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.
Basically, any heirloom tomato plant will grow in a pot with proper growing techniques, but some are definitely easier to manage than others. The most reliable way to grow heirloom tomatoes in pots, if you are a novice grower, is to start with “Determinate” varieties. Determinate varieties only grow to around 3-4 feet and therefore often don’t require staking and trellising with the pot (whereas “Indeterminate” varieties grow until frost and may get 7-8 feet).
The main difference between determinate and indeterminate varieties, in terms of fruiting, is the timing of fruit production. Determinate varieties will produce all of their fruit over a 2-3 week period rather than continuing to produce throughout the growing season. This doesn’t mean you get fewer tomatoes from a determinate, you just get the crop in a shorter time frame.
This is a breakdown of my personal favorites for container-growing, categorized by Determinate vs. Indeterminate and Heirloom vs. Hybrid:
Favorite Heirloom Determinates for Pots:
Principe Borghese: A fairly large determinate plant with small egg-shaped fruit that pack a high flavor punch (more acid than sugar). Prolific & great for drying or to use in salads.
Manitoba: This slicer was developed in Manitoba, Canada, to ripen during the short summers of the Manitoba prairie. Vigorous and early.
New Yorker: Bush Beefsteak type, yielding 4-6 ounce meaty tomatoes with balanced flavor. Plants set well in cooler growing conditions.
Favorite Hybrid Determinate for Pots:
Bush Champion: Low maintenance compact plant that grows about 2 feet high, with larger (8-12 oz) tomatoes than most early determinates. Stocky stems that don’t need trellising. This is the one I usually recommend to novice growers that just want to make sure they get tomatoes they can use on their BLTs.
Favorite Heirloom Indeterminates for Pots
Japanese Black Trifele: ‘The fruit color makes this a nice ornamental as well, and the plants are fairly compact as well — one strong stake should support the plant well. Delicious complex, smoky flavor and beautiful bronze color.
Green Zebra: While considered an indeterminate tomato, they are much less rangy and grow more compactly, reaching about 5-6 feet high depending on your climate. Very poplar for taste, with a tart, slightly lemon background balancing the sugar. A favorite of many for its unique looks also.
Stupice: Perhaps the earliest heirloom, the plants are compact and the fruit is small, but it produces well all season. Overall, know that early tomatoes tend to not be as flavorable as main season tomatoes. For an early tomato, Stupice is one of the more flavorable ones.
Paul Robeson: Beautiful, dark purple 3-4″ tomato with intensely sweet and smoky flavor and a juicy, smooth texture. Needs staking, but well worth it. Early
Other good alternatives include: Eva’s Purple Ball, Gardener’s Delight, Matts Wild Cherry,
Favorite Hybrid Indeterminates for Pots:
Carmello: Reliable and prolific, with intensely flavorable, 8 oz., juicy red fruits. Disease resistant and a great overall main-season tomato which produces good flavor even during the colder part of the season.
Sungold: Sweet, prolific and very popular cherry tomato. Most cherry tomatoes will do well in containers, as they grow tall but their fruit is small and they don’t tend to sprawl as much.
Size of Pots for Growing Heirloom Tomatoes:
The bigger the container, the better. Keep in mind that tomatoes grow large root systems, and they need room to develop for best production. A large container will also prevent the soil from drying out too quickly during the heat of summer.
Minimum size: In general, a 5 gallon container is considered the minimum size. If you use a smaller pot, you are likely to have problems with the potting mix drying out, which can lead to blossom end rot (see this post to help with blossom end rot). The larger indeterminate heirloom tomatoes will grow well in 12-18 gallon containers. A container 12 to 18 inches deep for all tomatoes is generally a good rule of thumb.
If you are using a container of your own creation, make sure and punch holes in the container bottom to allow excess water to drain properly.
Be aware of how heavy your containers will be after watering. If you need to move the container to follow the sun, think about buying (or making) a container with wheels under the pot so you can move it around without breaking your back.
Sun: Keep in mind that tomatoes need around 6-8 hours of sun a day. Try to avoid a really hot afternoon sun if possible.
