This has been a good year for tomatoes in South Central Texas. Almost too good —90 plus varieties and tomatoes everywhere. They’re on the cabinets, ice chests, lawn furniture, the kitchen island and the floor in front. If we even see someone that we think we know, they are offered tomatoes. Most of our friends have had multiple deliveries. When we go to deliver and pick up dry cleaning we also deliver tomatoes; bank—they get tomatoes; Post Office—tomatoes; car repair—tomatoes. If they don’t object too strenuously we add a bag of eggplants to the mix. If we thought the tomatoes would survive, we would be shipping them to relatives in other states. Often when I go out just to check the garden, I come back with a T-shirt load. Unfortunately it’s a feast or famine hobby. Next year we may be forced to buy grocery store tomatoes to make fresh salsa.
Photographing vegetables in the summer is always a challenge—for one thing it’s hot! Also, cold cameras from the air conditioned house will “lens fog” for 30 minutes or more. I sometimes keep a couple of cameras in the garage so I can quickly get photos in the heat and humidity. There’s no cure for perspiration and frustration except the knowledge that the opportunity to photograph a particular tomato may not come again for another year or longer.
This blog is solely about tomato varieties since we are still evaluating the peppers, eggplants etc. First, some comments on what was learned or reaffirmed during this years’ tomato season. Good tasting varieties can be harvested with at least 1/3 color and they will ripen indoors—and away from the critters like stinkbugs that can ruin them if they’ve been left on the plant for the time it takes to be declared “vine ripe”. They taste just as good as the ones left on the plant to the full ripe stage—many of which will be damaged, often unpalatable with growth cracks and bug damage. These early harvested tomatoes also have a longer lifespan of palatability although even the best tasting varieties eventually will lose some flavor intensity and become too liquid for a good sandwich “mater”. The weather has a tremendous effect on the flavor/quality and production of tomatoes. A variety you like one year can be “washed out” with too much rain the next year. If a variety seems to have potential you need to try it for several years before giving up on it. Some varieties just don’t have the zing to save them from the trash though and there are lots of ‘meh’ tasting varieties that don’t get a second chance. Zing for us means some sweetness, enough acidity to make it interesting but not sour and that complex old fashioned tomato flavor that every tomato lovers’ taste buds equate for themselves.
We discovered a fondness for heart and yellow tomatoes this year. Most of the heart shaped varieties seem to have a Russian connection. One of the best was Russian orange 117. It’s actually Russian 117 (a red) crossed with Georgia Streak, the latter a very tasty yellow/orange streak tomato. Zolotoe Serdtse (translated=Heart of Gold) is a smaller tomato but intensely flavored with the typical wispy foliage of most heart varieties. We hope the NSA doesn’t “unmask” us for having this Russian connection and regardless, we will continue to try other Russian/Eastern European varieties. Orange Minsk is a variety from Belarus. It produces huge tomatoes with nice acidity but Orange Jazz is even better. These fruits are large and more uniform and they have the just-right acidity with sweetness and home grown flavor. Chef’s Choice Orange is worth growing for its beautiful color and productivity (it almost makes the pica de gallo glow). The flavor is good but not quite memorable. A yellow grape tomato—Esterina F1 proved to be very productive and crack resistant with a noticeably sweet flavor.
The smoky dark (often referred to as purple or black tomatoes) also usually rank high on the flavor chart. Cherokee Purple is one of the best and it’s offspring like Cherokee Carbon, Vorlon, Indian Stripe, Big Cheef, Spudakee (a potato leaf version of Cherokee Purple) and similar heirloom crosses/chance discoveries didn’t disappoint. Some of our old “flavor favorites” like Gregori’s Altai, Black from Tula and Black Sea Man weren’t among the 90+ tomato varieties this year but they’ll be back! JD’s C-Tx Special was a good producer of delicious purple/black tomatoes. This variety grown worldwide by tomato enthusiasts was discovered and promoted by J.D. Brann owner of Conroe Greenhouses. Indian Stripe produced the most tomatoes in this group that were relatively free of cracks and blemishes.
We tried several dwarf tomato varieties this year. The best, Adelaide Festival, had some “purple” in its heritage. These dwarf varieties need little or no support. A sturdy stake is adequate. Overall production is a bit lower compared to standard tomato varieties, and in July as the heat and pests begin to have their way, it is tempting to snatch these chunky little plants out of the ground and into a wheelbarrow—then off to the burn pile.
