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Tomatoes – Favorite Varieties – Reviews – Great Source for Heirloom Tomatoes

My starting point for growing tomatoes in any year is my favorite tomato – Big Beef.  NOT the hybrid, but rather the open pollinated Big Beef that was dehybridized by Gary Ibsen and is available only through Tomato Fest, as far as I know.

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Years ago I’d buy seedlings from a local stand. Then I started growing from seed. Then some years back Monsanto purchased the company (Seminis) that had created the hybrid Big Beef. I was devastated, but I knew I was NOT going to buy seed from Monsanto.

Thus, starting with seed saved from the best of my hybrid crop of Big Beef I started the process of dehybridizing. I was surprisingly successful. (Seed from hybrids don’t necessarily produce fruit the same as the parent.  You might get something good; you might not.) But, in the meantime I found out that Gary Ibsen – who’s been “THE tomato man” for almost 40 years, had already dehybridized Big Beef.

So I have my seed and his seed always on hand. And in most years I grow both with the same success.

Even though I try new varieties each year, I go heavy on the open pollinated Big Beef. It’s dependable, produces heavily, and tastes great. And if you’re selling tomatoes – especially to folks who are programmed to want only perfect looking fruits (almost everyone) – your Big Beefs will be a hit.

Why Heirlooms?

Heirloom can have several definitions. (Gary Ibsen explains them well in “What is an Heirloom Tomato?” on the Tomato Fest website here.)

The main thing to remember is that they’re open pollinated which means you can save the seed and it’ll produce fruit identical to the parent.

There are 2 main reasons why I prefer open pollinated  and/or heirlooms rather than hybrids.

#1 – Heirlooms (and/or open pollinated varieties) have more nutrients.  I gave more details in my post Garden Seed – Heirloom or Hybrid – Information to Help Make the Choice.

#2 – Heirlooms provide tremendous diversity. Diversity is one of the great principles of nature.

Many of these varieties that have come down through the decades or centuries are inherently resistance to pest and diseases. They’ve adapted to specific growing conditions and climates.

They help to insure the genetic diversity necessary to keep the human race fed.  This multitude of heirlooms is being replaced by just a few hybrids that are primarily bred for commercial purposes like shipping, shelf life, and looking perfect. Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

A Great Source for Heirloom Tomatoes

I’ve written about Gary Ibsen and his partner Dagma Lacey, owners of Tomato Fest, in a previous post.  As I mentioned then, if you can find more of a selection for heirlooms, I don’t know where it would be. They offer over 600 heirloom tomatoesAnd right now they have a sale on until January 18, 2016.

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Choosing an Heirloom Variety

When you choose a new variety of heirloom tomatoes, it would be great if you already knew how it would perform in your area. A little research may reveal where the heirloom originated. If so that might give you a better idea of what conditions might be necessary for top performance.

But chances are, we won’t know how it’s gonna do in our garden until we try it.

As you’ll see in my reviews that follow, I’ve disliked a lot more varieties than I’ve liked. BUT, when you find one that’s great for you, it’s worth the time and effort put in. And even then, there are many variables from year to year that will effect performance even with your favorites.

There’s always varieties that don’t show traits that I’d want to bother with again. And then others,  although they may not have performed particularly well, showed me various traits that might be worth giving them another try.

Suggestion: When trying new varieties, don’t depend on them for your main crop just in case they don’t do well. I plant one to three plants of a new variety depending on available space. If it doesn’t do well I still have a great crop from my tried and true.

My Favorites

  • Big Beef – (dehybridized and open-pollinated) The one I rely on for heavy production. As mentioned above it’s dependable, tastes great and has perfect looking fruits.
  • Cherokee Purple – a new favorite and must-have.  These beautiful dusky rose fruits with their green/purple shoulders are one of the best tasting tomatoes I’ve ever had. (At the first of the season last year, Bill and I thought they were a notch better than Big Beef. At the end of the season the two were neck to neck.)

This late season heirloom was not as productive as I had hoped for, but the four plants gave us enough fruits that we were not without one after they started ripening until frost.

Cherokee Purple is an heirloom from Tennessee and was cultivated by Native American Cherokee Indians.

  • Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter – Friend and reader, Sandra, mentioned Mortgage Lifter to me and I decided to try them a couple of year ago.  Glad I did.  I plan to grow at least one of these every year. At times during the season they were just as delicious as Big Beef.  Other times they were a notch off.

Production was a little more than Cherokee Purple.  Fruits can be large or small depending on the variables.  As the season progressed catfacing disappeared and perfect “bottoms” became the norm.

(The imperfection known as catfacing is usually caused by a drop in temperature <below 50º> when the plants bloom and begin to set fruit. )

Mortgage Lifter has an interesting history you might enjoy reading.  Gary Ibsen (Tomato Fest) tells the story here.

