I don’t know if this is true where you live, but here in the Twin Cities, straw bale gardening is taking off big time. Nurseries are finding it difficult to meet customer demand and articles are popping up in various media about something that for many of us is a new way to grow. As an urban grower with very limited growing space, I’m intrigued by this approach and have decided to give it a try this year. Here’s the first of what I expect will be several posts about my first attempt at straw bale gardening.
Getting Started with Straw Bale Gardening
Despite my enthusiasm, I decided to be wise and try just one bale this year. But I want to do it right, so I also decided to buy the book, Straw Bale Gardens, by Joel Karsten, the person who seems to have first developed this approach. A farm boy who missed gardening after moving to the Twin Cities to attend college and start a career, he experimented with straw bales after buying a house which proved to offer poor growing conditions. He has now collected what he learned from years of experience into a guide that can be used by those with enough space for a single bale as well as those wishing to create a whole straw bale garden. The book is clear and concise, and I think it was a wise investment.
Once I had read it, my next step was to determine where to put my bale. Although I’ve lived and gardened at this house for many years, I realized that I needed to pay a little more attention to the amount of sunlight received in the several spots I had in mind before choosing one. Karsten cautions that it is important not to move the bale once its conditioning has begun (more on that in a minute), so for several days, I checked periodically to be sure I had a good sense of how much sunlight each spot would get across the arc of a day, including some guesses about how the light would change as trees leaf out and the sun’s path shifts in the sky.
Because preparing the bale for growing requires deep and regular watering, and since one never knows whether rainfall will be sufficient to give plants the moisture they need throughout the growing season, it was also essential to consider how easy it would be to get water to the bale before settling it in place. As a result, I dragged the hose out of the garage sooner than I ordinarily would in the spring, hooked it up, and pulled it off the reel to be sure it would reach even the most “remote” spot.
Conditioning the Straw Bale
Once I had confirmed a location for my bale and moved it into place, I was ready to start the conditioning process. This consists of a specific pattern of fertilizing and watering the bale in order to prepare it to host plants. The book clearly describes the process and summarizes it in a chart, so it could hardly be easier to follow – in fact, the only little challenge is keeping track from day to day of where one is in the process (I wrote my start date by the day one description in the book). Since the fertilizing starts on day one and because the amounts of fertilizer to be used and total conditioning time vary by fertilizer type, it is essential to decide up-front whether to use a “conventional” or organic product. I plan to grow edibles in my straw bale, so I decided to purchase a bale from an organic grower and to use organic fertilizer.
I am now one week into the conditioning process that, for organic growing, requires 15 days. This is essentially a process of sprinkling on fertilizer and watering one day, only watering the next, and continuing to alternate these steps for a week before a few days of daily fertilizing and watering, and finally planting. Ideally, I might have started the conditioning a couple of days sooner than I did in order to be ready to plant over Memorial Day week-end (the timing often recommended in my neck of the woods as being safely past the last frost), but I’m not really concerned. One of the advantages of straw bale gardening is that the bale warms up more quickly than the soil in a garden bed, a particular advantage for plants like tomatoes and basil that sulk if planted in cool soil. As a result, when I am ready to plant, my vegetables should get off to a good start.
Other Steps and Strategies for Straw Bale Gardening
The book offers other ideas for success in preparing for straw bale gardening, such as setting up soaker hoses if that will be essential to growing success; providing supports as needed to keep multiple bales firmly in place and/or to secure plastic sheeting or other covers or protections; and garden designs and plant selections. It also provides information about options for fertilizers and strategies for planting seeds directly in the straw bales. In short, it’s a good resource that I’ve already consulted multiple times, but there’s plenty of good information on the web about growing in straw bales for those who don’t want to add to their gardening library.
I think I know what I’m going to plant in my straw bale, but I still have a little time to finalize my plan. I’ll let you know what I end up planting and how things are going throughout the growing season. For now, I’m excited to be well on my way to a new way of growing!
