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Ben Picks Ten: Tomatoes April 15, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening.
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It has to be said: We gardeners have a thing about tomatoes. If the only tomatoes you’ve ever encountered are the hard, plastic, tasteless objects in the produce aisle, you may wonder why. But anyone who’s ever bitten into a thick, meaty, sunwarmed slice of tomato on a bacon-and-tomato sandwich (keep those napkins handy and your face over the plate!) or experienced the blast of flavor from a fresh-picked cherry tomato popped whole into the mouth doesn’t need to ask. If the sun had a flavor, “tomato” would be it.

It may seem a little out of sync to be focusing on tomatoes in April, especially if you live in a climate like our friend Ben’s where this morning’s temperatures are crawling towards the mid-thirties. But if you haven’t yet selected your tomato seeds for this year, or if you plan to buy transplants and would like to try a few new varieties, it’s not a moment too soon. It’s time for the One-Ben Awards for all-time best tomatoes! (What are One-Ben Awards, you ask? Check out my earlier post, “Ben Picks Ten: Music” to read all about ’em.)

Mind you, anything that inspires passion also inspires controversy. There are thousands of tomato cultivars out there, and (I’ll admit it) most of them are good, unless they were bred specifically to withstand the horrors of shipping. Our friend Ben has been fortunate enough to try a whole lot of tomatoes, both heirlooms and hybrids, over the years, but there are plenty I haven’t tried (yet). So of course this is a very personal “best-of” list. You will not go wrong with any of these tomatoes; in fact, if you plant all these “love apples,” you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled into the Garden of Eden before the snake got his bright idea. But for those of you who feel that I’ve unjustly neglected your all-time fave, please write and let our friend Ben know all about it. There must be room around here somewhere for a few more plants…

Okay, without more ado, I’d like to present Ben’s Top Ten Tomatoes:

1. All-time best flavor. It has to be ‘Brandywine’, a Pennsylvania heirloom variety. Our friend Ben is not the only one who thinks so—blind taste tests across the country have found ‘Brandywine’ to be the winner for flavor. This is what a tomato should taste like! But there’s one little problem: Would the real ‘Brandywine’ please stand up?! Some claim that the pink ‘Brandywine’ is the true variety, and our friend Ben agrees with that assessment. But there are also red, yellow, and black ‘Brandywines’, as well as regular and potato-leaved types. (And no, the leaves don’t actually look like potatoes. They look like the leaves of potato plants, thick and crinkly.) Our friend Ben has this to say: They’re all luscious, so don’t sweat it. Try one, try all, sit back, take a bite… yum!!!

2. Best yellow tomato. Okay, they’re really orange. And our friend Ben has a slight problem here, too, because I simply love yellow/orange tomatoes. I’m not sure I’ve ever met one I didn’t like. The competition is really tough in this category, too, with ‘Yellow Brandywine’, ‘Dr. Wyche’s Yellow’, ‘Amana Orange’, ‘Persimmon’, ‘Woodle Orange’, and ‘Golden Sunray’ among the contenders. Our friend Ben loves all of these and enthusiastically recommends them. But if I had to pick just one, ‘Dad’s Sunset’ would be it. Great flavor, great yield, great color, great keeper. 

3. Best paste tomato. Yes, our friend Ben has tried the marvelous heirlooms like ‘Amish Paste’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’, and the modern hybrids like ‘Juliet’, all renowned for their flavor. But my hands-down favorite is still ‘San Marzano’. The flavor is just unbeatable, and it’s every bit as delicious in sandwiches and salads as it is in sauces. (Our friend Ben loves paste tomatoes on sandwiches and in salads, at least when eating them in front of anyone else—no disintegrating slices or juice all over everything!) 

4. Best cherry tomato. Our friend Ben is going to outrage a lot of people with this choice, but it’s the simple truth: The best cherry tomato is the orange hybrid ‘Sungold’. Hybrids don’t come true from seed, so they have to be repeatedly purchased. This is disappointing to thrifty gardeners who enjoy saving seed, and it’s scary to anyone who’s concerned about preserving as large a gene pool of open-pollinated vegetable cultivars as possible. Our friend Ben agrees with both these groups; perhaps (hint, hint) someone could breed out ‘Sungold’ and come up with an open-pollinated version. Meanwhile, if you simply can’t stand the idea of growing a hybrid, try the red heirloom variety ‘Camp Joy’, a favorite of Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden because, unlike many cherry tomato cultivars, it has real tomato flavor. But if you pass up ‘Sungold’ because of its hybrid status, you’ll really be missing something. 

