The Good, The Bad, The Lip-Smackers...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I'll be honest -- there are a lot of favorites that came out of Tomato 2009. I normally describe these postings as "the best" and "the worst." But I can't do that this year.

To be perfectly honest -- there are no entries for "the worst" because I really didn't have any.

Well -- on second thought -- if you count those horrid starter plants that I purchased this spring from Whole Foods . . . . Yeah -- those plants. The starter plants that grew two inches? Yeah -- those.

Other than that -- it was a barnstorming year in the Backyard of Bird. We have the saved products to prove it. Venus always wanted a pantry in the kitchen. Little did she know that she would fill up half of it with home grown produce.

We have enough to keep us and the entire neighborhood in salsa -- tomato sauce -- whole tomatoes -- etc.

Enough of that. On with the favorites already!

Before we get started -- a small point about the ratings system. I will give the names of the favorites that performed exceptionally well this summer -- the source of the seed -- and then a little bit about each variety.

For the most part? The starter plants provided by Farmer Fred Hoffman tended to do the best. This is a blanket statement so to speak. Some did exceptionally well. Others did OK. But his starter plants did better than mine for the most part -- although I did get a few winners and you'll hear about those.

Just because I like to brag.

OK then? Onward and upward to Bill & Venus' favorite tomatoes from 2009!

FAVORITE TOMATOES: By "favorite tomatoes" I mean the "most productive" and the "best tasting" from the garden. Ranked in order of "lip-smacking goodness."

1. MARIANNA'S PEACE: Hands down, this is a clear winner from the Back 40 in North Natomas. Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. This is my third year for growing this wonderful, potato-leaf variety. And we must have done something right this year. This was by far the tastiest, and most productive, variety to come out of the garden this summer. Marianna's Peace produced pink, saucer-sized tomatoes in the 1 and 1.5 lb. range all summer long and it's still producing ripened tomatoes in October. One bite of this time-honored treasure is a trip to a tomato lover's paradise. This is a must-have for any garden. It will get a prime spot in the garden next year.

2. ARKANSAS TRAVELER: Seed Source: Seeds of Change. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. This was a new and unique introduction to the garden this year. Impulse seed packet purchase from Capital Nursery -- and a real winner in the garden this year in terms of TASTE and production. Arkansas Traveler produces a BRIGHT RED tomato -- an almost neon-red color that is brighter than any red tomato I've seen. Unlike many heirlooms -- Arkansas Traveler tomatoes are round -- red -- pleasing to the eye and resist cracking or concentric circles around the top and bottom. It's also resistant to Blossom End Rot. The taste is unique. It's not quite as good as Marianna's Peace -- but a treat just the same.

3. LEMON BOY: Seed Source: Fred Hoffman. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. Lemon Boy was probably the most prolific tomato in the garden in terms of outright production. It wasn't unusual to harvest 30-t0-40 tomatoes at a time during peak production. This is Venus' favorite tomato variety for the Heirloom Tomato Martini thanks to a rich -- sweet taste and aroma. Known for producing medium sized tomatoes -- our starter plant delivered more than a few in the 1 lb. range. This was a highly desired tomato that wound up in jars of canned tomatoes and sauce mixes for salsa and other creations. This was my second or third year for growing Lemon Boy. I will grow it again.

4. COSMONAUT VOLKOV: Seed Source: Pinetree Garden Seeds. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. This is another red variety that knocked our socks off in terms of early season production and incredibly rich taste. The Cosmonaut Volkov is yet another Russian introduction to the American fascination with heirloom tomatoes -- and is yet more proof that Eastern Europe has something special going on with the creation of special tomato plant hybrids. The Cosmonaut Volkov grew and produced at an exponential rate throughout the spring and summer before petering out a bit in September. Still -- I will not hesitate to grow this fantastic variety again.