It’s sometimes difficult to sort through the staggering array of tomato and pepper varieties available in today’s markets. I try to help my customers at the market by asking a series of questions, focusing on lifestyle and ultimate use of their tomatoes. Do they make a lot of salsa? Are they at the cabin and away from home a lot? Do they entertain and want beautiful color and variety in their salads? Are they into DIY and want to dry, can or pickle their tomatoes? Are they novice gardeners and want the best chance of success? Etc. In addition to the questions, I post signs with photos of the heirloom tomato and pepper varieties available this year (2013). Even if you are not a customer, these signs may help you organize your thoughts on varieties.
Heirloom Tomato and Pepper Varieties for 2013:
The following photos are signs I use at the markets, and they are organized by color and/or type of tomato primarily because these categories are easiest to explain to customers at a busy market. For more specific information on size, growth habit, flavor, and disease resistance see this post which gives more in-depth information (*note that the previous post is for 2012 varieties, so a few varieties on the signs will not be listed). Here are the 2013 signs:
Best Tomato Varieties for Early Tomatoes and/or Best for Disease Resistance:
Best Heirloom Tomatoes for Making Sauces or Growing in Containers:
Best Main-Season Tomatoes for Slicing & Fresh Eating (i.e., think BLTs):
Best Beefsteak-Type Heirloom Varieties (think BLTs and bragging rights – generally later):
Heirloom Tomato Varieties – Gourmet Black Varieties:
Best Heirloom Tomato Varieties – Sweet Orange Varieties:
Best Heirloom Tomato Varieties – Mild Yellow & Tangy Green:
Best Heirloom Tomato Varieties – Gourmet Striped:
Best Variety of Cherry Tomatoes (Heirloom & Hybrid):
Best Pepper Varieties – Hot & Spicy:
Best Pepper Varieties – Sweet:
There you have it for 2013 varieties. Some are new to me and being trialed, but most are tried and true in Minnesota.
Share some of your favorites? I’d love to hear about the varieties you liked or loved, as well as the ones that didn’t do it for you for whatever reason.
Thanks, and I hope you’re finding these posts helpful.
The popularity of heirloom tomatoes is based around two characteristics – their stunning array of colors and the unique flavor profiles of each variety. The sheer number of heirloom varieties with unique flavors can be overwhelming however. Fortunately there are a few generalizations that can be made with regards to the relationship between flavor and color.
Taste Tests across the Country:
Many gardeners, chefs and seed companies have performed taste tests on the most popular heirloom tomatoes, resulting in a wide range of opinions. Because the flavor of heirloom tomatoes is so dependent on climate and growing conditions, the most reliable taste tests are those that were trialed as close to your home and garden as possible. We do taste tests at HeathGlen Farm in Minnesota every year, both at the farm and at the farmers’ market in St. Paul. The list of flavor profiles below are based on our farm’s taste tests. Some notable taste tests that I have reviewed around the country include:
Six Keys to Selecting Heirloom Tomatoes for their Flavor:
Flavor profiles are based on the most fully flavored fresh-eating tomatoes, not on which heirloom tomatoes are best to cook with.
When a review notes that the tomato has a “classic” or “old-fashioned flavor”, it is referring to a balance of acid and sugar in the tomato, getting as close to 50/50 as possible;
An important characteristic that plays into a tomato’s flavor is texture (aka “mouthfeel”). Generally, if a tomato is said to be mealy, the texture is enough to detract from the flavor
The flavor profiles based on heirloom tomato color are generalizations only. For example, pale yellow tomatoes tend to be mild and low-acid. Limmony, however is a yellow tomato that has a very strong acid background, giving it a robust “lemon-like” flavor.
I have not included cherry tomatoes or plum & paste tomatoes, as they cannot be as easily grouped into color-taste profiles. In general the cherry tomatoes are sweet, the paste tomatoes are meaty and higher acid, and the plum tomatoes are juicy and mild. I will put together a separate post on the pros and cons of various cherry and paste tomatoes later this season.
Finally, flavor profiles of each variety are not only subjective to an individual’s taste buds, but are highly variable depending on growing conditions (heat, water, type & rate of fertilizer, number of growing days, etc.)
The Big Pink Heirloom Tomatoes:
The large pink tomatoes offer up what most of us think of as a classic tomato flavor — a balance of acid and sweetness. The most well-known (not necessarily the best tasting) of the pink heirloom tomatoes is the Brandywine. It has become the standard-bearer for the pinks, as it is a good size for slicing and typically has that bursting blast of tomato flavor most people want in a tomato.
