When Gary Ibsen at TomatoFest tweeted a sale last fall, I thought I’d get a jump on my spring tomatoes by having the seeds in hand when they were ready to sow. I received them in November but still didn’t manage to start planting them until February 20, 2011. My fall 2010 tomato crop was […]

February 20th, 2011
Tomato Review: 2011 Spring

When Gary Ibsen at TomatoFest tweeted a sale last fall, I thought I’d get a jump on my spring tomatoes by having the seeds in hand when they were ready to sow. I received them in November but still didn’t manage to start planting them until February 20, 2011.

My fall 2010 tomato crop was almost a total bust as we got a freeze the week before they ripened. We made green tomato chutney for the first time using Jenny’s recipe. It was great!

Tomato Season

2011-02-20. I started planting seeds after we had a week of humid weather with highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s. In the two weeks preceding, we had some of the coldest nights and longest-lasting cold for the winter. Night after night with the temperatures in the low 20s.

Tomato Varieties

Blondkopfchen

TomatoFest Description: An heirloom tomato from eastern Germany. Big, leafy, indeterminate, regular-leaf tomato plants yield a phenomenal amount of 1/2″, grape-sized, brilliant yellow/gold, cherry tomatoes in clusters of 20-30. The vines are large and sprawling, so give them plenty of space.The name of this adorable heirloom cherry tomato means “little blonde girl”. Deliciously sweet with a slight citrusy tart finish.

I seem to remember that the number of tomatoes on Blondkopfchen was fantastic when I grew them in Fall 2010. Beautiful trusses of tomatoes. Do I have photos?

Gold Rush Currant

TomatoFest Description: This strain was a selection by a Dutch seedsman. Our TomatoFest organic tomato seeds produce large, indeterminate, regular-leaf tomato plants with wispy foliage that yield excellent, heavy sets of ¼-inch tomatoes borne in trusses of 10-12. Excellent sweet tomato flavor. A perfect snacking tomato or to adorn salads and culinary creations.

Fall 2010. Teeny tiny tomatoes but lots of them. These plants could not be stopped. I pinched them back and pinched them back and they survived the first light freezes and kept producing flowers.

Mandarin Cross, OP

TomatoFest Description: Wonderful plant from Japan producing 6-10 oz., orange, round fruit with sweet (low-acid) flavors. I de-hybridized this variety over 7 years of my growing it out. A winner!!

Texas Wild

TomatoFest Description: All I really know is that the original seed of this tomato was collected from a patch of apparently “wild” tomatoes in southern Our Tomatofest organic tomato seeds produce huge, sprawling, indeterminate, regular-leaf tomato plants that copiously yield hundreds of 1/2 to 3/4-inch, red, cherry tomatoes with a delicious, sweet-tartness to them. A really decent snacking tomato for all you Texans and wanna be Texans.

Wapsipinicon Peach

TomatoFest Description: From Dennis Schlicht. Named after the Wapsipinicon River in Northeast Iowa. Similar to Peche Jaune. Our TomatoFest organic tomato seeds produce indeterminate, regular-leaf wispy, tomato plants that yield a tremendous amount (thousands) of 1 1/2 to 2-inch, delicate, fuzzy-like-a-peach, pale-yellow (with a tinges of pink), juicy, tomatoes with wonderful, slightly-spicy, very fruity-sweet flavors. Harvest is good all the way to frost. A novelty tomato that is sooo sweet, it begs for eating right off the vine. A Gary Ibsen ‘personal favorite.’ They won’t be able to keep from smiling after tasting this!

tomato harvest
2009-06-04. Today is the only day that we harvest something from each plant. Clockwise from the large orange one on the top right: Persimmon, Cherokee Purple, Jeune Flamme, a bunch of Black Cherry, a yellow Azoychka, and two bright red Carmello.

June 21st, 2009
Tomato Review 2009 Spring

This year there’s a lot of interest in growing your own food to save money. That may be feasible in some climates or even for some gardeners in my climate but it’s not what motivates me. I grow tomatoes because I like to experiment with varieties that I can’t buy and because I like to try new things.