  • Matt’s Wild Cherry is genetically linked to the wild Mexican tomatoes. Since most wild varieties of any fruit have intense flavor, maybe that’s what accounts, at least in part, for this tiny cherry tomato being power-packed with flavor.

It’s now a favorite and must-have in my garden. I keep it basically in one area since it readily self seeds and I don’t have to save seed.

Another thing that I really like about Matt’s Wild Cherry is its frost resistance. It was still going strong when others had succumbed to the frost. A real season extender.

Bill loved Matt’s Wild Cherry and use to snack on it as he would walk around the yard. And you can value his opinion on taste more than mine since Bill had the gourmet taste-buds. He’s the one who always had the last word about what tomato taste good enough to justify taking space every year.

A good friend and reader (you know her as Farming Bear) says Matt’s Wild Cherry is one of her children’s favorites (as well as her chicken’s favorite).  She  agrees that it’s a heavy and strong producer, needs no special care, and will grow just about anywhere.  She suggest that it’s “perfect for little ones to have all to themselves to tend.”

A Reader’s Favorite: Riesentraubes

Although I’ve never tried this old German heirloom tomato, Farming Bear’s recommendation makes me want to.  She writes, “it will prove to be the Hercules of your tomato plants. When all of your other tomato plants have tired out, this one will stand fast and strong” (along with Matts Wild Cherry).

“The yield on this plant is amazing! Riesentraubes are a small tomato (1 ½”) but they are well worth the investment of time in picking. And, although small, the flavor is surprisingly robust.” She calls it her tomato insurance policy and one she would not do without.

An Example of Different Results

  •  Druzba – I was not impressed at all with this heirloom. It did not perform well for me and the taste was not exceptional in my opinion (and Bill’s). It didn’t live up to the good reputation reported on Tomato Fest website.

To show you how different heirlooms can perform from one garden to another even in the same general geographic location, here’s Farming Bear’s review of Druzba:

My all time favorite hands down. This is a plant that just seems perfectly at home in my back yard. It is the most delicious tomato I have ever put into my mouth. My husband who, ironically enough, doesn’t even like raw tomatoes couldn’t believe how delicious this variety was. Druzba, a Bulgarian heirloom, is extremely reliable and offers a high production. The fruits are uniform and require no fuss. I have never had one Druzba that wasn’t perfect from my garden.”

7  Varieties that I Won’t Grow Again.

  • San Marzano Redorta – This tomato is a gorgeous, long, and fat paste tomato. The variety is indeterminate (keeps on bearing fruit until frost) but was very late ripening for me. Taste was ok but not exciting. I loved how it looked growing. But that’s not enough for me to justify the space it takes.
  • Stakebreaker —I ordered this because of it’s reputation for producing extremely large yields of 2 to 3 inch round tomatoes. It’s a good tomato, but I’m not growing it again because I want to try other new varieties and my faithful and “must have” Big Beef beats the pants off Stakebreaker.
  • Beefsteak – Considered the original heirloom Beefsteak tomato so I wanted to try it. Ok but nothing exciting enough for me to try it again, especially since Big Beef is my main tried and true.
  • Betterboy – As with Beefsteak nothing exciting and Big Beef out does it by miles.
  • Julia Child – Supposedly it was to produce delicious 4 inch beefsteak tomatoes and lots of them. I grew it in my back border. Production was light and taste was not impressive.
  • Ox Heart – This was also grown in my back border. Taste was not impressive and neither was production. I’ve read rave reviews on various sites however.
  • Window Box Roma – This is the only determinate tomato I’ve ever grown.  (Determinate plants set a certain amount of fruit that comes in about the same time.) The first year I grew them the plants were short, compact, and beautiful. The tomatoes were delicious and had a lot of staying power. (Important since I didn’t make paste, but rather used all of them fresh.)  I skipped a year and then grew them again.  They were not attractive and the fruit was not good.

5 New Varieties I’m Growing This Year

I just placed an order with Tomato Fest and these are the new varieties I’m growing this year.  I’ve noted beside each what it was in the description that made me want to order:

  • Mortgage Lifter, Red – this is a strain of Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter and I want to see what the difference is in taste.  Obviously, the color is more red.
  • Abe Lincoln – introduced in Illinois in 1923. 12 oz. tomatoes in clusters up to 9. Good disease resistance and good flavor.
  • 1884 Heirloom Tomato Seeds – Said to have been discovered in West Virginia in a pile of flood debris from the Ohio River in 1884. Yields large 1 – 2 lb. fruits with good tomato flavor.
  • Hezhou – This one comes from a family farm in China.  Two inch fruits.  Said to be very productive, look good, and have excellent taste.
  • Large Red – This was one of the most favored tomato varieties in the U.S. prior to the Civil War.   Worth a try to satisfy my curiosity.

