Tomatoes are the royalty of the vegetable garden, and they demand to be treated accordingly.
They worship the sun and want it all. They demand your most compost- or manure-rich soil, the support of sturdy stakes or commodious tomato cages, and deep, regular watering. If you fail to meet their demands, you will be sent to the dungeon of tomato despair.
All that is quite simple. Choosing which varieties of tomatoes to grow is not. For many years I grew Early Girls – lots of them – and canned tomatoes, tomato juice, and even homemade ketchup. Early Girls are extremely productive, reliable, and yes, early. They tasted better than anything I could buy at a grocery store. But in the last few years, we’ve raised our standards, and our tomato choices have diversified dramatically. Today “better than store-bought” is the bottom rung of tomato choices rather than the top.
Now there are a zillion varieties to choose from, and a zillion names to try to remember.
Last summer, I paid $5 for a single tomato at the farmers' market, and it was worth the price. It was huge, unshapely, and red darkening to purple. It was so delicious I bought one every week for as long as they were available. It was less acidic and slightly sweeter than other tomatoes, and intensely, gloriously flavorful. I would like to try growing it. But last summer when I asked the seller what it was, she couldn’t remember, as she was growing so many heirloom varieties she had completely lost track of their names.
A little internet sleuthing led me to believe it was probably Cherokee Purple.
And I must not be the only person who liked them, because the nursery has row upon row of Cherokee Purple plants this week. One of them is now settling into my garden. I sure hope it’s the tomato of my dreams.
I also hope this plant produces a lot of tomatoes. I understand the allure of the “heirloom” label, but there are reasons why all these old varieties went out of fashion. I know that many of the newer varieties were bred for mass production, uniformity, and long shelf life – all resulting in very boring tomatoes. But though the newer hybrids tend to be less flavorful, they may be more productive and disease resistant, qualities that are also important to home gardeners with limited space.
Still, that tantalizing tomato I paid $5 for has enthralled and led me into reckless behavior. I’m done with you, Early Girl. You don’t even get a spot near my Cherokee Purple. I’ve opted for another experiment: a Big Beef OP.
I only know what I’ve read about this one, and I only read up on it after I brought it home and planted it. (Yes, judge me if you wish.) It is a version of a Big Beef – as in beefsteak tomatoes, which are large enough that a single slice neatly matches a slice of bread. (The OP is for “open-pollinated,” as opposed to hybridized. I think that may qualify as botanical virtue signaling.)
I am not at all sure I made a good decision, but time will tell. And heaven help me if either of these plants comes down with fusarium wilt.
I sincerely hope you will be smarter, more studious and less impulsive than I was in your choices of tomato plants this year. At the end of the season, we should all compare notes. In a world with a zillion tomato varieties, writing down their names and descriptions would be a very good idea.
Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at jill@theJOLTnews.com