5. Best snacking tomatoes. Our friend Ben needed to sneak a few more little tomatoes in here, so I opted for “snacking tomatoes” because these aren’t round like cherry tomatoes. But boy, are they good!!! I have grown both ‘Yellow Pear’ and ‘Yellow Plum’ tomatoes every year since I first started growing tomatoes, because I just love them. Great flavor and prolific production over a long season, with pop-in-your-mouth ease. (Of course, they’re great in salads, too.) What more could you ask? If you can only choose one, go with ‘Yellow Plum’, which has a deeper flavor. But they’re both winners!  

6. Most beautiful tomato. Ack, this is another tough category. Our friend Ben thinks the striped tomatoes are the loveliest, and I favor red-and-gold striped over green-and-gold, like the famous heirloom ‘Green Zebra’. But there are plenty of contenders in the red-and-gold category: the paste tomato ‘Striped Roman’, ‘Red Zebra’, ‘Pineapple’, ‘Copia’, ‘Beauty King’. For flavor and that amazing striped color, though, our friend Ben is going with ‘Marvel Stripe’.

7. Tomato with the best name. Heirloom tomatoes have fantastic names, and our friend Ben loves them all: ‘German Lunchbox’, ‘Green Sausage’, ‘Banana Fingers’, ‘Arkansas Traveler’, ‘Royal Hillbilly’, ‘Deppe’s Pink Firefly’, ‘Henderson’s Crimson Cushion’, ‘Thai Red Turtle Egg’, ‘Mule Team’, ‘Bloody Butcher’, ‘Striped Cavern’, ‘Roman Candle’, ‘Pink Quartz’. What’s not to love?!! However, our friend Ben simply has to give the One-Ben Award in this category to ‘Radiator Charley’s Mortgage Lifter’. You can read an entertaining history of this variety by Michael Nolan at Tomato Casual (www.tomatocasual.com), a marvelous site for “all things tomato” in its own right.  

8. Best dark-fleshed tomato. Tomatoes in this category may be purplish or tend towards chocolate, though you often find them listed as “black.” Many tomato enthusiasts maintain that ‘Black Krim’ is the finest of them all, and yep, it’s a great tomato. But our friend Ben thinks ‘Paul Robeson’ is even better. (Wish I had one right now!!!) Do your own taste test at home by planting both!

9. Best tomatoes for home greenhouses. Our friend Ben is lucky enough to have a home greenhouse here at Hawk’s Haven, and it has an in-ground bed designed to let me grow peppers, tomatoes and other tender veggies and extend the season for fresh produce. If you do, too, here’s a tip: I’ve consistently found that small-fruited tomatoes produce wonderfully in the greenhouse—cherry, pear, and plum tomatoes—but larger-fruited types, even paste tomatoes, tend not to produce at all. Tomatoes are wind-pollinated, so even with good ventilation, I always shake the plants and flick the blossoms to make sure pollination takes place. If you’d like to grow greenhouse tomatoes, our friend Ben suggests putting a plant apiece of ‘Sungold’, ‘Camp Joy’, ‘Yellow Pear’, and ‘Yellow Plum’ in the greenhouse along with the ones you plant outside. When you’re still enjoying homegrown tomatoes in November, you’ll be glad you did!

10. Best big, fat tomatoes for sandwiches. Our friend Ben admits that topping a burger or bacon-and-tomato sandwich with a huge, thick, juicy beefsteak-type tomato slice has a lot to be said for it. (We love ’em on multigrain bread with Swiss and Muenster cheese, Romaine lettuce, grapeseed mayo, and Jack Daniel’s honey mustard, too. Homemade hot/sweet pickles on the side.) Our previously mentioned favorites, ‘Brandywine’, ‘Paul Robeson’, and ‘Dad’s Sunset’, are all great choices for sandwiches. ‘Henderson’s Pink Ponderosa’ is another option, as are ‘Yellow Brandywine’, ‘Chianti Rose’ and ‘Marvel Stripe’. But you might also want to give ‘Big Beef’ some space in your beds. After all, when you want a big, fat, flavorful tomato slice, you don’t want to end up asking “Where’s the beef?”     

And the bonus:

11. Chickens’ top tomato pick. Our friend Ben’s chickens are tomato connoisseurs. True, they never met a tomato they wouldn’t at least eat (unlike zucchini—our friend Ben can only sympathize), but it’s easy to see which ones they really like by how enthusiastically they consume them. And, just like people, their top choice is ‘Brandywine’ every time.

Where to look for these wonderful tomato varieties? Fortunately for gardeners, most veggie seed catalogs offer a wide list to choose from. Our friend Ben especially enjoys the selections at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com), Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), Tomato Growers Supply (www.tomatogrowers.com), and Renee’s Garden Seeds (www.reneesgarden.com).

