Heirloom Tomato Varieties: Flavor Profiles Related to Color

HeathGlen's Heirloom Tomatoes in September
HeathGlen’s Heirloom Tomatoes in September

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:

  1. Flavor profiles are based on the most fully flavored fresh-eating tomatoes, not on which heirloom tomatoes are best to cook with.

    Heirloom Tomato Varieties
    Variety of Heirloom Tomatoes
  2. 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;
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012
Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

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

"Black" Heirloom Tomato Varieties
“Black” Heirloom Tomato Varieties

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:

Red Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012
Red Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

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 & Orange Heirloom Tomato Varities - 2012
    Striped & Orange Heirloom Tomato Varities – 2012

    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:

Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes
Green Zebra 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.

  • Yellow & White Heirloom Tomato Varieties
    Yellow & White Heirloom Tomato Varieties

    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.


Italian Pasta Recipe Highlighting Smoked Tomatoes: Puttanesca

Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese
Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese

Every time I open the freezer door I see the beautiful heirloom tomatoes that I smoked and then froze last year, just waiting for the perfect dish.  Smoked tomatoes have an intense aroma and flavor, and I wanted to use these in a dish that would be bold enough to hold up to their unique flavor.

For all things Italian my first inclination is to go to Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s recipes, so I went back to one of her earlier cookbooks that focused on Italy’s Farmhouse Kitchens, The Italian Country Table.  A recipe for a vibrant, spicy “streetwalkers pasta” sounded like a good starting place for something bold, except I did want a cooked dish for dinner rather than raw.  No problem.  Using Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s “Pasta Puttanesca Pugliese” as a starting point, it was easy to adapt it to my dinner needs.

Turned out wonderful!  The intense smokiness of the tomatoes, the salty umami from anchovy fillets, black olives, and Romano cheese,  and the bitter crunch of endive.  Hard to go wrong with those ingredients.  It did my smoked heirloom tomatoes proud.

Now, this summer the key is to use my new smoker of last year and smoke more!  More smoked tomatoes, more smoked chipotle, and more smoked salt!  Summer is around the corner…can you feel it?

Pasta Puttanesca with Smoked Tomatoes

(adapted from Lynne Rosotto Kasper’s, The Italian Country Table)

Smoked heirloom tomatoes from the freezer
Smoked heirloom tomatoes from the freezer


  • 2 Tbsp oil, grapeseed or olive oil preferred
  • 1 tightly packed Tbsp fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tightly packed tsp each fresh marjoram and Italian parsley leaves
  • 3-5 cloves garlic
  • generous pinch of hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 medium onion (about 1 cup)
  • about 3 lbs smoked tomatoes, thawed if frozen
  • 2 oil-packed anchovy fillets, rinsed & quartered
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted & coarsely chopped
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lb. pasta, I used penne, she suggested orecchiette pasta
  • 1/2 cup Romano,  Parmigiano Reggiano, or Pecorino cheese, grated
  • 1/2 tightly packed cup curly endive leaves, coarsely chopped


  1. With a sharp knife, mince together the herbs, garlic, and hot pepper with the coarse salt and set aside.
  2. In a medium to large pot heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onion and saute until soft and lightly caramelized, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic-herb mix and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the remaining 5 ingredients through the pepper and simmer until the sauce is thickened and slightly reduced (about 15 minutes).  This can simmer while the pasta is cooking.
  3. Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling water, stirring often, until there is no raw flour taste (about 7-10 minutes for penne).   Drain into a colander
  4. Put the pasta pot back over medium heat.  Spoon most of the sauce into the pot (you do not need to use all of the sauce, just cover the pasta with as much sauce as you like and stir).  Cook a few minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed.
  5. Taste for seasoning, toss with a little chopped endive and grated cheese and serve.  Place small bowls of extra sauce, extra endive, and extra cheese to pass around for individual tastes.

This was the first time I had heard of Puttanesca.  Do you have a version that is similar?  I see Mark Bittman includes a version in his How to Cook Everything book, but it does not include anchovies or bitter greens.  I’d love to hear from you!


