The quickest way to a Sacramento gardener’s heart? Start talking tomatoes.
Who needs “Fifty Shades of Grey”? We want 50 shades of red, plus some orange, pink, green and gold.
Poring over seed catalogs on Valentine’s Day, we daydream about perfect summer love: A thick slice of ripe goodness sandwiched between two slices of bread.
“The staple of most home gardens is that big slicer tomato,” said Chelsey Fields, vegetable product manager for Burpee, the seed catalog giant. “There’s probably nothing that tastes better. Although we’ve seen other varieties trending, people continue to love the slicers; they’ll always be your main go-to tomato.”
Fields’ job is to keep pushing that tomato envelope. She’s constantly searching for (often) bigger, better, tastier tomatoes.
She and her team do a lot of trials and planting throughout the year to make sure that their tomatoes will perform in home gardens, she said.
For more than 140 years, Burpee has been selling tomato seed to home gardeners. Tomatoes still rank as America’s favorite food to grow. Burpee’s 2015 catalog now includes more than 200 varieties, including two new ones: Jersey Boy and Cloudy Day.
“Jersey Boy is a cross between Brandywine and Rutgers,” Fields said. “It tastes like Rutgers, one of the iconic tomato flavor profiles. But it has a lot better production and disease resistance; it’s the best of both worlds. Cloudy Day is pretty awesome, too. Two of the most persistent tomato issues are early blight and late blight. This tomato is resistant to both (fungal diseases). If you’ve had trouble growing tomatoes before, this is the tomato to try again.”
While container-size tomatoes are gaining in popularity, Fields noted, two recent introductions have become Burpee blockbusters: SteakHouse and SuperSauce. Both produce oversized tomatoes, weighing more than 2 pounds apiece.
“SteakHouse is leading the charge for us,” she said. “It’s going into its second year now. It produces these gorgeous slicing tomatoes. … SuperSauce is doing really well, too; it’s like a Roma, but so much more.”
At the Burpee farm, Fields grows 6 acres of trial tomatoes, “but I still grow Brandy Boy at home because my husband and I can’t get enough. It’s my favorite go-to tomato,” Fields said.
For beginning gardeners, she highly recommends another favorite: Sungold. “It’s a tomato you can’t do without,” she said. “And it’s just so prolific.”
A perennial taste-test winner, Sungold is so popular and so sweet that Sacramento’s Chuck Rickard stopped testing them.
“Everybody knows Sungold,” he said. “I was looking for other varieties.”
As part of the Oak Park Crop Swap, Rickard organizes tomato taste tests throughout the growing season. For the past five years, he’s compiled copious notes and results while comparing more than 60 varieties.
“We were talking tomatoes, like most Sacramento gardeners do, and it occurred to me,” he said. “People ask, which is the best tomato to grow in Sacramento? I thought, ‘Why don’t I do a little taste testing to see if there are differences and if some are particularly better than others?’ It turned out the answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’”
Rickard started inviting groups of 15 to 20 people to taste tomatoes at his Oak Park home, where he grows dozens of varieties in raised beds. He hosted 10 tastings last summer and also tests peppers. The highest-rated tomato among his many tastings: Isis Candy, a bicolor cherry tomato, which in Rickard’s tests were yellow.
“People who grow a lot of tomatoes have some sense of what’s best, but you can’t always back that up,” he said. “There are standards like Cherokee Purple; you know it’s good. But how good? This gives us a way to judge.”
To keep tasters on their toes, he’d sneak a few store-bought tomatoes onto the table, too. Home-grown consistently won.
“Nobody’s really fooled,” he said. “They now realize how much better a homegrown tomato tastes compared to supermarket tomatoes.”
Sacramento radio host and lifetime master gardener Farmer Fred Hoffman is an avid tomato man. At his home near Herald, he always plants several unusual varieties as well as his personal favorites such as Sweet Million (his top cherry tomato), the always consistent Early Girl and Dr. Wyche’s Yellow, his favorite heirloom beefsteak.
“Dr. Wyche’s Yellow has shimmering yellow skin, few imperfections, with a sweet, tangy flavor,” he said. “It’s my favorite slicing tomato.”