Final Thoughts

What are your favorite tried and true varieties that you wouldn’t be without?

What new variety are you trying this year in the hopes of finding another winner for your garden?

Think tomatoes.  It won’t be long before it’s time to start our seed.

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11 comments to Tomatoes – Favorite Varieties – Reviews – Great Source for Heirloom Tomatoes

  • Ladychef

    Hi Theresa,

    I’ve made my tomato list. I purchased San Marzano Redorta seed from growitalian.com (seed comes direct from Italy). I’m curious did you purchase San Marzano from Tomato Fest? I’m going to give them a try I do hope they turn out to be a keeper. I have some concerns now because I know your garden soil is sweeter than mine.

    I grew Radiator’s Charlie and Matt’s Wild Cherry this past season with great success. I’m going to skip Radiator Charlie this year and try Tess’s Land Race instead of Matt’s Wild Cherry.

    My Tomato List for 2016

    San Marzano Redorta *New
    Red Pear Tomato (Italian from growitalian.com) *New
    Jersey Devil *New
    Rutgers (orginal Indeterminate strain) *New
    Church (beef steak – did really well in 2015)
    Tappy’s Heritage (truly a perfect tomato)
    Spears Tennessee Green (can’t do without tom)
    Kellogg’s Breakfast (beautiful & delicious orange fruit – another can’t do without tom)
    Hungarian Italian Paste (DET) *New
    Amish Paste (going to try this 1 more time I keep reading great reviews but I wasn’t that impressed)
    Creole *New (excited to try)
    Delicious (I’ve read great reviews) *New

    As you can see I have a lot of paste tomatoes. My goal is to put sauce up this season and I really want a lot of meaty tomatoes. Everything else is for fresh eating in salads, salsas etc. I plan on winter sowing everything listed above. Theresa do you winter sow all your tomato seed?

    I purchased seed from southernexposure.com, growitalian.com, rareseed.com and I tried one new seed company Annie’s Heirloom seed.

    Happy Gardening!

  • Virginia Gardner

    Good morning, Theresa… It’s always so good to “hear” your voice, I hope you are well. We had decided not to grow this year, but of course, after going to the Tomatofest site, I’ve had to order some seed packs! I’m trying your two favs, plus Abe Lincoln, Amy’s Sugar Gem, Arkansas Marvel, Beam’s Yellow Pear, and Big Italian Plum. I’m going to control the growing and keeping of plants, though, so we will not have hundreds of plants to deal with. I’m personally going to grow more flowers than vegetables this year. I wound up with a tiny cutting garden last year, and I so enjoyed it, I’m going to expand it. Here’s to a great coming season for all!

  • Farming Bear

    Boy, do I love tomato talk! I’ll be trying Big Beef this year since they’re such a hit in your garden.

  • Don Rutherford

    Theresa

    Now you have hit my all time favorite fruit. Tomatoes.

    I’ve grown the Cherokee purple several times as I love the dark Tomatoes. One year, they were just average and I tried Black Krim and about 3 other kinds of the “Black” Tomatoes. Liz takes tomatoes to work and they want the red ones, not the black ones. More for me. I do love a dark red Tomato though, not the pink or unripe ones.

    The only problem with the Black tomatoes is that they are dark on the top and red on the bottom and don’t look ripe until they are overripe.

    You are so right about different gardens in the taste and how well tomatoes do. I grew Mortgage Lifter one year and they were just OK.

    Almost half of my garden goes to tomatoes, but I only grow about 18 plants and about 3 of any one kind.

    Do you know of a seed company that will offer smaller packs, say 10 seeds, so I can try a variety without wasting seed? I am mostly planning on growing leftover seeds from tomatoes I liked in years past.

    Don

  • Theresa

    Ladychef, Sounds like you’re doing great. Lot of variety. Will be interesting to see how they do for you.

    Regarding “wintersown” tomatoes. When it comes right down to it, there is no such thing as real wintersown tomato. You have to start tomatoes when you expect the temperature to warm up by the time they’re ready to transplant. I take the wintersown idea and use it — with slight adjustments – for about everything including warm weather crops. I have no place to grow things with lights inside the house, so that is how I came up with the various “wintersown” methods I use.
    This post will explain more: http://tendingmygarden.com/warm-weather-crops-and-the-winter-sown-method/

    Annie’s Heirlooms is a good company. I’ve written about them before:
    http://tendingmygarden.com/heirloom-vegetable-seeds-flowers-seeds-two-more-good-sources/
    http://tendingmygarden.com/seed-companies-selecting-them/

    Good hearing from you Virginia. Let me know if I can help you in any way with your flower garden. Glad you’re gonna put in some tomatoes. Heck, summer wouldn’t be right without homegrowns. I think you’ll be crazy about Big Beef!