However, because people are interested in growing veggies to save money, I decided this year to keep notes on what I spent and what I harvested to see how I managed strictly on the economic aspect of veggie gardening. My friend, Angelina who gardens in Oregon, estimates that she gets 12 pounds of roma tomatoes per plant.

That seems incredible to me. I had 7 plants and my TOTAL harvest was 12 pounds 12.5 ounces. (That’s just what we harvested. Twice as much fruit set as we harvested. The squirrels made off with the other half. So, potentially the plants might have produced 25 pounds total–still far short of Angelina’s yields.) Still, with organic heirloom tomatoes going for $5.99 a pound (Whole Foods Market), I definitely got more out of my tomato patch than I put in, even when you add up the cost of plants, organic soil amendments, and water.

Note 1: My tomato patch did not replace any lawn so it was not a trade-off on water…it was additional water.

Note 2: If you buy cheaper supermarket chainstore tomatoes, then your savings might be less. My comparison is based on what it would cost me to buy tomatoes of equivalent type and quality.

Tomato Season

I planted tomatoes from February 26th to March 5th. I bought 4-inch potted starts from Gardens, except for ‘Cherokee Purple’ which I bought at The Natural Gardener. The latter had signs warning that it was too early to plant and not to put tomatoes in until night temperatures didn’t drop out of the 40s. However, Austin had had several days of 80 degree heat the week before and last year I planted them too late and got nothing. So, I decided to gamble against the cold rather than the heat.

We did get a cold snap a few days after I planted them. The leaves developed little cold damage spots on them. ‘Carmello’ was the most sensitive to the cold. However, in the long run they all came back quickly and began flowering and setting fruit by mid-March.

Temperatures hit 90 degrees on April 9th. I was glad that I already had quite a few tomatoes on my plants by then. Although day time temperatures cooled off again, by the end of the month the night time low temperatures hit the 70s and no more tomatoes were setting fruit. By April 22, the tomatoes that had been in full sun were now being shaded until 10 in the morning by the pecan tree.

On May 6th we picked the first cherry tomatoes. In June we started really reaping our harvest. Last week we had a tomato based dinner four nights in a row. Although there are a couple of green tomatoes left, they are not worth the water to ripen them. So the first day of summer is the end of our spring tomato season.

Soil Preparation

All the tomatoes were grown in spots where I never have grown vegetables before. I was trying to find some sunlight so all the plants ended up in the front yard this year. They were in full sun until April when the pecan tree leafed out. Then they got about 6 hours of sun. To each hole I added sifted compost, eggshells, bone meal, and dolomite lime (calcium and magnesium).

Water

This year I tried planting 1.5 liter plastic water bottles with 5 small holes punched with an ice pick at the bottom next to the tomato starts. Before planting I filled each hole with water and let it sink in. Then I planted the water bottle and the tomato together. I filled in the hole with compost. I filled the bottles once each morning, every day. My idea was to ensure that the amount of water was constant and that it was delivered to the roots.

drip system
2009-03-02. My cheap drips system made out of old plastic water bottles.

This worked really well. The leaves of the plants never got wet. I had no disease problems and no blossom end rot. I gave the plants the same amount of water every day which was delivered to the roots rather than having to soak down a foot. I think as it got very hot, I might have increased the water ration to twice a day. This might have kept the skins of the fruit from becoming so leathery. Other people say that too much water at this stage makes the fruit watery and the flavor less intense.

Stringing Up

My existing small tomato cages never worked well but I didn’t want to buy stakes or expensive larger cages. So I tried a technique I learned from Hanna @ This Garden is Illegal and strung up the tomatoes. I was afraid that the string wouldn’t hold the weight of the plant, especially with tomatoes on it or in a wind. However, it was really easy and there were no problems at all. This method worked really well for me and I’m going to do it again.
stringing up tomatoes
2009-05-06. I really liked stringing up tomatoes and it was a lot cheaper than buying cages for them.

Pests

I had no problems with insect pests. I found one tomato hornworm. Toward the end of the season, some of the ‘Carmello’ fruit had some stinkbugs which I picked off. The biggest pest was squirrels.

