The dark days of winter, when much of the garden is tucked up in bed, waiting for the warmth and sunshine of spring to arrive, is the usual time for perusing seed catalogues and drawing up planting plans. However, it is now, when the harvest of summer and autumn produce is in full swing, that one ought to review the successes and failures of this year’s sowings, and consider which varieties are worth growing again next year and which might better be replaced with something new. Tomatoes are one of our favourites crops – indeed, if I could grow only one thing, tomatoes and chillies would be fighting it out. So, with the glasshouse full of ripe cherry tomatoes, and the larger sorts in the polytunnel not too far behind, we took some time to undertake a taste test, as well as noting which varieties have grown well or otherwise.
We have previously grown tomatoes in growbags, and had even better results in large pots, but now grow in the glasshouse and polytunnel beds. We have two identical glasshouses, and alternate each year, growing cucumbers and melons in one, and tomatoes in the other. Similarly, in the polytunnel we grow sweet peppers in one side bed and tomatoes the other; this is not such a good scenario, as peppers and tomatoes belong to the same family, but perhaps a little better than growing tomatoes in the same location each year. We refresh the soil each season with manure and / or compost and add a little fish, blood and bone as a slow release fertiliser, but at some point we may have to replace the soil with some from another part of the garden if it gets tired. Despite this, the advantages of growing in deep fertile soil are substantial. There is so much more room for roots, growth is far more vigorous, and the cropping heavy. There is also no need for regular feeding. I rarely use a liquid feed, preferring to feed the soil at the start of the season. Planting can be quite close – provided that the sideshoots are regularly pinched out and growth tied in, we get good results at 1’ spacings.
Growth was slow to begin with due to the extended cold weather at the start to the year. The plants have now largely caught up and most have reached the extent of the supports and been pinched out. Aside from a little whitefly in the polytunnel, which can be seen in some of the images, we have had no other problems so far this season. Whilst many have put on vigorous and productive growth, a few varieties have performed less well. San Marzano, the classic plum type, has not performed particularly well for me over the past three seasons. This year, despite robust stems, they are nonetheless rather stunted and bearing only a modest crop. I am rather inclined to forgo this classic and either grow more Principe Borghese, or look for an alternative. Ildi, a small yellow tomato that we tried for the first time this year, is rather weak and spindly in its growth and, although it has produced large trusses, many of the fruit have not set. Banana Leggs – sometimes written with one ‘g’ and other times oddly with two, although I have used that here because that was how it appeared on my seed packet – is also characterised by delicate growth, yet this year has also provided a good crop of large sized fruit. We grew this last year, but were unimpressed by the flavour and texture of the fruit, however, last year was something of a disaster as blight struck our glasshouse crop for the first time, hence, we offered it a second chance and, overall, it has done well this time. Green Zebra, which I mistakenly thought to be a small tomato, little more than a cherry type, has produced only a modest crop, but of quite large tomatoes. Finally, Golden Sunrise, which we grew for the first time this year, provided one vigorous plant and another that took a long time to put on any growth, remaining all but idle for many weeks, although it has now begun to develop. However, the fruits on even the vigorous plant are not of fine quality, having some tendency to split and scar.
In all, we planted 48 plants of 18 different varieties; 19, largely cherry sorts, in the glasshouse, and 29 of various sorts in the polytunnel. My aim is to grow a variety of shapes, sizes, colours, and, more importantly, flavours and textures. On reflection, though, I appear to have the balance of cherry tomatoes and larger sorts wrong. The former are highly productive in quantity if not overall weight, and perfect for salads, yet, it is the large varieties that are most ideal for slicing, sauces, preserving, and other culinary purposes, and I am planning to grow more of these next season. All but two varieties offered ripe fruit; the two that are yet to ripen – Moneymaker and Pera d’Abruzzo – will be reviewed in a later post when ready.