5. BRANDYWINE: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. I just knew it was going to be a special year for tomatoes in the garden when I watched a single vine from this one plant set eight tomatoes. I don't think I picked eight tomatoes from last year's Brandywine plant alone last year. Vines were just loaded with production and a few weighed in at just over 1 lb. While not quite as productive as the other potato-leaf variety in the garden -- Marianna's Peace -- I have no complaints. This is the most productive Brandywine tomato plant I've seen come out of the garden since 2004. That was a long time ago folks -- and I've spent the past five years trying to duplicate that 2004 success. This year? I finally did. Brandywine gets a deserved home in next year's tomato garden.

GREAT TOMATOES: It's tough to pick a top five or six plants when you've got ten to 15 that fit into that category. That was my problem this year. These varieties didn't make the Top 5 for whatever reason -- but they were darn close.

1. AZOYCHKA: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. This is yet another Russian variety that delivered a knockout punch of early production -- fell off a bit during mid-season -- then rebounded with a nice harvest of late season tomatoes. Production fell off so much in late July and early August that I thought the plant had died. Azoychka looks a lot like Lemon Boy in that it's yellow in color -- but that's the only comparison. To me? Azoychka tastes like BACON! It has a wonderful, smoky taste that is perfect for one of my favorite sandwiches: Grilled Turkey Bird. Mmmmmm....BACON!

2. BEEFSTEAK: Seed Source: American Seed. Impulse purchase at a Dollar Tree for ten cents. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. Beefsteak is a hands down winner in terms of outright production -- coming very close to hanging with Lemon Boy and Marianna's Peace in terms of plant production and size. One Beefsteak plant produced nearly 100 perfectly round, red tomatoes with no hint of Blossom End Rot or disease. However, the one drawback that puts Beefsteak into this category is: TASTE. Don't get me wrong! It's wonderful! But -- it just does not compare to the eyeball-roll-back-into-the-head moment that other heirlooms provide. However -- it gets a well-deserved home in the garden again next summer.

3. KELLOGG'S BREAKFAST: Seed Source: Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. Some make the argument -- and a good one at that -- that the Kellogg's Breakfast is the most outstanding heirloom tomato every hybridized in terms of taste. This year's entry was good -- no doubt -- but it just didn't have the production that the other plants delivered. Blossom End Rot was another problem that seemed to affect this tomato -- but did not affect the Brandywine planted just two feet away. This is how good a year it was in the Backyard of Bird. I have NEVER had a Kellogg's Breakfast this productive. I've never harvested the number of KB tomatoes that I harvested this year. But -- other plants simply did better. In most years? This would get a top five rating. Not this year.

4. DRUZBA: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. In a word? Druzba DELIVERS. It is one of the most reliable and productive heirlooms that I've ever planted -- yet unlike some heirlooms -- you can always count on Druzba to deliver a large and tasty crop of round, red tomatoes. The plant is somewhat susceptible to blight and blossom end rot problems, and I battled both this year. But it wasn't unusual to harvest ten to 15 ripened tomatoes during the peak harvest months of July and October.

5. CAMPBELL'S 1327: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman and Bill & Venus Bird. Campbell's 1327 was last year's favorite out of the garden in terms of outright production and taste. Not a thing changed this year. So why isn't it in the Top 5 or closer to the top of this list? I told you that I had an outstanding year. This is how far it dropped. When everything goes right in the garden -- the old processing tomato from Campbell's Soups just cannot compare with the time-honored and time-treasured heirloom varieties. That's what happened this year. There's nothing wrong with this variety. I will plant it again next year.

GOOD TOMATOES: These varieties were good -- no doubt about it. They just could not crack the Top Ten this year.

1. OPALKA: Seed Source: Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. We didn't have room for this red tomato variety in the raised beds -- but it produced well enough in the direct clay soil "test bed." This was one of the better producers out of the test bed, although BER was problematic. I was probably to blame for the BER problems that cropped up often in the test bed -- because I failed to amend with lime.