Tomato Varieties

I don’t have a chef’s palate. Although I can taste differences between the varieties, my opinion is that growing conditions had more effect on flavor than variety did. All the tomatoes tasted great in their own way when fully ripened on the vine; this was a feat not easily accomplished because of squirrels. At first we picked the tomatoes when they were starting to color and ripened them indoors. The flavor was unsatisfactory. Besides the squirrels began eating them when they were green. So we resorted to bird-netting. The squirrels still managed to get at some of the tomatoes but we finally managed to enjoy fully-ripened tomatoes. Next year we are building a fully-caged tomato bed.

The other thing that affected tomato taste was the heat. As temperatures climbed into the high 90s and the 100s (which isn’t supposed to happen in Austin until late July), the skins of the tomatoes got tougher and tougher.

My personal taste favors tangy, citrusy tomatoes. I love to make tomato salsa but we never had enough tomatoes. This is the first year I tried black tomatoes. When very ripe both black varieties were delicious but I still prefer yellow and orange tomatoes. We ate all our tomatoes fresh, with mozzarella, basil, and balsamic vinegar on the side.

tomatoes

Arkansas Traveller

Although 20 tomatoes set on ‘Arkansas Traveller’, we never tasted a single one thanks to squirrel predation. This is quite a popular tomato in Austin because it’s supposed to be able to deal with the heat.

Azoychka

‘Azoychka’ was the little tomato that could. It’s a Russian tomato and dealt with the cold very well. It was the first to set and it set more fruit over the season than any tomato. We picked the first few too early, when they were a bright lemon color and the flavor was still bland. When fully ripe, they actually deepen to an orange almost the same color as ‘Persimmon’. The fruit is tart and tangy. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that the sometimes had a white pulpy core.

We harvested 21 tomatoes averaging about 3.5 ounces each. The largest was 8.5 ounces. Total, 3lbs 13.5oz.

Black Cherry

‘Black Cherry’ had the deepest green leaves of all the tomatoes. They had a tendency to curl a bit and I don’t know if it meant there was something wrong, or it wanted more water, or what. The leaves didn’t yellow, so I didn’t worry about it. These cherry tomatoes are held loosely apart on long clusters. We liked the flavor well enough but really prefer the tang of a yellow cherry tomato like ‘Sungold’.

I didn’t think that ‘Black Cherry’ was very productive for a cherry tomato. We harvested 33 fruits for a total of 10.5 ounces of fruit.

Carmello

I’ve probably grown ‘Carmello’ more than any tomato over the years. It has a nice zingy flavor that makes a wonderful salsa. ‘Carmello’ comes to a distinctive point on the end and I’ve never had any problem with it cat-facing or having blossom end rot. I’ve read that the skin is quite delicate and so it doesn’t ship well. Once temperatures got into the high 90s an 100s, even the skin on the ‘Carmello’ was tough.

‘Carmello’ was more sensitive to the cold weather than any of the other tomatoes. It is also did better in the hot weather, still putting out the occasional flower even in June.

The fruit is a little larger than ‘Jeune Flamme’ but a little smaller than ‘Azoychka’, typically about 2.25 ounces. The largest was 3.5 ounces. We harvested 18 fruit for a total of 3lb 2.75oz.

Cherokee Purple

‘Cherokee Purple’ was a very vigorous plant. It did not want to be trained to one stem at all. It wanted to send out shoots and flop all over the place. The advantage of the string method is I could just tie up any shoots it sent out. ‘Cherokee Purple’ had the worst problems with catfacing. I don’t object to eating ugly tomatoes, but when the flesh parts enough for bugs to get in, the tomato is worthless.

tomato catfacing
‘Cherokee Purple’ had the tendency to catface…the only one of all the varieties I planted that did.

‘Cherokee Purple’ was the last of the tomatoes to ripen. The flavor doesn’t take kindly to being picked early, either. When we did manage to pick some vine-ripened ones we were impressed with the full, deep tomato taste. I don’t think I will grow it again though because of the catfacing.

Although more than 20 fruit set, we managed to harvest only half of them: 3lbs 3.25oz. The largest tomato was 8.25 oz but most were about 5oz.