In the very dry season of 2014, Hoffman still had good tomato results from several varieties. Sungold was prolific and sweet as ever, he reports. But he also enjoyed another cherry tomato: Gardener’s Delight. “Slightly bigger than a traditional cherry tomato, this red heirloom was my most consistent producer from June through December,” he said. “This is the one we harvested for salads on Christmas Day.”
Hoffman also had luck with some more unusual varieties such as the plum-sized paste tomato Yaqui. “Although not a big tomato, the Yaqui has done well at my place for three years in a row,” he said. “Nice, compact plant – about 3 feet tall – that pumps out plenty of tomatoes to fill multiple rounds of canning jars. It’s also delicious sliced and roasted.”
Among the mid- to late-season varieties, Solar Flare was a winner. “It’s a beautiful, meaty beefsteak; the yellow streaks on the red tomato skin do look like solar flares! It has outstanding flavor and a long production season.”
What’s on tap for 2015?
“Here are most of the varieties I will be planting this year: Glacier, Polar Star, Prairie Fire, Sungold, Sweet Million, Dr. Wyche’s Yellow, Ace 55, Golden Jubilee, Black Pear, Cherokee Purple, Striped German, Evergreen, Principe Borghese, Italian Roma, Marianna’s Peace, Pink Cherry, Big Rainbow and Tangerine.”
Beginners may have more luck sticking to consistent producers.
“For someone just starting their first tomato garden, I’d go with sure winners such as Sungold, Early Girl and Big Beef,” Hoffman said. “Big Beef is a consistent performer, with smooth, red skin, and great flavor as well as disease resistance. It’s an All-America Selections winner. You can’t go wrong with an Ace 55 as a main season tomato, either.”
Usually, Hoffman puts his seedlings in the ground on his birthday, April 28, which he’s nicknamed “Sacramento’s Official Tomato Planting Day.” But with winter temperatures warmer than normal, he’s getting a head start this year. He started seed in his greenhouse last week.
“I think because of the lack of chill hours this year and higher soil temperatures than normal right now, I may move up tomato planting to the first week of April,” Hoffman said. “Maybe April Fools’ Day. That way, if a wind/hail/rain storm in mid-April wipes them out, well … April Fools on me for planting too early! However, as tomato insurance, I will be planting twice – on April 1, and then again on April 28 … just in case there really is something to the legend of Sacramento’s Official Tomato Planting Day.”
Peter Frichette, Sacramento’s unofficial Mr. Tomato, can’t wait that long to get his Greenhaven garden started.
“I’m still a kid trying to be the first on the block (with fresh tomatoes),” Frichette said, “consequently I put a few Early Girls in the ground around the end of February. They usually give me some fruit by the 10th of June. If we encounter a frost, they are easy to replace. I do follow up with subsequent plantings of various cultivars through about the 15th of April.”
Frichette tends to stick to the same tried-and-true varieties every year, such as Super Marzano for sauce and Better Boy for slicing. He always plants Early Girl for its high production. “With a modicum of effort, a person should be able to harvest a minimum of 200 tomatoes per vine,” he said.
“If I had to choose just one cultivar, it would be Better Boy,” he said. “It is a large tomato, and almost everyone adheres to the ‘big is better’ concept. It is a prolific producer, with lots of good-looking, tomato-red fruit. Sorry – I’m not a ‘Mr. Stripey’ kind of guy.”
While waiting for the seeds to sprout and grow big enough to go outdoors, gardeners get their beds ready.
“Tomatoes do well in soil that has been amended with compost and worm castings,” Hoffman said. “Go easy on the nitrogen fertilizer; you want fruit, not leaves and stems. Many tomato fertilizers contain more phosphorus and potassium than nitrogen for that very reason. Plant in full sun – at least eight hours a day of direct light – and stake, trellis or cage them to maximize the plant leaves’ exposure to light.”
The secret to tomato success? “In two words: ground preparation,” Frichette said.
Prevalent in our area, clay soils can make it difficult to grow tomatoes, he noted.