2. BLOODY BUTCHER: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. A tomato grower can always rely upon the Bloody Butcher to produce some of the earliest tomatoes, and this year was no different. The big change this year, however, was the heirlooms started to produce right about the same time. Long time growers say you're not supposed to get ripe tomatoes before May. The Bloody Butcher will make them think twice. Perfect for snacking on in the garden while you go about the main harvest.

3. DR. WYCHE'S YELLOW: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. I've been wanting to try this ever since Dr. Carolyn Male highlighted this variety in her book "100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden." This is a true bible for heirloom growers -- a good starting point -- but not the be all-end all in the world of heirloom tomatoes. Blossom End Rot was a constant concern -- but the yellow-orange tomatoes that we did get were interesting to say the least. I will plant again and hope for better luck!

4. EVIL SEED: Seed Source: Unknown. Starter plants grown by Mother Nature. Evil Seed is a black tomato with fantastic taste and an even more fantastic story. Grown by a gardener who later made the rather unwise decision to leave his wife and children for another woman, I never did find out the true name of this tomato or where it came from. I thought I had lost it completely, until one popped out of the ground in an unlikely spot this year and grew like a weed. The plant receives its name courtesy of the jilted ex-wife. I seeded this tomato. I will grow it again.

5. JUBILEE: Seed Source: Lockhart Seed. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. This barely made the list -- and only because of its incredible taste. I will try again, but the production off one plant in a raised bed was average at best. The second plant, located in the test bed, was a little more productive but Blossom End Rot was a real problem. I lost most of them.

FAVORITE CHERRY TOMATOES: Cherry tomatoes get their own category this year because we really went to town on them this year. Venus searched high and low for the cherry tomato for the highest brix content so she could enter it in the Tomato Taste Challenge sponsored by NatureSweet. She would later find out, much to her chagrin, that the nearest "challenge" was held in Chicago, IL this year. Maybe next year Venus.

1. BLACK CHERRY: Seed Source: Pinetree Garden Seeds. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman, Bill & Venus Bird and Mother Nature. Black Cherry is simply the most outstanding cherry tomato ever developed in terms of taste and production in my humble opinion. Once you plant it -- you'll have them for years to come. We put one plant in a raised bed. About four or five more plants came up on their own in a bed we used the previous year from cherry tomatoes that had dropped to the ground (you never get them all). This will always have a home in our garden.

2. HYBRID RED GRAPE: Seed Source: Lockhart Seed. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. Billed as the "cherry tomato with the highest brix content ever recorded," this was a Venus impulse purchase during our first visit to Lockhart Seed in Stockton. There's no denying it was sweet -- but it was also tough to get a ripe tomato. Why? Turns out this tomato was a favorite among birds who raided the garden non-stop. Birds of all feathers would pick these by the hundreds and fly off before returning for another "snack." Excellent producer. We will plant this again.

3. JELLY BEAN GRAPE: Seed Source: Pinetree Garden Seeds. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. This cherry was similar to Hybrid Red Grape, although the fruits were smaller. Very productive.

"MEH" TOMATOES: What does "Meh" mean? The first instance of "Meh" popped up in an episode of The Simpsons when Bart Simpson was asked for his opinion. His response? "Meh" -- along with a shrug of his shoulders. To put it short and sweet -- "meh" means "I don't care," or "I'm not really excited by this." In the words of Bart Simpson, "Don't Have a Cow, Homer."

1. CLINT EASTWOOD'S ROWDY RED: Seed Source: Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest. Stater plants grown by Fred Hoffman. I had really high hopes for this tomato. It was hybridized not all that far away, by a former UC Davis plant scientist. It started out with a few great tomatoes -- and then not much. Many of the tomatoes were small -- about two to three ounces and production was nothing to write home about. I will not plant this again.

