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.
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.
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 tomatoes. And right now they have a sale on until January 18, 2016.
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.
- 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.
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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