Dinner plate of Puttanesca with smoked tomatoes
Dinner plate of Puttanesca with smoked tomatoes

Heirloom Tomato Varieties: Roundup & Summary

"Black" heirloom tomato varities - 2012
“Black” heirloom tomato varieties – 2012

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:

Orange Heirloom Tomato Varities - 2012
Orange Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

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:

Yellow Heirloom Tomato Varieties
Yellow Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

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" Heirloom Tomato Varieties
“Black” Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

“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" Heirloom Tomato Varieties - small
“Black” Heirloom Tomato Varieties – small – 2012

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:

Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes
Green Zebra Heirloom Tomatoes

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:

Striped Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012
Striped Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

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:

Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012
Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

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:

Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012
Pink Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

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:

Paste Heirloom Tomato Varieties - 2012
Paste Heirloom Tomato Varieties – 2012

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)

Cherry Tomato Varieties (Heirloom & Hybrid)
Cherry Tomato Varieties (Heirloom & 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.

Mulching for Winter Garden Protection

By Cyndy Crist

Marsh Hay as mulch for Winter Garden Protection (by Cyndy Crist)
Marsh Hay as mulch for Winter Garden Protection (by Cyndy Crist)
Mulching is a time-honored gardening practice, and this is a great time to consider mulching for winter garden protection.  Just a little work now will likely increase the odds that your plants will survive whatever Mother Nature decides to throw our way this winter.  Here’s a bit of information to help guide you.

What Is Mulching

Mulching is pretty simple and straight-forward – it’s the practice of putting a layer of an appropriate material over a garden bed or around the bases of trees and shrubs.  Options include natural and artificial materials. Before you make a choice, think carefully about what is likely to work best in your particular situation.
Raking up leaves for Winter Mulch (by Cyndy Crist)
Raking up leaves for Winter Mulch (by Cyndy Crist)

I prefer to use natural mulches, such as straw, marsh hay, shredded bark, grass clippings, or leaves, for several reasons. One is that they will break down over time and help enrich the soil. Another is that some (notably grass clippings and leaves) are available to me at no cost.  One word of caution, though – if you want to use leaves, be aware of their characteristics and shred them first if they’re not a kind that curls up and crumbles as they dry.  In my garden, I use the fallen leaves of our neighbor’s silver maple because they form a layer that remains relatively light and loose even after being covered by heavy snow. By contrast, I avoid using the leaves from our boulevard maple (I think it’s a Columnar Norway Maple) because they are large, thick, and remain flat after falling.  As a result, they form a dense cover that keeps the ground wet and frozen late into the spring.

Stones, plastic sheeting, newspaper, and landscape fabric can also be used as mulch, but each has potential drawbacks.  For example, plastic doesn’t allow anything under it to breathe and can provide a safe haven for slugs.  Stones may hold more heat than you’ll want in the height of summer and can be difficult to remove should you decide to change your beds. Newspapers will break down over time but will need a layer of something with more weight on top of them to keep them from blowing away, as will landscape fabric.

Purposes for Mulching

Winter protection isn’t the only reason to mulch.  Throughout the year, mulch helps maintain moisture in the soil, reduces weed growth, moderates soil temperatures, and decreases soil compaction. It may also reduce the spread of soil-borne diseases and, as noted earlier, natural mulches will break down over time and improve the soil.  In addition, mulch can enhance the appearance of a garden by keeping it looking tidy and providing a contrasting color and texture to the garden beds.

But as the growing season draws to an end, wise gardeners prepare to add a cover of mulch to help plants survive the cold months ahead. As our climate is changing and many of us are experiencing earlier springs and longer growing seasons, some of us are giving into “zone envy” and planting perennials not generally considered hardy where we live and garden.  Mulching these tender perennials can increase the likelihood that they will make it through the winter.  Mulch can also provide a critical layer of protection for things like newly planted garlic or recently planted perennials that, while hardy, may need a little help getting through their first winter.