Brandywine — a sweet tomato, offset by a notable acidity that achieves a balanced rich, succulent, old-fashioned home-grown tomato taste. Depending on growing conditions, it can also be low-sugar, low-acid and fairly bland.
Mortgage Lifter — known for its mild sweet flavor and meaty texture, this pink-fleshed beefsteak can tip the scale at two pounds.
Caspian Pink — similar flavor profile to Brandywine, and frequently beats Brandywine in taste tests. Pro is that it is earlier than Brandywine
Prudens Purple — another early Brandywine type. Considered sweet, juicy and meaty; doing well in short-season areas
Cherokee Purple — sometimes included in the “black” category, Cherokee Purple has a complex flavor with an initial smokiness followed by a slightly sweet aftertaste. Often compared to a zinfandel wine.
The Black (or Purple) Heirloom Tomatoes
While often referred to as “black” heirloom tomatoes, most of these varieties are more of a maroon or purple-brown color. Black tomatoes tend to have an earthy, almost smoky sweetness to them, with a bit less acid than red tomatoes. The flavor profile is often referred to as “smoky, complex and wine-like”.
Paul Robeson — of fairly recent popularity, Paul Robeson is getting good marks all around the country for its “smoky,” “complex” distinctive flavor.
Purple Calabash — often compared to red wines such as Cabernet. The taste is rich and full of old-fashioned tomato flavor with just the right blend of sweetness and acidity. The flesh is smooth and meaty with evenly distributed seeds.
Japanese Black Trifele — a pear shaped variety. Flavor is deep, chocolatey, smoky, and rich.
Carbon — among the darkest of the black tomatoes. Exceptionally rich and sweet flavor. My favorite black.
Black Krim — intense, slightly salty taste.
Black from Tula — perceived by many as the “best-tasting black”, with thin skin and a sweet, complex flavor.
Vorlon — cross between Prudens Purple and Cherokee Purple resulting in meaty, rich, sweet taste. Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s favorite black in 2011.
Purple Russian — the best black tomato in a plum variety. Meaty, sweet and excellent for salads and sauces.
The Red Heirloom Tomatoes:
Bright red heirlooms are often mistaken as hybrid tomatoes at market, as they look very similar. Red heirlooms however, are more varied in their flavor profiles than hybrids, tending toward the robust, higher acid flavors. The reds and the pinks are often what people are thinking of when they ask for that “old-fashioned flavor”. Red heirlooms also tend to have thinner skin than hybrids, making them less amenable to shipping.
Costoluto — “old-fashioned tomato flavor”; performs well when skinned and used in slow simmered sauces. The flesh is meaty with an abundance of juice and tart tomato flavor.
Druzba — smooth, juicy fruits with robust sweet-tart flavor; meaty and great for canning.
Legend — Introduced at Oregon State University as highly disease resistant variety. Nice blend of sugar and acid.
Aussie — big, impressive beefsteak variety. Old fashioned, big robust tomato taste.
Stupice — best flavor I can find in an early tomato (early tomatoes tend to lack flavor); small
Thessaloniki — prolific crack-free heirloom with a meaty, classic flavor; sometimes considered “earthy flavor”
Carmello — considered by the French to have the “perfect acid-sugar balance” . Productive, with juicy texture. Dona is a smaller version of Carmello.
The Striped Heirloom Tomatoes:
Striped heirlooms (sometimes called marbled), are beautiful and they tend to have a rich, juicy, super-sweet flavor that is low in acid.
Striped German — almost candy-like flavor. Sometimes a soft tomato. Beautiful.
Big Rainbow — considered one of the prettiest and most unique heirloom tomatoes. This meaty beefsteak tomato is known for its sweet and flavorful taste. The golden orange color with artful swirls of red and yellow are seen throughout the tomato
Gold Medal — popular for its appealing sweet taste and marbled beauty, originating from the Black Forest region of Germany.
Flavor Profile: rich, juicy, super sweet flavor that is low in acid.
Pineapple- Orange and red on the outside, and yellow with blushes of red on the inside. Very sweet, low acidity and nice flavor.