Wind: Avoid areas that are susceptible to strong winds. Hot dry winds are probably the most detrimental condition for young plants, causing their leaves to shrivel and die. Strong winds can break the young plants at their growing tips, or topple over and break staked older plants. If you are growing on a deck or balcony you may have to look into some form of protective barrier.
Staking: If growing indeterminates, place your stakes or cages early and train the plants to grow vertically, allowing as much sunshine as possible to penetrate to the inside of the plants. Secure the stakes or cages well…larger tomatoes can be very heavy.
Soil/Potting Mixes for Pots:
Don’t use soil. Tomatoes grown in containers need a loose, well-drained medium with lots of organic matter. Use a good potting mix rather than potting soil or garden soil. Potting soil can be too heavy for containers, and soil harvested straight from the garden is most likely infested with fungi, weed seeds, and pests.
Potting medium: Use a high-quality mix containing peat moss and perlite. If preparing your own soil-less medium, blend in a complete fertilizer, either a dry organic product, such as one containing alfalfa meal, bonemeal, kelp meal, or other natural nutrients.
Compost: I am a great believer in the benefits of good compost. It can add the micro-nutrients that potting soils might be missing and it can aid with drainage and moisture control. I use a ratio of 3:1 soil-less mix to compost.
Fertilizing Container-Grown Heirloom Tomatoes:
Organic fertilizers: Make a compost tea or manure tea and fertilize monthly during the growing season. Other good organic fertilizers are liquid fish emulsion and liquid seaweed, which can be applied weekly.
Commercial fertilizers: When you buy your potting mix, you can get one containing slow-release fertilizers, which will help with the growth stages of the plant. Tomatoes grown in containers will usually demand more fertilizer than the initial timed-release fertilizers to carry them through the entire growing season. You may need to add liquid water-soluble fertilizer products to the irrigation water as the season progresses. Follow product directions for concentrations and timing.
Time-release fertilizers: A popular product for containers is Osmocote Plus at planting time. This is a 15-9-12, time release granular product which is supposed to feed up to 6 months. A fellow gardener, experienced with container plants, recommends following up the Osmocote with Peters 20-20-20 water soluble every 10 days to two weeks.
Water regularly. Containers dry out more quickly than regular garden beds, and tomatoes are more likely to develop issues such as blossom end rot if they get uneven watering.
Under-watering: The best way to know if your plants need watering is to check the soil. Stick your finger in the soil and if it is dry an inch down into the soil it is time to water. Containers are above ground and dry out quickly. When the plants are small, water use won’t be as high, but when they are large and setting fruit you will need to water daily. Do not allow containers to dry completely or fine roots will die. Also, if allowed to dry excessively, the potting media will shrink away from the side of the container and will be harder to re-wet.
Over-watering: As long as you are using a potting mix that drains well you shouldn’t be afraid to water heavily. Good drainage solves most over watering issues. Make sure your containers has drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. Back off the watering a little during fruit set to prevent splitting fruit.
Type of container: Plastic containers do not dry out as quickly as clay, especially unglazed clay pots. Even plastic containers may require daily watering however, as plants grow larger.
Self-watering systems: There are a range of self-watering pot systems that can reduce watering maintenance. Probably the best known, and longest trialed of these is the EarthBox 1010039 Organic EarthBox, Terracotta. Although I have never used one, the reports from my customers at the farmers’ markets are all positive. The EarthBox works by wicking moisture out of a reservoir in the bottom of the planter.
Well Water: occasionally there can be problems from watering with well water. Water from wells is often high in salts or carbonates which can cause problems. One way to prevent excessive salt buildup is to water thoroughly enough to ensure that 10 percent of what is added drains out the bottom. Salt build-up is damaging to plants causing burned leaf edges, stunted growth, and fewer blooms. Along this line, if
saucers are used to catch drained water, empty them to prevent salt buildup.
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.
Every spring I sell heirloom tomato plants at the St. Paul Farmer’s market and I’m always trying to organize the information in a way that is not so overwhelming for people. Based on the questions I have received over the years, I’ve put together a chart that explains the distinguishing characteristics of the heirloom tomato varieties that I grow and sell. Hopefully this can help you decide what varieties you want to try in your own tomato adventures. Let me know if you have favorites that I don’t grow which you think are “must haves”.