Jeune Flamme

I fell in love with ‘Jeune Flamme’ this year and will definitely be growing it again. It’s only about the size of a ping pong ball, maybe twice again the size of a cherry tomato. The little orange fruit had a wonderful silky/creamy texture (not too much jelly). Unfortunately, like ‘Arkansas Traveller’ it was outside the bird netting protection. Although we managed to harvest a dozen fruit in mid-May, once the squirrels found it we lost the remaining half of what had set. Total harvest: 11.25 oz.

Persimmon

I love the flavor and creamy texture of ‘Persimmon’ more than any other tomato I’ve ever tasted. However, ‘Persimmon’ is not very productive for me. This is the third year I’ve tried it and I’m lucky to get 2 or 3 fruit from a plant.

This year only 4 fruit set and we managed to harvest only 3 of them. They were the largest tomatoes we grew at 2.75oz, 7.25oz, and 9.25, a total of 1lb 3.25oz. Hmmm. In terms of weight, rather than number, that’s almost twice the tomatoes we got off of ‘Black Cherry’. Maybe ‘Persimmon’ is worth it’s keep. I will probably grow it again but I can’t recommend it to anyone who is short on space. Maybe it will do better in the fall tomato garden.

Note: There is another variety called ‘Russian Persimmon’ and they are not the same.

tomato
Victor Schrager’s portraits for “The Heirloom Tomato” inspire me to try photographing my own tomatoes. From left to right: Azoychka, Jeune Flamme, and Black Cherry.

May 10th, 2009
The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table

I check out garden books from the library every week. It’s rare that I open a book and just know I have to own it. Such was the case with Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table: Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit. I’ve been browsing it for less than a day and I’ve already ordered it from Amazon.

I wish I had read it a couple of months ago when I was In Search of the Perfect Tomato. At the time I was frustrated by my inability to find concrete information on various tomatoes. After awhile the catalog descriptions become mind-numbing in their sameness. How many ways are there to describe a tomato anyway? Besides catalog descriptions are written to sell a product. I wanted direction and objectivity from the garden blogosphere. Hanna @ This Garden is Illegal writes wonderfully detailed review of her tomato tastings but she is in the minority. My frustration is at an end. Now I have Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato.

In this book, Ms. Goldman evaluates tomatoes the way a wine reviewer writes about wine. She considers size and weight, shape, color, soluble solids (to get an objective measurement of sweetness), flavor, and texture. In looking at the plants themselves, she describes plant habit, leaf type, yield, and date to maturity. She explains her criteria in more detail before launching into the tomato descriptions.

Before I could settle into the text I was distracted by Victor Schrager’s tomato “portraits”. After feasting with my eyes on his photographs, I could understand why one might not stoop to calling them mere photographs. The Heirloom Tomato has page after glossy page of tomatoes arranged by size, shape, or color on milk glassware in the modern equivalent of a Renaissance still life painting. There are single tomato portraits, too, but I really appreciate contrasting the qualities of the many heirlooms featured. A tomato can be so much more than a smooth, round, red globe.

AJM actually picked this book up at the library, honing in on the final chapter “Recipes”. With our mere seven plants, I doubt that we’ll ever have the excess harvest required to think about eating tomatoes any other way than fresh off the vine. So I skipped back a section to the tomato descriptions. Whenever I read any reviews, (travel, wine, movie, books) I always look at things I’m familiar with first in order to calibrate the reviewer’s tastes and biases against my own.

So it was with great pleasure to turn to the very first tomato description and discover that it is of a cherry tomato I picked last week ‘Black Cherry’. Ms. Goldman approves of my choice: “This tomato tastes like plumstone fruit without the stone.; it bests any bigger black plum or beefsteak.” As if to demonstrate these descriptions are not just catalog marketing, on the same page she says of ‘Yellow Pygmy’, “…looks cute, but no one has ever accused it of being palatable.” That’s what I like! A touch of bitter to temper the sweet.

