Tomato Report 2011
Here at the Penn State Extension office in Chambersburg, PA, we’ve been running variety trials focusing on tomatoes since 2000. We’ve trialed over 300 varieties across the complete spectrum of tomato types in that time. Every year we examine 30-70 varieties and look at taste, production characteristics, disease resistance, ease of training and appearance. This report is an amalgam of results from recent seasons designed for backyard growers. These are some of the best varieties from our trials program. If you are a commercial grower, please contact Steve Bogash at 717-263-9226 ext. 230, or firstname.lastname@example.org for reports that are more useful to commercial growers.
Some varieties to ponder for the coming season
Cherry / Grape types:
Cherry and grape tomatoes are wonderful for their earlier than large slicing type yields, high sugar content, and convenience in using on salads. In general, cherry tomatoes have thinner flesh and are more prone to splitting while grape tomatoes typically have very thick flesh, are resistant to splitting and have higher sugar levels.
Sakura Honey: (red grape / indeterminate) Making a major impression when you examine and taste many tomatoes is not easy. This variety really stood out from the pack in 2011 with amazing flavor and beautiful pink grape-shaped fruit. This was easily the standout in flavor in last season’s program.
Red Pearl: (red grape / indeterminate) Excellent flavor, tender skin, high production and moderate disease resistance made Red Pearl another top pick from our 2011 trial program. Good red color and highly resistant to cracking.
Five Star: (red grape / indeterminate) 2011 was the year of the grape tomato in our trials program. Five Star was another great producer with good looking, well-flavored fruit. Very few seeds and highly resistant to cracking.
Maglia Rosa: (pink grape indeterminate) This is a very unusual variety as the fruit are an elongate cherry type that are mottled pink that our tasters describe as ketchupy. In both 2010 and 2011, the plants only produced for about 5 weeks, but they did make a lot of fruit that was well worth the garden space.
Sun Gold: (yellow cherry / indeterminate) No tomato article is complete without a mention of Sun Gold. This yellow-orange tomato is the candy of the tomato world. Production is high, the plants are moderately resistant to disease, the fruit taste is awesome, but the fruit crack and split like mad. Every gardener should have 1 or 2 of these plants, so there is something to eat while gardening.
Favorita: (red cherry / indeterminate) Favorita was the number one cherry tomato in the trials program for so long, that we retired it’s number. Excellent eating quality, and high yields on very vigorous plants.
Tomatoberry Garden: (red strawberry-like shape / indeterminate) Very unusual shaped fruit that actually look like strawberries by their shape. The fruit are very dark red, firm and resistant to splitting. Let them hang fully colored (especially the early fruit) in order to get full flavor.
Solid Gold: (yellow grape indeterminate) Until this variety was introduced, all of the yellow grape types scored poorly in our trials program for flavor. Solid Gold packs plenty of flavor on vigorous plants that fruit well into the end of the season. The fruit are very resistant to splitting.
Tomatoes in this category are more mostly round reds, but we’ve added a couple of yellow slicers that have caught our eye over the years. Most are high producing with expected yields of at least #15 of fruit per plant and often much higher. Good hybrid slicers should have excellent flavor especially when allowed to ripen on the vine. Numbered varieties are primarily crossovers from the commercial world. We’ve chosen only those the couple flavor with production and appearance.
BrandyBoy: (indeterminate) The Brandywine tomato has long been heralded as the best tasting tomato in numerous trial programs, but each plant only produces a few fruit which are very inconsistent and the plants highly susceptible to diseases. Burpee introduced BrandyBoy tomatoes several years ago and they immediately took top honors among red slicing types in our program. When gardeners ask what single tomato to grow, this is the one. BrandyBoy is highly productive with large, pink, great tasting fruit that taste nearly identical to Brandywine.
BHN 589: (determinate) BHN are the letters used by a tomato breeder in Florida that primarily serves to provide seeds to a commercial grower cooperative. Don’t let the letters and numbers throw you off growing what are usually excellent varieties of hybrid tomatoes. BHN 589 has become a standard for many regional tomato growers as the plants produce copious amounts of great tasting, good looking, medium sized, red tomatoes.