The Orange Heirloom Tomatoes:
Orange tomatoes (not yellow), are mild, sweet, and are low-acid. They are the varieties that will most remind you that tomatoes are, botanically speaking, fruits.
Persimmon — One of the best flavors of all the orange tomatoes. Meaty with few seeds. Creamy meaty, texture. .
Juane Flamme — small (large plum size), sweet and low-acid, bursting with juice. Almost a tropical flavor. My favorite small orange.
Kellogg’s Breakfast — vibrant sweet taste, meaty with few seeds.
The Green Heirloom Tomatoes:
The commonality of green tomatoes is a bright acidity, but the degree of sweetness tends to vary quite a bit.
Aunt Ruby’s Green — bright with acidity, but well-balanced with sugar. Incredible juiciness.
Green Zebra — tangy and zingy are adjectives often attached to Green Zebra. Very popular for taste and eye appeal.
The Yellow (or White) Tomatoes:
White tomatoes aren’t really white. They’re more of a pale yellow. Yellow and white tomatoes are noticeably less acidic than red tomatoes. Some consider them the sweetest tomatoes and some consider them the blandest tomatoes. The common factor is low-acidity.
Great White- yellow on the outside, and pale yellow on the inside. A very mild flavor with low acidity, and a hint of sweetness.
Limmony — a yellow beefsteak with a strong, zesty, sweet citrusy flavor. It is also sometimes spelled Lemony.
Because I’m a gardener who loves tools and gadgets and all kinds of garden-themed items, I never have trouble selecting gifts for the gardener. But I can imagine that someone who primarily enjoys looking at the results of another gardeners work, rather than engaging directly in it himself or herself, might be at a bit of a loss when it comes time to select a present. To provide a little assistance in completing that task, here are some of my suggestions for gifts that I think will be used and enjoyed by a friend or family member who likes to dig in the dirt.
Anyone who gardens, inside or out, needs to provide plants, at least occasionally, with the water that Mother Nature can’t or won’t give them. That makes watering cans something that every gardener can use. Happily, they come in a wide array of sizes, shapes, colors, styles, and materials, which means that they can be found at just about any price that fits the giver’s budget. For example, one of my favorites is an inexpensive green plastic vessel that I found at Target for less than $10, while another is a pricier copper container shaped like a beehive (sadly, this one is in need of repair, having sprung a small leak in the base, so it’s currently serving a decorative purpose only).
Before making a selection, in addition to the aesthetics of color, shape, and design, you’ll want to think about at least two practical things:
How much water the can holds. For example, very large ones, when filled, can be quite heavy to carry, which may make them difficult to use for houseplants set on shelves or tables, but excellent for large outdoor beds.
How the water will flow from the can. Some watering cans come with a detachable or permanent “rose” that distributes water over a wide expanse, while others have a single spout. I find watering cans with roses difficult to use with potted plants but great for watering newly seeded garden beds or small seedlings that need a gentle watering.
In short – consider both form and function when choosing a watering can.
For gardeners who want to be sure they remember the names of plants, keep track of which seeds were planted in which bed, or inform garden visitors about what is growing in the garden, plant markers can be very useful. These, too, can be simple or ornamental. One of my favorites, and an easy and inexpensive DIY project, is rocks on which plant names are written with permanent markers. These fit naturally into a garden design and can be easily repositioned as plants grow or are replaced. Other options include copper, plastic, slate or ceramic markers in an array of styles. I’ve also seen some fun “upcycled” markers made from vintage pieces of flatware (with the proper tools, these, too, could be a homemade option). I like to combine several small items into a single gift, so suggest you combine something like a book about botanical plant names with a set of markers.
Even a gardener with an array of tools on hand will likely appreciate the gift of a new one. This might be a tool to replace one that has become bent or rusty; a tool that will add a new size or design to the tool basket (e.g., a trowel with an angled, ergonomically appropriate handle); or a beautifully hand-made tool just a bit beyond the price range that generally guides the gardener’s own purchases. An example of the latter might be a beautifully handcrafted English gardening trowel with a wooden handle, a fine Felco pruner, or a well shaped Japanese weeding tool. Here, too, it can be fun to combine a tool with another garden-related item, like a weeding basket, a garden tool belt in which to carry the new implement, or a colorful pair of gloves.