I have a couple of quibbles about the book design. The tomato descriptions begin with the data for each tomato followed by Ms. Goldman’s more subjective evaluation or some historical tidbits. The data section has headings in small caps but the data itself is in italics…of a very small size. Her description is in a standard font face. Those italics are very difficult to read. In some instances, the italicized part of the tomato entry is more lengthy than Ms. Goldman’s notes on it. All those italics make painful reading–they obscure the fascinating information. One thing I gleaned, though. Heirloom does not seem to be restricted to old varieties, just open-pollinated (that is, not hybrid) varieties.

Two other book design quibbles. In the section table of contents, the most important information is black small caps and italics against a dull green background. And it’s centered-space. This must look nice as design but it is unusable as a table of contents. The main text of the book could use a lot more subheading. Even I, who am very text-oriented, found the unbroken text a bit much. Ms. Goldman’s writing is well-organized into paragraphs and sections, but the book layout doesn’t reinforce this.

I continued reading “The Heirloom Tomato” backwards. In the early chapters Ms. Goldman explains how she grew 1000 tomato plant (two of each variety) for two years in order to write this book. The chapter on how to grow tomatoes, from seed, to seedling, to hardening off, to care and feeding, pruning and picking, and finally gathering seed for next year is a wonderful resource for new and longtime tomato growers alike.

Bottom line: Highly Recommended
This is a book that I not only just bought for myself but that I see myself buying as a gift for others in the years ahead. Now to check out Ms. Goldman’s books on melons and squashes.

An Aside
In the description of ‘Black Cherry’ Ms. Goldman indirectly references a quote thus, “If one of the greatest services a man can render his country is to add a useful plant to its agriculture…” Do you know who said that? I do. But only because I had read it somewhere else just last week. Is this such a common quote in garden writing that it requires no further explanation…that all of you just naturally know the reference? Or would you just assume that it was a phrase of the author?


‘Persimmon’ (possibly the best tomato I’ve ever tasted) and ‘Black Krim’ (which I figure prefers cooler climates).

February 25th, 2009
In Search of the Perfect Tomato

I used to be more successful growing tomatoes than I am now. I even used to grow unusual varieties of tomato from seed, starting them on top of my computer monitor in my office (excellent source of bottom heat). Now I work at home, my computer has a flatscreen monitor, and I barely have enough sunlight in my yard in the summer to support 5 tomato plants. So rather than start my own tomatoes from seed, I find it cheaper to pick up a half dozen plants from a local nursery. I’ve found that in Austin, the best source of unusual and heirloom varieties (the kind I would have grown from seed myself) is Gardens.

I don’t have much room to play so I want every tomato I grow this year to be something special. Gardens provided their list of tomatoes (see below) and I’ve spent the last week researching them, trying to decide which ones to try this year. I was hoping for some good information from the garden blogosphere–I think this is precisely the kind of information in which bloggers could outdo print garden publication. But for the most part I’ve been disappointed.

Hands down the best garden blogging resource for tomato reviews I’ve come across is Hanna’s Tomato Tastings at This Garden is Illegal. For the last three years Hanna has grown a variety of unusual tomatoes and written extensive reviews of her experience. If you’re looking for tomato suggestions, start there.

Maybe I’ve just overlooked your brilliant tomato review. If you’ve written a post on any of the following tomatoes, or have recommendations for or against, provide a link and I’ll add it to this post. If you didn’t blog about it, just share your experience in the comments.

Help me find the perfect tomato.

tomato
This ‘Green Pineapple’ tomato set only one fruit before the heat set in because I planted it much too late.

July 5th, 2008
Hot Tomato

On June 25th, Carol over at May Dreams Gardens in Indiana is rejoicing that her tomatoes are finally big enough to start tying up. In contrast, here in Austin, Lancashire rose is pulling hers out by June 21st. This is a fine illustration of what Austin gardeners face. While most of the world’s attention concerning tomato season is focused on first and last frost, worrying about setting plants out too early or being disappointed by an early freeze, we southern gardeners face another threat: heat.

If you measure the growing season as the time between first and last frost, then Austin has an incredibly long one. Our last frost is officially mid-March, although many Austin gardeners can’t resist a little gamble and start setting out plants a by Valentine’s Day. Austin’s first freeze often snarls Thanksgiving traffic. But yes, our freezes are short-lived. Our plants don’t go dormant. Our ground doesn’t freeze. So we can have flowers every month of the year.