When to Mulch

I think one of the things most misunderstood about winter mulching is when to put it down.  Many people think it is needed to protect the ground from freezing.  However, at least in a northern climate, no amount of mulch will prevent freezing.  What it will do is help the soil cool gradually in the winter and warm gradually in the spring and thus prevent the heaving up of plants that can result from temperature fluctuations that create alternating periods of freezing and thawing. Mulch can also help reduce how deeply frost extends into the soil, thus protecting the deepest roots of trees, shrubs, and perennials.  In practical terms, this means that it is best to mulch garden beds for winter after the soil has begun to freeze (in most of Minnesota, that’s likely sometime in November).

Another reason that I suspect gardeners are tempted to put down mulch earlier than necessary is out of a fear that snow will cover beds before they have been mulched.  According to the experts, however, it is perfectly fine to layer mulch on top of snow if necessary.  Yes, it may look a little odd, but it will still provide the protection your garden may eventually need if early snows melt or become compacted.  If we could rely on getting and keeping a thick, steady layer of snow through the winter, we wouldn’t even need to worry about mulching our gardens. In fact, I recall the owner of a Michigan nursery that I visited many years ago referring to snow as “poor man’s mulch.”  But since nature isn’t that reliable, we are wise to give our gardens a helping hand.

Laying Down Winter Mulch

While mulch used during the growing season is placed at the base of plants, trees, and shrubs, winter mulch should cover beds to a depth of 2-5 inches.  For this reason, straw, hay, and leaves are considered the best choices for winter mulching.  Per earlier comments, not all leaves are created equal here, so choose carefully if you decide to mulch with leaves.  Straw and hay are good choices because they “stick together” better than leaves and thus resist blowing around. I also find them a little easier to remove in the spring.  Some gardeners find marsh hay to be preferable to straw because it has far fewer, if any, seeds that can sprout in the spring, but either provides an effective winter cover.

Because your mulch will be covering the garden, there are several things you’ll want to do before applying it.  First, remove any diseased leaves or decayed fruits or vegetables that you may find; this will eliminate or reduce the chances of fungal or other problems next year.  Next, I like to cut some plants back nearly to the ground and leave others standing to help hold the mulch in place and add a little winter interest in the garden.  Those I cut back are usually ones that become slimy and messy by spring (like the leaves of day lilies) or that show signs of late-season disease (such as peonies and phlox with powdery mildew), while I leave standing plants with interesting seed heads  and sturdy stems that can resist snow and wind (examples in my garden are Autumn Joy sedum and Baptisia). Finally, once your beds are ready to be covered and if the ground isn’t yet completely frozen, it’s a good idea to give your garden a deep watering to help carry it through the winter.

A Final Word of Advice

Leaf and Wood Chip Mulches for Winter Garden Protection (by Cyndy Crist)
Leaf and Wood Chip Mulches for Winter Garden Protection (by Cyndy Crist)

In the spring, don’t forget to remove winter mulch once soil temperatures have begun to warm and plants are showing evidence of active growth (usually April in Minnesota). This will help prevent the growth of molds by allowing air to circulate freely around emerging plants.  In addition, I sometimes find a spot or two where especially thick mulch and deeper shade have kept the ground frozen, so uncovering that area will allow the soil to thaw, soften, and support plant growth.

Clearly, none of this is rocket science. Mulching is an easy step to take to protect your garden until it’s ready to come back to life next spring. If they could talk, I’m sure your plants would thank you.



How to Reap the Largest Garlic Bulbs in the Summer from a Fall Garlic Planting

Growing Garlic in the City:  Fall Planting for Summer Harvest

By Cyndy Crist

This year's garlic (by Cyndy Crist)
This year’s garlic (by Cyndy Crist)

I am determined to grow better garlic.  Given how much I use it in the kitchen, I want an ample supply of fat white or purple heads from my own little potager. However, although every clove I’ve planted has produced a new head, they have been much smaller than I’d like.  I’ve just planted a new garlic patch (the timing was just right, coming after the first killing frost and before the first hard freeze) and I thought I’d share the steps I took, based on University of Minnesota Extension research and the experiences of fellow Master Gardeners, that I hope will help me enjoy better results in 2013.

