Choosing which tomatoes to grow is an annual ritual and semi-intellectual process that involves balancing experience with experimentation and whimsy, resulting in a mix of our all-time favorites, transplants from friends, some new-in-our-garden heirlooms, and the inevitable pony pack of the first seedlings delivered to our local garden centers in early February.
Part of this year’s plan was to put an emphasis on cherry tomatoes, because we’ve had an over-abundance of full-sized tomatoes during the past few years. We love to snack on the sweet cherries while we’re working in the garden: plucked straight from the vine, sometimes wrapped in a basil leaf, and popped into our mouths for a juicy burst that defines the taste of summer. In addition to unadulterated nibbling, we use 3o to 50 pounds of cherry tomatoes for making summertime favorites including tomato jams, sorbets, and a slow-roasted caramelized sauce of cherry tomatoes and garlic cloves that’s terrific with crackers and cream cheese, served on top of fresh pasta, or eaten as a side dish.
Here’s a list of the tomatoes we’re growing this year in our Zone 8 & 9 garden in Bakersfield, California:
Purchased as seedlings
Early Girl (indeterminate, 57 days): two 4″ pots purchased at the garden center in mid-February. Early Girls are one of our favorite tomatoes, and we hoped for an extra early harvest by planting these so early. Medium sized salad tomatoes with good flavor and a meaty texture, Early Girls stand up well to the brutal Bakersfield heat, and usually produce fruit from late May to until mid to late October. Last summer (2013) we had 8 of these plants, all heavy producers, that grew approx. 7 feet tall.
Early Girl Bush (determinate, 55 days): two 4″ pots, also from the garden center in mid-February. I had never seen these before, and was intrigued by the short transplant-to-ripeness time, as well as by the description stating that these are much larger than traditional Early Girl tomatoes.
Started from seed – Cherry, Grape, and Pear Tomatoes
Supersweet 100 cherry tomato (indeterminate, 70 days): extra sweet tomato-y flavor, a long-time favorite from Burpee.com. Super heavy producer for us the past several years, fruit from June until mid-fall, does well in Bakersfield heat, sprawling habit and hard to contain in cages, more than 6′ tall and 4′ wide.
Sweet Million cherry tomato (indeterminate, 65 days): similar to Supersweet 100 and a wee bit larger, this is another long-time favorite, from Parkseed.com. Super heavy producer for us the past several years, fruit from June until mid-fall, does well in Bakersfield heat, more than 6′ tall and very full/bushy.
Sun Gold cherry tomato (indeterminate, 65 days): This has been our absolute favorite cherry tomato for the past two years, with vines over 7′ tall. It’s super-sweet on the Brix scale, and a very heavy producer for two to four months, depending on how hot our days are. I take cuttings from the plants when they’re about 4 feet tall, root them in water, and then plant into the garden to ensure an autumn harvest. The fruits hold well on the plant, and are absolutely delicious any way you serve them, raw or cooked. We make a mouth-watering Tomato Chipotle jam with these.
Golden Gem cherry tomato (indeterminate, 65 days): This seems to be Park Seed’s version of Burpee’s Sun Gold hybrid, so we decided to give it a try this year. It’s a new hybrid from China, and Park’s website says it will produce up to 70 fruits per cluster. I’ll post a follow-up late in the summer.
Chocolate Cherry tomato (indeterminate, 70 days): We’ve grown these in the past, but have never gotten the gorgeous purple fruits shown in the photo, which are supposed to grow in clusters of eight 1″ tomatoes. Our’s are usually a light mocha color, with a slight orange tinge. In past years, these haven’t produced well in our garden, and they haven’t had the depth of flavor we’ve found in Chocolate cherry tomatoes purchased at the local Farmers Market. I’m growing them this year to use up some leftover seed.
Organic Yellow Pear Heirloom tomato (indeterminate, 78 days): This is another tomato chosen to use up last year’s seed, with hopes of a better yield than we had last summer. This is a gorgeous tomato, between 1″ and 2″ long, and I love the way they look in salads and on a party tray of raw veggies. The plants grew well last year, but they were accidentally knocked over and broken just as the fruit was turning ripe.
Ildi Yellow Grape tomato (indeterminate, 53 days): I found a small packet of Ildi seeds tucked inside an old garden notebook, apparently misplaced when I bought them 4 years ago, so I decided I might as well see if they would still grow. This is a grape-style tomato, and Park says they have up to 75 tomatoes per cluster.
Riesentraube Heirloom tomato (indeterminate, 75 to 85 days): A friend gave us a partial packet of these seeds last summer, but our garden was already full. I’m trying these for the first time this year, and hope they live up to their reputation of being heavy producers of 1″ cherry-style tomatoes with a pointy end. This German heirloom from the 1800s is very popular with seed collectors. “Riesentraube” translates to “giant bunch of grapes.”
Started from seed – Full Size Tomatoes
Cherokee Purple Heirloom tomato (indeterminate, 75 to 85 days): A large meaty tomato that’s a huge hit at the Farmers Market. I’ve tried these twice in the past with very poor results … my guess is that they need to be in the ground sooner, to allow time to set fruit before it gets so hot that the blossoms die before they’re pollinated. I have my fingers crossed for this summer’s crop.
Costoluto Fiorentino Italian Heirloom tomato (indeterminate, 75 to 80 days): Last year, we took our first trip to Italy, and these were the tomatoes that were in season in the middle of May. They turn a rich deep red when fully ripe, and they vary in size from 2″ wide to — according to the seed packet — Beefsteak size. The ones we ate in Italy were smallish and very meaty, good in salads and great for making fresh tomato sauce. I bought the seeds at the Essalunga grocery store outside Lucca. Franchi seeds — strictly organic — are also available from an American distributor online, and they are remarkably affordable compared to American seed companies. A 1 gram packet contains approx. 200 seeds and costs just over $3.00.
Paul Robeson Heirloom tomato (indeterminate, 90 days): We received a partial packet of these last summer — from the same guy who gave us the Riesentraube seeds — and I’m planting them this year. The description on the website (http://www.rareseeds.com/paul-robeson-tomato) is all the info I have: ” This famous tomato has almost a cult following among seed collectors and tomato connoisseurs. They simply cannot get enough of this variety’s amazing flavor that is so distinctive, sweet and smokey. 7-10 oz. fruit are a black-brick color. Named in honor of the famous opera singer star of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’, 1937. Paul Robeson was an equal rights advocate who stood up the the infamous McCarthy committee in the 1950’s and had his career nearly destroyed as a result.” It’s a good story … here’s to hoping it’s a great tomato!
What types of tomatoes are you planning to grow this year? Do you start your tomatoes from seed, or buy transplants?