However, it’s my experience that Austin doesn’t have a marvelously long growing season but two short ones, interrupted by that disaster known as summer. For example, tomatoes set fruit best if the day time highs are below 90F and the night time highs below 70F. Some research shows that “night temperature is the critical factor in setting tomato fruit, the optimal range being 59-68°F”.

In 2008, April was an ideal month for tomato fruit set. The high didn’t get out of the 80s and the lows ranged from 41-72. Within less than a month, the highs were in the 90s and 100s and the lows mostly in the 70s. If you didn’t have your tomatoes in and flowering by April, you missed out. Last year it was October before the temperatures fell into the correct temperature range for tomato set. That leaves a pretty small window before Austin’s first freeze.

I know from reading other Austin garden bloggers that there are a lot of successful tomato growers in this town. Will you share the secret of your success? Do you plant short-season tomatoes? Do you have some favorite heat-tolerant varieties (tomatoes that set fruit in temperatures higher than the average tomato can handle)? When do you put your plants in? And, do you pull them out over summer and start over in the fall? or do you try to nurse them through the heat?

tomato Juliet

June 8th, 2008
Anticipation

Is there any truth in the saying that a watched tomato never ripens?

heirloom tomatoes Zanthan Garden

July 2nd, 2007
Summer Harvest

We made a dinner of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella (from Central Market), salami, and southern burgundy walnut bread (also from Central Market).

The yellow tomato ‘Persimmon’ was the best tomato I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was both tart and tomato-y. The texture was fantastic, almost like a ripe mango (but not stringy). It was all flavorful flesh and very little gelatin.

The ‘Black Krim’ continues to be a disappointment. Two of the five that had ripene. ended up having split without my noticing and were rotten. For the most part they make a very pretty fruit but they seem watery and bland. Neither of us liked ‘Black Krim’ at all and I’ll never grow it again.

Zanthan Gardens Winter Vegetable Garden
2007-03-07. In a couple of weeks when the trees leaf out my sunny vegetable garden will mostly be in the shade.

March 6th, 2007
Hanna’s Tomato Patch

After I bought my eggplant and two tomato plants, I faced the Gardener’s Dilemma. Where would I plant them? Not in the vegetable garden. I don’t think that a tomato has produced anything in the vegetable garden this millenium.

I put the vegetable garden on the south side of the house where the grass died because of a slope. When a friend of mine was building a house in Steiner Ranch, I carted several RX-7 car-loads of limestone blocks and built a small wall to form a terrace. Then I hauled in horse manure from another friend’s horse ranch near Hamilton Pool. AJM put in a timed drip irrigation system for me.

In the intervening years, trees have grown. A pecan and red oak have shot up on either side of the vegetable garden. In the summer, any spot gets only 3 hours of sunlight if I’m lucky. Not enough for summer veggies. This year I stopped fighting the obvious and renamed it the winter vegetable garden.
Read the rest of this entry »

cherry tomatoes
2006-12-21. Austin TX. Cherry tomatoes picked today.

December 21st, 2006
Winter Solstice Salad

I can’t match the incredible tomato reviews that Hanna writes but I do want to share our first and only vine-ripened tomatoes of 2006. Two! We also ate half a dozen others that I picked three weeks ago before our first freeze and ripened in a paper bag. These are from the “Husky Cherry Red” tomato plant from Home Depot that I planted on September 22, 2006 when it was 99F degrees. These cherry tomatoes have a nice tang to them which both of us like. ‘Husky Cherry Red’ is classified as a dwarf indeterminate and marketed for people with small gardens or who want to grow tomatoes in a container.

The lettuce is producing wonderfully now, almost 8 inches tall–enough to make two modest salads a night. The weather forecasters are teasing us with predictions of snow flurries for Christmas Eve but the temperatures look to stay just at freezing, so I’ll cover everything up and try to pull it through. After the front blows through this weekend it will be sunny and in the 60s again.