Debbie Arrington

Late tomato guru Chuck Rickard sought out the best of the red

Sacramento gardener Chuck Rickard referred to his Oak Park backyard as his “tomato research station.”
Sacramento gardener Chuck Rickard referred to his Oak Park backyard as his “tomato research station.”

Chuck Rickard loved tomatoes, especially red heirlooms allowed to ripen to peak perfection. But one question always puzzled him: Which tomato variety is actually “best”?

As a retired science teacher, Rickard took a pragmatic approach to that tomato topic, a favorite subject of debate among Sacramento gardeners.

At his Oak Park home, he grew dozens of varieties in raised boxes he built himself, keeping copious notes about planting, production and harvest dates. He started an annual summer tasting party where friends and other gardeners could put those homegrown tomatoes to the test, grading their sweetness, acidity, balance and flavor. He also started a website to share that information with other gardeners.

Then, his life took a tragic twist. In July, Rickard was involved in a terrible car accident. He broke his neck and was partially paralyzed.

For months, he went through rehabilitation, slowly regaining some movement and feeling in his limbs.

But in late October, Rickard suffered major setbacks and died Oct. 24. He was 73.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at Westminster Presbyterian, 1300 N St., Sacramento.

His memorial undoubtedly will include some tomato talk as well as mention of Rickard’s other passions, such as classical music and folk dancing.

Sacramento Tomato and Pepper Report, Rickard’s website, still has the results of his first six years of taste testing including a 32-page downloadable guide. (Find it at https://sactomatoreport.wordpress.com/.) It’s interesting browsing for any Sacramento gardener considering a new variety to try. More than 300 volunteer tasters helped him determine the results.

As for the best tomato? Momotaro, a Japanese red with 6-ounce fruit, and the heirloom Cherokee Purple piled up the highest ratings in Rickard’s taste tests. They were followed closely by Amana Orange, Black Zebra, Fourth of July, German Orange Strawberry and Red Brandywine.

Rickard hoped his results would help newbie gardeners as well as more experienced tomato growers pick new varieties to try. He personally grew 107 different tomatoes as well as many peppers. Instead of growing from seed, he always bought tomato starts from local nurseries, so the varieties in his tests were a fair representation of what was available to any Sacramento tomato lover.

One aspect Rickard proved: Homegrown tomatoes definitely taste better than store-bought. They’re sweeter and have more intense tomato flavor.

Now, his friends are trying to figure out a way to maintain what Rickard started. That includes volunteers to grow the tomatoes as well as future taste-test organizers. Using tomatoes that Rickard planted before his accident, the Oak Park Crop Swap garden group had its annual tasting in late summer.

“Going forward with the tomato report is going to take a little bit of doing,” said Glenn Destatte, Rickard’s longtime friend. “The tasting at Colonial Heights Library was not conducted with the rigor that Chuck would have liked, but the 20 to 25 patrons who did the tasting were seriously into it. I ran into the branch supervisor (last week), and she told me that one patron told her it was the best event she had been to at the library.”

Rickard did a great service for local gardeners and tomato fans. His memory will live on, especially when biting into a red ripe tomato.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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