It seems just about every hobby has its own options for specialized clothing. For gardeners, this includes footwear, gloves, and hats. My favorite footwear for the garden is Crocs, including the traditional clog style and sandals (I have one pair of each and like them equally well). They’re comfortable, inexpensive, nearly indestructible, come in a wide array of fun colors, and can simply be hosed off when they get dirty. Then there are the iconic “Wellies” and various knock-offs, some covered in lively floral prints, for those who muck about in more mud and mess than I do. The key is footwear that keeps feet dry and protected from whatever might be underfoot in a garden and can be easily cleaned after a muddy day in the garden.
Gloves come in a number of materials and designs, from very simple to more “fashion forward.” I generally prefer to garden with my bare hands so that I can really feel what I’m doing, so I’m not the best guide here, but I know a number of gardeners who swear by the gloves made by Woman’s Work. Gardeners who specialize in roses will appreciate gloves made especially to resist prickly thorns; rose gloves also often are made to extend further up the arm. There are also rubberized gloves to keep a gardener’s hands dry and gloves made of breathable materials to keep hands cool. Since the fit, feel, and use of gloves is highly variable, I recommend including a gift receipt with a gift of gloves for easy exchanges if needed.
As for hats, choices should be guided by the style of the gardener receiving the gift, but keep in mind that keeping the sun off a busy gardener’s face is generally the most important purpose for a garden hat. Netting to protect the gardener’s face and neck from insects can be useful, especially in areas with heavy mosquito infestations or at times when black flies are especially pesky, or for those who are allergic to insect stings or bites. Finally, a breathable material that helps keep the head cool will undoubtedly be appreciated for use under full mid-day sun.
Don’t Forget Gift Cards
I used to think that giving cash or gift cards was a cop-out for a giver lacking the imagination or commitment to select a good gift, but I gave up that notion some time ago. Frankly, I suspect we’ve all gotten enough gifts that have sat unused for years to help us recognize the value of letting the recipient select something that he or she really likes, needs, or wants. Besides, they can be lots of fun for the recipient. I remember a year when I received several gifts cards and spent a very enjoyable day after the holidays shopping at no cost to myself, a fact that was greatly appreciated since the bills for my own gift purchases had begun arriving.
For a gardener, a gift card or gift certificate from a nearby nursery will never go unused. Many gift shops and bookstores also have merchandise to offer the inquisitive and curious gardener. The gift of a purchase from a seed company or other mail order or on-line source of seeds, plants, and gardening paraphernalia can open up options for choices by the recipient. Finally, the gift of a membership to a local arboretum or conservatory will offer the potential for many hours of learning, inspiration, and vicarious pleasure.
Gift giving can be something of an art, but with a little thought to the recipient’s tastes and interests, it needn’t be difficult, especially for gardeners who seem always to be looking for something new to try. So don’t be afraid – get shopping!
The seed catalogs are arriving in the mail now and seeing those luscious cover photos always spur that special kind of hope for the new year’s growing season. Hope that “this” year will be the year that all of my heirloom tomato varieties and the farm in general will be perfect. I will stay on top of the weeds. I will make sure trellising is done on time. I will learn from the past year’s mistakes and grow perfect tomatoes this year!
Before opening those enticing seed catalogs with the beautiful photos, it is a good (actually great) idea to take stock of which heirloom tomato varieties performed well for you last year. Memories always seem to lean toward the extremes (it was a horrible variety that didn’t produce anything worth eating, or it was the best tasting, most prolific variety I’ve ever grown). In an attempt to reach the holy grail in 2013 for each class of heirloom tomatoes, I have tried to document the varieties I grew in 2012, rather than rely on my memory and my usual sketchy notes. Here is a summary of how they fared for me in Forest Lake, Minnesota, in hopes that it may help you as you dream-read those seed catalogs in January.
I’ve arranged the summary according to color profiles, as I have found the flavor to be more similar within a particular color of heirloom tomato than across different colors (this is a generalization only). My focus is on flavor, but I do try to address yield, earliness, disease resistance, etc. to the extent that I can in a blog post. For a more complete summary of growing attributes, see Heirloom Tomato Summary Charts. For my favorite catalogs for ordering heirloom tomato seeds, see Top 5 Seed Catalogs for Heirloom Tomatoes post.