2. GREEN ZEBRA: Seed Source: Totally Tomatoes. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. Due to space limitations, we were not able to put a Green Zebra in the raised beds, and production suffered in the test bed. The few that came off the vine were small -- Blossom End Rot was a problem -- and I have to give this one two thumbs down this year. May not plant again.

3. REIF RED HEART: Seed Source: Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. Some heirloom afficiandos swear by heart-shaped tomatoes. I don't understand why. This was average at best and production was limited. Will not plant again.

4. PINK PING PONG: Seed Source: Gary Ibsen's Tomatofest. Starter plants grown by Bill & Venus Bird. This was another "test bed" plant that did not perform well. Will not plant again.

5. COSTALUTO GENOVESE: Seed Source: Seeds of Change. Starter plants grown by Fred Hoffman. This was a favorite from the garden two seasons ago. Despite the introduction of new seed this past spring -- and a spot in one of the raised beds -- I simply was not impressed. The tomatoes were small -- in the one ounce range. Not good for anything other than snacking. Tomatoes were too small for processing. Not sure if I will try again.

Other tomatoes to note are Zapotec Pleated (not good for processing -- but good taste), Dixie's Golden Giant (they must have been referring to a small giant) and Delicious (disease took this one early).


These are just a few that I've used in past years. There are many others. Try typing the term "heirloom tomatoes" or "heirloom tomato seeds" on Google and see what springs up.

In the Sacramento area, Capital Nursery and Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply have a very good selection of packaged seeds, as does the mother of all seed stores, Lockhart Seed in Stockton.

Lockhart Seed (no website -- you gotta go look for yourself)


Jenn's Cooking Garden! said...

Awesome! You had great luck with your tomatos this summer, me not so much! My Brandywine gave me 5 total and they were the size of cherry tomatos! I had disease with all my tomatos. I only had tons of Roma's and yellow pear! Next year I hope will be better!

Bill Bird said...

Tomato growers worldwide dream of the year that Venus and I had this year. We were just extremely lucky. I hope everyone enjoys a year like this. I doubt very much that I'll be able to reproduce this success next season, but that certainly won't stop me from trying!

Garry said...

hey bill - great info here.

its neat to see your thoughts on some tomatoes i had - as ff says its all local.

black cherry - didnt impress me, but you loved it. it was prolific, though.

costaluto genovese - i liked it, but production peaked too early.

green zebra - i had poor luck with that one a long time ago and never went back, in fact i have never had success w/ a green tomato.

although i have already purchased my seeds for 2010, i will reference this for 2011 picks. some really caught my eye.

overall though - 2009 was great year for me and my beds and i am looking forward to 2010. i am growing only 24 plants next year (2009 was 41) and i was unable to track the details like you did - which i hope to do also, an dthinking i might be able to do it in 2010.

i will have some extra plants in 2010 - so if you see a variety on my blog you have interest, lemme know.


Carri said...

I'm not surprised that my list is pretty similar seeing as I got a lot of my plants from you! I soooo agree with you on the black cherry tomatoes- divine! For top tomatoes I'd also have to add the Japanese Black Trifele and the Omar Lebanese that I got from Nels. For next year I have seeds for Fuzzy Peach, Litchi, Russian Rose, Black from Tula, Lumpy Red, Nyagous, Pink German Tree, Cour di Bue, black cheery, black krim, Voyage, Japanese Black Trifele, and sungold. Most are from Bakers Creek. Let me know if you want to try any of these. I also have seeds for about 6 different kinds of tomatillos- I'll be planting a lot more of them this year!

Fred Hoffman said...

I am curious about your watering and fertilizing regimen for your 2009 tomatoes. And, what are the dimensions of your garden raised beds? How many tomato plants did you have in each bed? One pound Lemon Boys???? Continued good luck in 2010.

Bill Bird said...

I have no secrets about the fertilizing and watering regimen -- and I'll make that the subject of a future post! Thanks!

Bruce Ross said...

Ever grown red pears? My personal favorite from this year.