If you’re lucky enough to live near Bowers, PA, you can also get heirloom transplants from Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm. (See my earlier post, “Scotch Bonnets and Dutchy gunpowder: a preview” for more about Meadow View.) But our friend Ben suspects that there are plenty of tomato enthusiasts growing heirloom tomato transplants for sale in other locations, too. And if you simply enjoy eating great tomatoes rather than growing them, consider joining your local CSA (consumer-supported agriculture) and patronizing your local farmers’ market. After all, there’s no such thing as too many tomatoes, especially now that they have the imprimatur of the health gurus as cancer-fighters. Our friend Ben says, a tomato a day (or two or three) keeps the doctor away!!!!         



1. deb - April 15, 2008

I am single handedly trying to get every gardener in Kaufman County to grow San Marzano. That thing rocks. We love Green Zebra and Yellow Pear. Brandywine has broken my heart every single year since 1982. It simply cannot take our heat. So very very sad.

Good deal, Deb! (re: ‘San Marzano’) And you’re right, ‘Brandywine’ is temperamental. Try Renee Shepherd’s ‘Chianti Rose’ instead, a ‘Brandywine’ cross that can take the heat and won’t crack!

2. Jean Ann - April 15, 2008

I have had difficulties with germinating tomato seeds this year…some are doing really well…Purple Plum is fabulous…but others didn’t even come in…like San Marazano. We have had unseasonably cool weather, so even though these guys are in the greenhouse, it may not be warm enough. I am going to reseed and see if I can coax the San Marazanos to sprout.

Ack, Jean Ann! Good luck with those San Marzanos!

3. Jodi - April 15, 2008

Wow. NOW look what you’ve done…I have this insatiable craving for a good tomato, when all that are in the fridge are hothouse tomatoes–granted, from here in NS so they’re quite tasty, but not SunGold,or Black Krim, or Pink Pear, or…well, you know exactly what I mean.
I’m picking up some tomato transplants of heritage varieties at a small nursery down in Paradise, NS in a few weeks time; the nursery operator is quite happy to grow a few flats of heritage tomatoes for nuts like me who don’t have time to grow our own from seed but MUST have real, tasty, and unique tomatoes. Come on, Black Krim!

Jodi, I feel your pain! Every time it warms up here, I crave *real* tomatoes in the worst way!!!

4. zora naki - April 15, 2008

what a lovely and timely post – i just planted some tomatoes this weekend, including the ben-endorsed yellow pear, purple cherokee and others. will look for sungold next. any tips on growing tomatoes from seed? and have you tried cape gooseberries?

Thanks, Zora! And good for you for choosing such great varieties! I haven’t tried cape gooseberries–anyone?! As for growing from seed, it’s all about giving them enough light, enough warmth, enough air, enough room, and enough water. Those little so-and-sos really want to grow! Tomato Casual has a good series on starting tomatoes from seed on their site (www.tomatocasual.com); check it out and good luck! (Thank heavens, with tomato seeds, you won’t really need it…)

5. frances - April 15, 2008

You have given me a great list to go shopping. I have started the cherokee purple from saved seed, we usually get yellow pear from volunteers. Red grape have been purchased. We need sungold and a big red of some kind, big beef, you say? Great.

Excellent, Frances! And I love volunteers. I always leave a few around just to see what I’ll get!

6. Silvia - April 18, 2008

I tried growing Brandywine tomatoes a few years ago and they did really poorly–could be our soil, Virginia clay. 🙂 I do love to grow tomatoes, though! Maybe I’ll give the Brandywine another try.

Or try that ‘Chianti Rose’ from Renee’s Garden. It’s supposed to get great flavor from ‘Brandywine’ but be less temperamental. Whatever you do, let me know how it goes!

7. Tomato Casual »  This Week In Tomatoes - April 18, 2008

[…] Friend Ben at Poor Richard’s Almanac Journal picks his top 10 tomato varieties for beauty, snacking, sandwiches and home green houses and responds a reader’s question […]

8. Michael Nolan - April 19, 2008

Wow, I got mentioned by name on our friend Ben’s illustrious blog. I am dumbfounded, stupefied and at least five more such descriptive terms that end in “ed”.

Excellent choices here, my friend. And I forgive you for the hybrids. To be honest I am considering trying a hybrid or two this year to add a bit more balance to my own reference points. This list gives me a great, informed place to start.

Gee, thanks, Michael! And if everybody’s not already reading you on Tomato Casual, they should be!!!

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