Scarlet Red: (determinate) Like BHN 589, Scarlet Red is primarily a commercial tomato, but it makes the crossover into the home garden extremely well. This is easily the deepest red tomato that we’ve trialed and it has that perfect sugar / acid balance that is often referred to as ‘real tomato flavor’. Production hint: only remove about 3 suckers or you really reduce production.
Big Beef: (indeterminate) This variety has been around for a long time and it still belongs on a top tomatoes list. Big, great tasting, but a little soft fruit on robust plants.
Celebrity: (determinate) For years Celebrity was the standard red that we compared others against in our trials program. While it has been surpassed by some of the varieties above, it is still a great producer of medium sized, good flavored, round, red tomatoes.
BHN 1021: (red determinate): This variety was new to our trials program in 2011 and performed well even in the heat of this past season. Tasters described the fruit as having classic, real tomato flavor and excellent texture.
BHN 189: (red determinate): Excellent round red type that has the potential to set as much as ten days earlier than main season types. Relatively compact plants with 6-10 ounce fruit that taste especially good when compared to other early types.
BHN 826: (red determinate) Very high yielding with good tomato flavor. The fruit are firm without being hard.
Carolina Gold: (yellow determinate) This variety has long been the standard yellow slicing tomato and is still the primary variety in this class. Good yields of mild flavored, fruit on disease resistant plants.
Orange Blossom: (yellow-orange determinate) Very early set for an orange tomato with fruit that are sweet with a balanced flavor and minimal acidity.
Heirloom and open-pollinated tomatoes have grown in popularity for some time due to their flavor and often unusual appearance. They vary widely in appearance and yield. Some are considered so tasty that the space they use in the garden is worthwhile even with only a few fruit on each plant. Others like Mortgage Lifter, not only have great taste, but also produce high yields. Not every variety will be adapted to your garden, but there are probably a number of varieties that will do well on your patch of earth.
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 (OP) 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. Hybrid tomatoes 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, would likely 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 the varieties worth consideration:
Pineapple: (yellow-orange-red indeterminate) While there really aren’t any great yellow / orange / red tomatoes, Pineapple is the one that provides the most consistent production, and good flavor. It’s soft and cracks readily, but is the best of this type that we’ve trialed. Pineapple makes an excellent addition to homemade tomato juice.
Striped German: (yellow-orange-red indeterminate) Very large biocolor with mild flavor and very soft when fully ripe.
Lucky Stripe: (yellow-orange-red indeterminate) Somewhat low yielding, but has a very complex flavor that earned this variety kudos in the tasting trials
Orange Russian 117: (yellow-orange-red indeterminate) Unique, bicolor with an oxheart shape, ripens very late in the season, but with good flavor.
Mortgage Lifter a.k.a Radiator Charlie: (red indeterminate) Excellent flavor and high production make Mortgage Lifter the #1 large, pink, heirloom that the authors recommend to growers. High production and moderate disease resistance separate this variety from most heirlooms.
Arkansas Traveler: (red indeterminate) This variety makes relatively small fruit at 5-8 oz., but the production is good and the flavor excellent.
Old Brooks: (red indeterminate) This round red did very well in the 2011 taste test. It’s a mid-season type with 6-10 ounce fruit and good yields.
Marianna’s Peace: (pink large indeterminate) This variety originally came into our program as one of those sample packets included with you order. The fruit are very large and often over 1 pound, pink and very flavorful. The plants are enormous and require very tall supports. Even after every other heirloom has started to fade, Marianna’s Peace will keep on producing.
Brandywine: (pink to red indeterminate) Brandywine has long been the tomato against which many others are compared. The flavor is considered the best by many. The fruit tend to be very irregular even on the same plant and the plants lack disease resistance. There are many selections out of Brandywine, some are blackish, some redder and there is even a yellow Brandywine.
Stupice: (red indeterminate) A Czech variety, with smallish (larger than a golf ball) sized fruit. They are among the first ripe tomatoes in the 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.