“It’s best to dig at least a 2-foot-deep hole for best production,” Frichette said. “I backfill the hole with every nutrient available – a balanced fertilizer, one with all the trace elements as well mixed into the soil – then bury the vine as deep as possible with just a few leaves above ground. Always mulch; 4 inches deep is best. I use composted leaves and grass clippings.”
Then, get ready for an avalanche of tomatoes come summer. It’s one love that gardeners never outgrow.
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.
A glance at tomatoes through the ages:
500 B.C. – Tomatoes domesticated in southern Mexico. The Nahuatl called them tomatotl.
1519 – Spanish explorers send small, yellow tomatoes back to Europe from Montezuma’s Aztec gardens.
1544 – An Italian botanist becomes the first to write about tomatoes; calls them “a new form of eggplant.” He later names them pomi d’oro, “golden apple.”
1595 – Derived from its native name, “tomato” first appears in print.
1692 – First tomato recipes appear in a cookbook.
1710 – Colonists see tomatoes growing wild in South Carolina; believe they’re poisonous.
1785 – Thomas Jefferson tastes tomatoes while visiting Paris; sends seeds back to Monticello.
1820 – Most Americans still believe tomatoes are deadly nightshade. Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson eats a bushel of tomatoes before a crowd of 2,000 skeptics in New Jersey. He lives.
1850 – Farm journals call tomatoes “the latest craze.”
1870 – U.S. botanist Alexander Livingston – father of the modern tomato – introduces Paragon, the first of 17 varieties he develops from wild tomatoes.
1876 – Burpee sells its first garden tomato seeds.
1880 – Early popular varieties include Burpee’s Climax, Burpee’s Cardinal, Essex Early Hybrid, Mayflower, Paragon and Livingston’s Perfection.
1889 – Johnson & Stokes seed catalog introduces Brandywine; believed to be a variety grown by Amish farmers.
1893 – U.S. Supreme Court declares tomatoes are a vegetable.
1930 – Auto mechanic M.C. Byles breeds tomatoes next to his West Virginia garage; introduces Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifters, weighing 2 pounds apiece.
1945 – Fordhook Hybrid becomes Burpee’s first U.S.-bred hybrid.
1949 – C.M. Rick co-founds the Tomato Genetics Cooperative at UC Davis; becomes leader in tomato research.
1949 – Burpee introduces Big Boy.
1975 – Early Girl hybrid introduced, featured on Burpee catalog cover.
1982 – Brandywine rediscovered by Seed Savers Exchange, starts “heirloom” tomato movement.
1992 – Britain’s Thompson & Morgan seed house introduces Sungold, “the sweetest tomato ever.”
Today – More than 7,500 tomato varieties available for home gardeners.
SACRAMENTO TASTE TEST
Members of the Sacramento Oak Park Crop Swap have taste-tested locally grown varieties for five years. More than 60 varietes have been blind tested. Crop Swap member Chuck Rickard compiled these results. Ratings are on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being best. Here are the top-rated garden tomatoes in each category:
Giant Syrian 7.5
Better Boy 6.8
Red Slicer 6.6
Early Girl 6.5
Burpee Big Boy 6.3
Abraham Lincoln 6.0
Champion II 5.8
Cherokee Purple 7.3
Black Zebra 7.1
Paul Robeson 7.1
Pruden’s Purple 7.1
Ukranian Purple 6.9
Indigo Apple 6.8
Wild Boar 6.8
Brown Sugar 6.6
Japanese Black Trifele 6.5
Purple Russian 6.3
Black Krim 6.2
Berkeley Tie-Dye 6.0
Caspian Pink 6.9
Pink Ping Pong 6.9
German Johnson 6.4
Mortgage Lifter 6.2
Bull’s Heart 6.1
Anna Russian 6.0
Marizol Purple 5.5
Giant Belgium 5.3
German Orange Strawberry 7.5
Amana Orange 7.1
Gold Medal 7.0
Kellogg’s Breakfast 6.6
Old German 5.3
Isis Candy 7.8
Lemon Boy 6.6
Garden Peach 6.5
Yellow Jubilee 5.6
Big Rainbow 6.0
Mister Stripey 4.8
Burpee Tye Dye 4.2
▪ For more information on the Oak Park Crop Swap and the tomato test, contact Rickard at firstname.lastname@example.org.