Choosing Garlic

There are essentially two types of garlic: softneck and hardneck.  For a climate like Minnesota’s, hardneck is generally the best choice, but some softneck varieties can also be successfully grown.  To date, I’ve planted Chesnok Red, Music, and Polish Hardneck, as well as the softneck Inchellium Red. With just a little research, you can easily identify varieties that suit both your growing conditions and palate.

The experts advise against planting garlic purchased in a grocery store for two primary reasons:

  1. One is that this garlic may have been treated to extend its storage life, so planting it may introduce unwanted substances to your soil and/or impede growth.
  2. The second is that commercially available varieties may not be suited to your particular growing conditions.  Using heads purchased at local garden centers or farmers’ markets avoids both problems.
Prepping the soil for garlic-planting (by Cyndy Crist)
Prepping the soil for garlic-planting (by Cyndy Crist)

Getting Ready to Plant

The essential first step is to prepare the soil, working it well to a depth of at least five to six inches. Because my designated space had been well worked in recent years, I didn’t need to do much to loosen the soil.  The key is to ensure that the cloves can easily put down roots, starting in the fall and continuing in the spring.  Removing stones, old roots, and other debris also helps clear the way for growth.

Garlic is a heavy feeder, so once the soil was prepared, I worked in granulated organic manure fertilizer following the directions on the package and made sure it was nicely distributed to a depth of about 5 inches.  This is a step I’ve neglected the last few years, so I’m hopeful this will be a key to bigger bulbs in 2013.

Planting the Garlic

Once my soil was ready, I chose several healthy heads from this year’s crop and separated them into individual cloves.  According to the research, there is no single formula for spacing garlic.  In general, cloves planted close together will yield more, but smaller, heads, while those planted farther apart will yield fewer, but larger, heads.  Although I am seeking larger bulbs, my limited space led me to plant mine about four inches apart, positioning each clove with the base about three inches below the surface and the tip pointing up.  With my well-prepared soil, it was easy to push the cloves down to the desired depth without having to make holes.

Laying out the garlic strategy (by Cyndy Crist)
Laying out the garlic strategy (by Cyndy Crist)

I use two strategies for planting bulbs of all kinds that I find helpful.  One is to place them on the soil about where I intend to plant them, assessing the spacing after doing so in order to determine whether I have space for more or need to prepare a larger bed.  With garlic, since it’s best not to separate cloves until you are ready to plant them (and no more than two days in advance to prevent drying), this strategy helps me preserve the quality of my remaining garlic.

The other is to “refine” the soil as I plant each row or set of cloves/bulbs to help me remember where I have already settled some in.  I have noticed that no matter how much I think I’m paying attention, once the cloves or bulbs are planted and I’ve turned away to grab more, I lose the sense of where they are buried.  By stopping regularly to break up small clods of soil, remove any remaining debris, and smooth the surface, I can easily see where planting is already done.

Finishing the Job

Watering in the garlic (by Cyndy Crist)
Watering in the garlic (by Cyndy Crist)

Once my garlic was planted, I thoroughly watered it in.  For a situation like this one, I used a watering can with a rose since it distributes the water evenly over a large surface.  By contrast, a harder stream from a hose or a watering can with a spout can displace newly planted cloves, pushing them too close together or toward the surface.  Finally, to discourage digging by squirrels, which seem magnetically drawn to freshly turned soil, I sprinkled some blood meal over the surface.  I have found this to work well to discourage animals from digging in newly planted spaces, and since garlic is a heavy nitrogen feeder, the blood meal will also support growth.

I still have one more step to take before I’m done for the winter, and that’s to put down a three-to-four inch layer of mulch, preferably straw (though I often use leaves from my neighbors’ silver maple, which dry and curl nicely and thus make a cover that maintains a thick layer of insulation without becoming matted down). This will protect the garlic from the harshest winter low temperatures as well as the heaving that can result from freezing and thawing cycles typical of northern winters. I’ll put it on in four to six weeks, depending on the weather.