Black Krim: (very dark indeterminate) Early to mid-season, thin skinned with a smoky flavor. Tends to run out of steam towards the end of the season. The skin runs to a very dark red-brown color.
Cherokee Purple: (very dark indeterminate) Mid to late season with very dark skin and flesh and sweet flavor.
Aunt Ruby German Green: (green with pink blush indeterminate) Very large beefsteak fruit with a very fruity sweet flavor.
Green Zebra: (striped greenish determinate) Very small fruit at 2-4 ounces with a tart flavor. Possibly the best looking tomato ever.
Dr. Wyche Yellow: (tangerine orange indeterminate) Large, late season beefsteak type. Unusual ‘robust’ tomato flavor for a yellow.
Orange Strawberry: (orange indeterminate) Oxheart shaped fruit that are very meaty with few seeds and a deep orange color. The leaves tend to be ‘wispy’ which is characteristic of most oxheart types, but not a disease or nutrient problem.
Black Cherry: (purple-brown indeterminate) Very rich full tomato flavor on strong vines that yield well.
Chocolate Cherry: (chocolate red indeterminate) Chocolate-red fruit that run to the sweeter side as compared to other dark colored fruit.
Dr Carolyn: (pale yellow indeterminate) Fruit are on the tart side with a flavor that is more tomato-like than most cherries.
Matt’s Wild Cherry:
Riesentraube: (deep red indeterminate) The name translate to ‘great bunch of grapes.” Pear-shaped fruits on heavy plants that are relatively compact for an heirloom cherry tomato.
Amish Paste: (red indeterminate) Excellent variety for canning and making sauces.
Pittman Valley Plum (red determinate) Heavy crop of 5 to 6-inch long, banana shaped (horn shaped) fruit with dry, dense flesh, very few seeds, and very good, rich flavor.
Princepe Borghese: (red determinate) Excellent tomato for drying and one of the original ‘sun dried’ tomatoes. In southern Italy, it is hung in the sun to dry.
Patio or Container
Bush Early Girl: Without a doubt, Bush Early Girl is the “Top of the Heap” amongst slicers tomatoes that you can grow in a container. A single plant will produce a huge number of great tasting fruit. Be sure your container is at least 14” across (bigger is better) and feed them well to get the most from these robust plants.
BushSteak: Second only to Bush Early Girl is BushSteak. These plants produce heavy crops of large meaty fruit about a week after you start to pick Bush Early Girl. Again, use large containers and feed them well.
Sweet N Neat (Red, Scarlet, and Yellow): We’ve looked at a lot of container-type cherry tomatoes and while most varieties are at least OK, the entire Sweet ‘N Neat series produces copious amounts of delicious fruit on very compact plants. You can grow them as hanging baskets or on ground pots. Plant single plants in 8” pots or 3 plants in 14” pots.
You should be able to find some of these seeds from your favorite garden center, but some varieties will be more difficult to locate. Here is a list of some of the seed companies that supply seeds to the Penn State Extension variety trials program:
- Baker Creek Seeds
- Harris Seeds
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds
- Scheepers Kitchen Garden
- Seeds of Change
- Territorial Seed Company
- Thomson Morgan Seeds
- Tomato Growers Supply Company
- Totally Tomatoes
- W. Atlee Burpee Co.
There are many other seeds companies out there, no intent was made to exclude any particular company, but to help gardeners get started finding varieties mentioned in this article.
Having examined so many tomatoes over the years, we’ve limited this report to those that are really standouts from our program. There are many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of tomato varieties. Our goal for this program and report is to introduce new tomato varieties to growers. Here at Penn State Extension, we hope you will use this information to grow the best tomatoes ever in the coming season. Please contact one of our county offices or online for more information. You are cordially invited to taste tomatoes and add your opinions when we have our annual tomato tasting at the Chambersburg, PA Extension office on the fourth Wednesday in August every year. There is no charge for this event.
Prepared by Steve Bogash, Regional Horticulture Educator and Ray Eckhart, Master Gardener.