Pinks and Reds were abundant in the garden this year. An old tomato friend from France found its way into the garden via a new gardener friend from Pennsylvania. Stephen offered me some seeds last year of the French Hybrid Dona F1. I got them started late so they weren’t too productive but I did save seeds just to see if the F2 version would be worth growing. Stephen got more seeds this year from Paris and he kindly shared some just as I was firing up the greenhouse to produce transplants. Dona was widely available in the 90’s when we were trialing varieties at the Harris County Extension Center and it was productive, disease resistant and ranked high in taste tests that we conducted with Master Gardeners. Then it just went away. Perhaps Villmorin Seed Co. lost the hybrid lines or new varieties just crowded it out. Regardless we missed it and in an earlier blog I penned, Stephen responded to my mention of its loss to the gardening World with an offer of seeds. Apparently French tomato growers missed it too and it became available in France again about 2007. Some seed producers in the U.S. and Canada had also begun offering an alleged “stabilized open pollinated version” but reviews were mixed. Supersonic is another of Stephen’s favorites and it is similar to Dona and maybe even better. It is usually suggested for use in the Northeast so I don’t think I’d ever tried it before. It has better flavor than a lot of hybrid red tomatoes so I plan to grow some next year too. Granny’s Pick and Grandma’s Little Girls were pretty tomatoes and very productive hybrids. They were a bit on the acid side and Granny’s Pick was somewhat hollow inside, almost like a stuffer. They both are reported to have a high percentage of lycopene. Brandy Boy was a surprise. This is a large pink tomato-easily a pound or more- and it has great home-grown tomato flavor. It loaded up with a good crop of big pink fruit which seemed to ripen all at once and then due to the heat, causing flower drop and some foliage disease, it appeared to be a goner by early July. I would definitely include it again and I was lucky to find some seed on a seed rack—typically these “rack seeds” are cheaper than ordering from the Burpee catalog. Big Pink Hybrid was also good and very productive. Champion II, though not as large as the old Champion variety, is one of the best tasting reds. The early production will include a few 10 ounce fruits but 6-8 ounces fruits will be more common, especially late in the season.
Striped tomatoes are quite the novelty and most are very tasty. Skyreacher was one we grew last year. This year we had Damascus Steel a plum-shaped tomato with a nice acid kick and it was very productive. In fact, I might have to plant another one next year. The dwarf variety, Adelaide Festival, was purplish red with stripes but the winner was Girl Girls Weird Thing (GGWT). This is a full size plant, very productive, with large, flat, striped-and very tasty fruit. Its name edges out Sinister Minister for the most creative in our garden for 2017, although Vorlon (a big purple/red fruit) also came in close. The derivation of GGWT, in short, goes like this—a lady planted a row of tomatoes she grew from seed labeled Green Zebra. Her dog’s name was Girl Girl—and it was Girl Girl that first called attention to an atypical plant in the row with large, red, flat tomatoes with stripes. Girl Girl’s Weird Thing was the first thing that came to mind and hence the name. Fortunately the tomatoes are also very good and the plant productive, although I did have one plant that produced small plum-shaped tomatoes with light stripes. They were also good and it’s not unusual for chance varieties that still need some selection to spawn atypical varieties. I saved some seed from the small one and might just name it Girl Girl’s Not So Weird Thing (GGNSWT).
Green When Ripe (GWR) tomatoes are the “new kid on the block” in the tomato world even though they’ve been around for some time. Green Zebra gets the credit for outing this type of tomato and it is still fairly popular. There are better tasting varieties of GWR tomatoes though. Green Giant is often touted as tasting better than most red tomatoes. In the past I’ve grown Heirloom Green Hybrid from Parks Seed and it was good. I tried Cherokee Green and Chef’s Choice Green last year but neither produced much and the CC Greens were small. This year I only grew one variety of GWR—Sungreen, a Juliet-shaped tomato that was one of the best tasting tomatoes of the season—green as a gourd—actually best when pale green. It was sweet and juicy with complex tomato flavors—intense!
There’s much more to tell in the next blog—frying peppers from Asia and Italy, eggplants—big and small—purple and green, okra—skinny and fat, some in red and some in green, cucumbers, squash and more!