Orange Heirloom Tomato Varieties:
In general, the orange heirloom tomatoes tend to be sweet (much sweeter than yellow low-acid tomatoes). They often have a slight tropical, spicy flavor. This sweet, fruity flavor is why Sun Gold cherry tomatoes are so popular. From largest to smallest of the orange heirlooms:
Persimmon Orange – I have always grown Persimmon, primarily because I have a taste memory of a Persimmon grown in 1999 as the best tomato I had ever tasted. It has never lived up to that intense flavor in subsequent years, but it is always reliably good. Attributes include: large, relatively late season, meaty, sweet to very sweet, disease resistant, good yields for a large tomato. Always a staple orange tomato for me.
Kellogs – I alternate between Kellogs and Nebraska Wedding and cannot tell the difference between them in most years. Attributes: reliable, blemish free, main-season, sweet – but less intensely fruity than Persimmon, medium size, long season yields.
Juane Flammee– this one is beautiful (orange with a red interior). The flavor has ranged from excellent & intense to good & sweet. I have bought this seed from different companies and sometimes that can make the difference in flavor, and sometimes it is a function of growing season nuances. It is small, but prolific, and always delivers on taste. It is prone to blossom end rot if grown in pots or given inconsistent watering.
Gold Medal – I have been trialing many of the large, bi-colored tomatoes, including Pineapple, Big Rainbow, Hillbilly, and Old German. Gold Medal is similar to these other bi-colors in that it is a) beautiful, b) very sweet & flavorable, c) large and relatively late season. It stood out from the other bi-colors in that it seemed less prone to cracking, and a higher yield. I need to give it a few more years for a consistent comparison. I will also try Hillbilly, Pineapple and Big Rainbow again in 2013 (no photos available), and will add Annas Noire (Black Pineapple) and Virginia Railroad. Virginia Railroad is a rare seed given to me by a friend who got them years ago from an Iowa Seed Savers member. I tasted them in 2012 and they were truly wonderful. They are said to set fruit early and get very large, some as big as two pounds, but also producing many regular looking fruits.
Yellow Heirloom Varieties:
People generally think of yellow tomatoes as low-acid and mild, which many of them are. Some, however are quite tangy with a slight citrus flavor and are in no way mild. Hughs, Manyel and Great White lean toward the mild sweet side, with Limmony tending to be tangy with higher acid.
Hughs– I have grown this heirloom for several years now, due to the literature recommending it for its superior flavor. I will probably not grow this variety again, as I have found the plants to be fragile and susceptible to more disease, the flavor to be inconsistent, and the yield to be poor. I am sure some people love this tomato, but it has not fared well in the microclimate of our farm in Minnesota.
Limmony– This yellow heirloom always surprises people who are used to yellow tomatoes being low acid and mild. It is quite tangy with a zesty citrus flavor (hence the name), blemish-free, meaty, with high yields. It is a main-season tomato that will be a staple on our farm.
Manyel – I grew this one because it is a Native American heirloom (manyel means “many moons”), and because it is a reliable, small to medium, pale yellow, mild & juicy tomato. The yield is good and it is an early tomato. A keeper.
White Queen – Even though this heirloom is listed as a “white” tomato, it is actually pale yellow (see photo). This tomato manages to be mild without being bland. It has a sweet/fruity flavor and is considered a “palate refresher”. It is also early with relatively high yields.
Black Heirloom Varieties – med to large:
“Black” tomatoes (many are actually purple) have become quite popular due to their rich, complex flavor. Most of the black tomatoes originated in Russia and they can range from large 1-2 lb. beefsteaks to small cherry tomatoes. They all share a very deep, somewhat sweet and wine-like flavor profile.
Paul Robeson -This is the second year I have grown Paul Robeson, and both years it has produced a medium sized, fairly early tomato with a superior flavor. The flavor is rich and somewhat smoky. Yields are good.
Carbon – I first tasted this heirloom from a Portland, Oregon farmers’ market and I was definitely wowed. Though somewhat smaller than the other blacks, the flavor was intense and the best I had tasted from the blacks so far. I had a little trouble locating seed and have not grown it long enough to vouch for its reliability, but it is definitely a keeper on taste alone.