When warm temperatures return next year, I’ll remove the mulch (though I could leave it on), apply fish emulsion, and keep the bed well watered.  I’ll cut the scapes once they’ve formed loops and begun to straighten (using them in cooking much as I would green garlic, another benefit of growing one’s own), and I’ll dig the cloves once one or two leaves have begun to turn yellow, using a large garden fork with care so that I don’t cut into the cloves or disturb any that are not ready to be lifted.

Given the vagaries of weather from one year to the next, how well this crop of garlic will grow remains to be seen. I’m hoping for bigger, fatter heads than I’ve grown to date; whether I’ll achieve my goal remains to be seen. At least I’ll know I took the right steps.  And if my bulbs are still small, I’ll blame it on Mother Nature.

Addendum from Dorothy

Tips for Growing Garlic on the Small Farm:

(based only on my own experiences)

For Larger Bulbs:

  • Spring garlic in MN from unmulched beds (Stainbrook)
    Spring garlic in MN from unmulched beds (Stainbrook)

    The most reliable way to get larger bulbs is to plant large cloves.  They increase in size every year and if you save them over time, you will continue to increase the size of your bulb.  If I am starting new plants, I order bulbs from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, a company that has provided me with the largest bulbs for the best price in the past.  They also have a wide selection of varieties.

  • Cut off the scapes (the green part of the plant that makes a curl-le-que in the early summer).  You can cook that part of the plant for a mild garlic flavoring to dishes, and it allows the bulb in the ground to receive all of the growing energy at an opportune time (when the bulb is sizing up)
  • The distance apart that I plant the cloves is based on the size of the bulb that I am starting with.  You can assume that you should get a bulb next summer that is slightly larger than the bulb you are starting with, so I try to plant the cloves about the distance that would allow the bulbs to grow freely without growing into each other.  I do try to get them as close together as possible however to avoid weeding as much.
  • Keeping the garlic bed weed free is critical to bulb size.  The weeds compete heavily with the bulbs and decrease the size.

Mulching and Timing:

  • Spacing of large garlic cloves - Spring (Stainbrook)
    Spacing of large garlic cloves – Spring (Stainbrook)

    Mulching is really, really important.  I have grown garlic over the years in bare soil (as pictured in the photo to the right), and I have grown garlic mulched heavily with straw.  Based on my observations, hardneck garlic will grow fine in our MN winters without mulch, but the weeds get started much earlier in a bare bed and are much more difficult to control

  • Planting Timing:  I have planted garlic as late as Thanksgiving and as early as late-September.  Each of the past 14 years has yielded a successful crop.  Planting early can be problematic if the garlic starts to sprout before winter sets in.  If it does, just make sure and cover it well with straw and you should be fine.  Planting late can be problematic if it gets really cold early and the garlic has not had time to start roots.  It all pretty much depends on what the weather decides to do in late fall and winter.  The main thing is…don’t worry too much.  Garlic, like most plants, wants to grow and it will adapt to a wide range of farmer mistakes.  Just take care of those weeds and water!
  • Harvesting Timing:  In Forest Lake, MN my harneck garlic is usually ready for harvest in early July.  A harvesting cue is to harvest when half to three-quarters of the leaves turn yellow-brown.

Harvesting & Curing:

  • Harvesting:  On the farm in Forest Lake, MN, I harvest garlic with a straight-tined fork implement (like the one in Cyndys photo above).  I place the fork on the side of a garlic row, push it into the ground about six inches with my foot and angle it underneath the garlic to loosen the dirt.  The bulbs can then be pulled up and out easily by the green stems.  Shake them off or brush off the caked dirt and leave the stems and roots attached.
  • Curing:  I then take the garlic to my shop, which is unheated and well-venilated (i.e., drafty).  I lay the garlic out in rows on the open-wire shelves that I start my plants on.  Some people hang the garlic from rafters, which is great also.  The key is to get cool-air circulation around the individual bulbs for about 4 weeks.
  • Storing:  When your garlic is thoroughly cured (4-6 weeks), trim the roots, taking care not to knock off the outer skin. Cut off the stalks about 1½ inches above the bulb if you plan to keep the garlic in bags. Recycled mesh onion bags are perfect for storage.