    Hey Farming Bear. I’ll be anxious to hear how you like the Big Beef.

    Don, most companies put 25 seeds in a pack. I did see one company, Organic Seed Supply, that sold some with 25 seeds and others with 10. So you might want to check them out.

    And by the way Don, you won’t waste the seed because if you store in a cool dry place, they should last several years. I’ve had tomato seed still viable after 6 years.

    Theresa

  • karen rogers

    I love the purples- Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, Black from Tula. Last year they didn’t do well, but the year before, they were awesome! I also love Boxcar Willie, a medium-size, very prolific red.

  • Stephanie Meyers

    Hi Theresa,

    I know it has been quite a long time since you have heard from me! Our business (SonshineFarms) took off last year which made us super busy outside and then paperwork and such as well. I had a few minutes and wanted to check out your post on tomatoes. We have been ordering tomato seeds (and pepper and some of our eggplant) from Tomato Growers for the last several years. We love that they are non-GMO and not treated chemically with pesticide or fungicide. Are they the best company, I don’t know, but we have had great luck with them! Germination rates have been fabulous as well!

    So, this year we are going to be starting and growing the following tomatoes:

    Cobra (a new variety to be grown in our greenhouse through the year)
    Sioux (We enjoy this tomato. It is heat tolerant which helps in our humid hot summers. It is a great producer as well with good taste.)
    Wisconsin 55 (A tomato with lots of sweetness. It holds well on the vine and after picked. A staple for us for market.)
    Mule Team (Our main-crop canning tomato. It is a heavy producer and produces all summer long for us! Great for canning and eating too.)
    Glamour (Large, meaty tomato. Assists with our canning. Doesn’t hold as well, but great for 2nds for large quantity orders.)
    Holland (a new variety to be grown in our greenhouse through the year)
    German Giant (Our all-time favorite. We came upon this variety by accident and have been growing and selling it ever since. We are actually known for this. It is a large tomato with a sweet, meaty texture. People come to us just for this tomato. We have harvested seeds as well. Great heirloom variety. This tomato does not hold well. Pick prior to large rains to prevent cracking. A potato leaf variety.)
    Grandma Mary Paste (a heavy producing paste tomato. Ripens at the same time (if not a little earlier) so great for canning. Holds well too! Can be picked and kept for up to 10 days. Flavor is excellent the whole time.)

    We also grow a few cherry variety (yellow and red).

    I hope this helps. We live in Central Iowa so this is what we have found works for us. People still come to us asking for the hybrids, and we just explain what we grow. Many times they will try a few and are hooked.

    They come with 30 seeds per packet but are also sold in bulk. We are still planting and growing German Giant seeds we purchased in 2013 without a problem. Pepper seeds are a little trickier, but can be held.

    Stephanie

  • Carl Ashlock

    I am so happy to find this site. I especially like your calm, commonsense approach. I have a 26′ x 95′ hoophouse in which I do ‘four-season’ gardening. We have nutrient-rich food all year long in Western North Carolina, zone 6.

    Last year I tried Big Beef (hybrid) and really liked it and am so happy to learn here that there is a de-hybridized variety. I will be getting that seed.

    My grandfather, in 1900 began growing a tomato in Eastern Kentucky that became a local favorite and remained in my family through the years. I shared some seed with Carolyn Male a few years ago and she suggested I give it a name. So I called it Grandfather Ashlock. I’ve shared it around the world and it seems to have been well received and I was surprised and delighted to find it in Ibsen’s offerings. Right now, I’d say my favorite is Cherokee Purple and equal to it is Big Beef. Thanks for such a great site. I’ll be checking in regularly. Carl Ashlock

  • Theresa

    Welcome to TMG Carl! I hope you will subscribe to receive each post via email. That way you won’t miss anything. You’ll see a place to enter your email and subscribe to the right hand top column.

    That must have been thrilling to see your Grandfather Ashlock tomatoe available from Gary Ibsen!
    I think he’d be interested in knowing that. If you write to tell him I hope you mention that you learned of him through TendingMyGarden.

    That 26 x 95 hoophouse sounds fantastic. That’s a real blessing to have great food 12 months a year!

    Again, welcome to TMG. Nice to have you reading!
    Theresa

  • Greta

    Hi, Theresa! I have, nearly exclusively, grown Amish Paste tomatoes, for several years. They work fanatically in my MN garden- huge, fleshy romas and we enjoy the taste. I have also had good success with Cherokee Purple. Now that I know about TomatoFest, I see I’ll need to try something new, next year! : )

  • Theresa

    Absolutely Greta! 🙂 Good luck and have fun trying something new!
    Theresa

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