Black from Tula (mislabeled in photo as Black Russian) -This is the largest of the blacks, and the flavor is always good, but I continue to be disappointed in the yield and the lateness. This is probably the last year for this one.
Vorlon – Lynne Rosetto Kasper called out this heirloom as one her top varieties for flavor in 2010 (I try out all of our tomatoes with Lynne’s experienced Italian palate). In addition to excellent flavor, this tomato is blemish free and a good producer for us.
Black Heirloom Varieties – small:
Black Mauri – A new one for us in 2012, and we were delighted with it. Great taste, crunchy texture, prolific, blemish free…what more could you want? It’s small. Some consider it a grape tomato and some consider it a plum tomato. All consider it great.
Black Cherry – Consistently popular as a deeper-flavored cherry tomato. It is a bit larger than typical cherry tomatoes, and not as prolific, but the flavor is much more complex than the candy sweetness of the sweet 100 types.
Black Krim – This is one of the earliest of the medium-sized black tomatoes for us. It is typically about 8 oz. and has a somewhat salty flavor in addition to the rich flavor profile of the blacks. Heavy producer.
Purple Russian – Another new heirloom for 2012 that we will definitely keep around. It is larger and lighter in color than Black Mauri, but has the full-flavor of the blacks. It’s great for salsas and salads, and has an egg shape. Also relatively early.
Another black heirloom that we grow and like, but do not have a photo of, is Japanese Black Trifele.
Striped Heirloom Varieties:
Striped, or bi-colored, heirloom tomatoes are fun and add special eye-appeal to a tomato salad or a tomato tasting party. They range in flavor from mild & bland, to sweet & fruity, to high-acid and tangy. I do not have photos of all of the striped tomatoes we have grown and loved, but some memorable ones include: Mr. Stripey, Red Zebra, Dagma’s Perfection, Big Rainbow, Tigerella, and Marvel Stripe. Three of the most popular in 2012 were:
Green Zebra -This is a staple for us, and once people get past the idea that it is “supposed” to be green, it often becomes their favorite. It is quite tangy and zesty in flavor with a fairly high acid level. You would think it would be fairly early due to its smaller size, but Green Zebra actually tends to be relatively late on our farm. Once it gets going it is prolific, but we are eagerly awaiting that first flush.
Gold Medal -This heirloom was summarized above under the orange tomatoes. It is actually a bi-color and beautiful.
Speckled Roman – This was a new heirloom variety for us in 2012. The young plants looked quite spindly and I thought it might be a fragile plant, but once it got going it was strong and a good producer. The taste is somewhat mild, but the color and shape are fun to have on tomato platters.
Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties:
There are many, many great pink varieties of heirloom tomatoes, the most well-known of which is Brandywine. Pink tomatoes tend to be sweeter and lower acid than the bright red heirlooms. Many think of the pinks as the tomatoes with that “old-fashioned flavor”. I tend to prefer the bolder flavor of the red heirlooms, but the pinks can be very full-flavored at the right time of the year. Popular pinks which we have grown include: Caspian Pink, Cherokee Purple, Pruden’s Purple, Soldacki, German Pink, Wins All, Purple Calabash, and Rose De Berne. I’m trying to winnow down the number of varieties I grow, so I usually only grow 5 or 6 varieties of pinks each year. Here are a few standards and a few new ones:
Mortgage Lifter -This is a reliable producer with a consistently sweet, full-flavored taste. Plus it has the great story of paying off “Radiator Charlie’s” mortgage by selling them for $1.00 a plant during the depression. It is earlier than Brandywine and I always grow it.
Brandywine -The first name that comes to the mind of people just starting in heirlooms is the Brandywine. It was one of the first varieties to regain status in popular culture for its “old-fashioned taste”. Since heirlooms have become popular, Brandywine has held onto its status, but for me it doesn’t taste much different from many of the other large pink heirlooms, and it has the disadvantage of being quite late and not very prolific. In Minnesota, it makes more sense to grow some of the other large pinks like Caspian Pink and Prudens Purple which are earlier, but people at the farmers’ market still want to buy the Brandywine, so I grow it.
