a bright orange color. Large fruits, easily a pound or more. Also late season, but unique flavor, on the fruity side. Like all oxhearts, the leaves are wispy and prone to curl. This is not a disease or a fixable condition, but a characteristic prevalent in the variety.

Black Cherry - TomatoFest
Cherry – fresh eating, small fruits. I share lots of these because they all produce well, and since I like the different colors, I have tons more than I can eat. They make excellent, full flavored tomato juice, which is where the extras go. Generally, cherries are more sweet than tart. I alternate yearly with two black varieties Black Cherry and Chocolate Cherry, similar in taste to each other – a sweeter tasting version of the Black slicers above.
Chocolate Cherry - Territorial

Chocolate Cherry is slightly larger than Black Cherry.
Dr. Carolyn - TomatoFest
A pale yellow variety Dr. Carolyn is a little more tart and tastes more like a regular tomato than most cherries.

Riesentraube - TomatoFest

For a regular red cherry, the one with the best reputation for sweetness is Matt’s Wild Cherry, but I like the very old heirloom Riesentraube – German for “little bunch of grapes”. It takes a little longer to ripen than the others, but nice, not too sweet punch. The fruits are slightly elongated with a little nipple on the blossom end which adds something. Sun Gold is not an heirloom, but always has a place in my garden.

Amish Paste - TomatoFest

Pittman Valley Plum - TomatoFest
Plum/Paste – these are varieties that have characteristics that make them good for canning and cooking. Meatier flesh, thicker walls, not too juicy, so sauces will be thicker. The skins peel easily for processing. All have high yields and a relatively small stem end.

Amish Paste and Pittman Valley Plum are tops in this category. Amish Paste is wider, whereas Pittman Valley Plum has the shape of a short bull’s horn. A special mention in this category is the Italian heirloom, Principe Borghese. The best tomato for drying. In southern Italy, whole plants are hung to dry in the sun. It’s the original “Sun Dried Tomato.”

Principe Borghese - TomatoFest
In the 2011 Tomato Day Taste Trials, the public rated it fourth, behind three hybrid grape varieties. It’s larger than grape varieties, but smaller than Roma plum varieties, and like the Riesentraube cherry, has a pointed nipple at the blossom end.

All these tomatoes are widely available from seed suppliers, including, but not limited to PineTree Garden, Totally Tomatoes, Baker Creek Seeds, Territorial Seeds, Tomato Grower’s Supply, Burpee, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, John Scheepers Kitchen Garden, and TomatoFest. The Franklin County Master Gardeners also have many heirloom variety plants at our plant sale each May.

UPDATE: January 25th, 2012 - Here's Steve's report, with my byline.  And here's a promo piece about the report from the PSU Ag Science news site.

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