Raspberry Lyanna – This was a new one in 2012, and I was disappointed in its flavor. It was early and a great producer all season long, but the flavor was pretty bland, and I probably won’t include it next year.
Bali – Unlike Raspberry Lyanna, this small, productive tomato was a powerhouse of flavor. I was quite surprised with the sweet, full flavor of Bali. It is pretty (ribbed), pink, sweet, and prolific. A keeper.
Red Heirloom Tomato Varieties:
People are often unaware that heirloom tomatoes can be red and smooth, looking very similar to hybrid tomatoes. The difference is in taste. The skin of red heirloom tomatoes will typically be thinner, as they have not been bred to travel long distances and maintain long shelf lives. Flavor profiles of the red heirlooms vary, but most often they will have a bolder, higher acid flavor profile than the pink, black or orange heirlooms. Some of my favorite reds include:
Aussie – While not as full-flavored as some of the other reds, this one has a lot going for it. It is meaty, with few seeds, and one slice of this beefsteak will fill a BLT just fine.
Carmello & Dona – While some debate whether these two French varieties have been around long enough to be called heirlooms, no one debates the full balanced flavor of them. Carmello and Dona are the classic tomato you will find at French open-air markets and they are considered to have the perfect acid-sugar balance. Dona is the smaller version of Carmello. Seed is sometimes difficult to find.
Thessoloniki – A Greek heirloom with what is said to be an “earthy” taste. It is a favorite at the farmers’ market, both for its full tomato flavor and its highly productive nature. People count the number of tomatoes they get from these bushes and come back to tell me about it in amazement. It is also blemish free, which is nice.
Paste Heirloom Tomato Varieties:
Many people go to the San Marzano for their choice of heirloom paste tomato. The problem is there seem to be many different “strains” within the seed companies of this variety, and you can never be sure what you are getting. In 2012, I grew the “Redorta” strain, and it was good, but most seed companies do not tell you what strain they are producing. Taste can vary widely and the typical Roma doesn’t have much taste to begin with. The following three are the paste tomatoes I have ended up with after many trials, with Opalka being the flavor winner for me.
Amish Paste – This heirloom is full-flavored, but it is not really a “paste” tomato. It is much juicier than a typical paste, and can be used as a slicer in most cases. The size and yield is also quite variable, ranging from medium size to quite large, and medium yield to very low yield.
San Marzano – As noted above, this heirloom is inconsistent in flavor, depending on which strain you get. Yields are typically good, but the tomato meat can be quite dry at times.
Opalka – My favorite of the paste tomatoes. It has everything you’d want in a paste: full flavor, meaty texture, high yields, large size. It tends to look a bit clumsy and can be oddly shaped. If that matters to you.
Cherry Tomato Varieties (Heirloom and Hybrid)
Typically the cherry tomatoes share these attributes: a) they are sweet, b) they are prolific yielders, c) they grow well in pots even though they are indeterminate, and d) they tend to crack, e) they are usually hybrids although there are some heirlooms. Here are a few of my favorites:
Matts Wild Cherry – An heirloom, tons of tiny sweet cherry tomatoes will fill your plant all season. I only grow a few of these, as I don’t like to pick that many small tomatoes for market
Principe Borghese – An Italian heirloom that I have always grown and always will. It has a full, meaty tomato flavor rather than the sweeter cherry tomato flavor, and it is the absolute best for drying. Just cut them in half and dry. I grow a lot of these and sell the dried tomatoes at market in the winter. They are also nice for salads.
Tomatoberry – Jury is still out on this one. The seed was expensive and there is a high demand for this hybrid cherry, most likely because it is crack free and easy to grow. The taste was different however, with a lot of varying opinions. I’ll have to try this again, but I wasn’t impressed with the flavor this year.
Black Cherry – The same rich flavor profile of the larger blacks in a cherry. Not as prolific as most cherries and a little larger.
Black Mauri – Considered a grape tomato, and was a new variety for us this year. I loved the full, sweet flavor and it was a blemish-free, high-yielder. A keeper.
Cherry Roma – A hybrid grape tomato new to us this year. Easy to grow, blemish free, prolific, good-but-not-great flavor. Nice for salads.