Although we often scoff a handful of cherry tomatoes straight from the vines, we tasted these samples with a small sprinkle of Maldon salt. One might argue that the flavour should be experienced unadorned, but as we generally season with salt, and in my view the flavour is much enhanced when used, I did not see any reason not to. Similarly, I often sample tomatoes with a drizzle of olive oil as I find that that also brings out the flavour. I would not use anything but a fine sea salt, such as Maldon salt or Fleur de Sel; to use a poor quality salt on what should be the finest quality tomatoes would not make any sense to me and may well be detrimental to the flavour; it is remarkable the effect that the type of salt can have on flavour.
This taste test is an excellent example of bad science. Not only was a small sample taken, there are so many confounding factors unaccounted for, especially pertaining to the variables associated with cultivation, such as watering, feeding, temperature, and so on, not to mention moment of harvesting. Nonetheless, we have grown most of these varieties for more than one season and the results seem largely consistent. Of course, I must offer the further caveat that it is entirely possible that others, growing under even marginally different conditions, might find entirely different results. I am sure that our poor results with San Marzano are not shared with many growers, yet cannot find any obvious cause for the lack of quality and mediocre cropping when other sorts often grow with astonishing vigour, bearing heavy crops of fine flavoured fruit. There seem to be several strains of San Marzano; perhaps another might fare better, or perhaps our soil is just not suited to this variety.
In general, we found, as in previous seasons, that the red tomatoes offered better flavours and textures than the yellow sorts, which were rather disappointing; although they produced nice looking fruit, they tended to be poorly flavoured and somewhat soft and watery in texture. Although all varieties share somewhat a common tomato flavour, so far, in our experience, there does seem to be some correlation between fruit colour and flavour characteristics. Although the yellow sorts generally fared poorly, other colours – orange, green and so called black, which is more of a dull, dark, chocolate red colour than black – were all excellent. There is such a diversity of varieties that I will continue to search for well flavoured yellow tomatoes that suit our growing conditions.
Two of the varieties tasted are F1 hybrids. As must be quite clear by now from previous posts, I generally prefer to grow open pollinated varieties, and especially traditional sorts. However, we have grown for several seasons Sungold and Sweet Million. The latter is readily replaced with any good red cherry tomato, of which there are many, and I may well drop this from the list for next year. Sungold, though, is currently Christina’s favourite tomato, and no doubt the sweetest of those we grow; in fact, we refer to them as ‘CT’s sweeties’. I would happily replace it, but have not yet found a variety that she prefers for snacking straight from the vine; something else to look for next season.
Finally, I should highlight that in the pictures shown, the examples of Costoluto Fiorentino and Marmande are rather small for their type, the larger fruit not yet being ripe enough for tasting.
Sweet Million, red cherry tomato. This F1 hybrid offers what can best be described as rather ‘ordinary’ red cherry tomatoes. They are very sweet, the sweetest of our tomatoes after Sungold, but the flavour is just a little weak, and it lacks a little of the acidity needed to provide a balanced flavour. We also found the texture to be a little on the soft side. Nonetheless, this variety has cropped quite well for us over many seasons and is not a bad sort.
Ciliegia a grappolo, red cherry tomato. The tomatoes are quite small, yet of good quality, and carried in large numbers. They are somewhat similar to Sweet Million, but the flavour is more intense, and with a little acidity to balance the sweetness for a more rounded experience. The texture is also improved. This may well replace Sweet Million for us next year as our small red cherry type.
Gardener’s Delight, red cherry tomato. This is a classic cherry tomato and an old favourite of many gardeners. In our view it makes a good attempt to live up to its name. We have grown this for many years, and found it to be a reliable yielder of good quality cherry tomatoes. The fruits are quite large for a cherry type, with what can only be described as a good classic tomato flavour; something many varieties fail to achieve. The flesh is juicy and with a pleasant balance of sweetness and acidity. Most definitely a stalwart of the garden crop that we envisage growing for many seasons to come.
Ildi, yellow cherry tomato. Ildi bears small fruits, with thin, somewhat translucent skins. There is some sweetness, but little acidity to provide balance, and the flavour is rather weak. We found the fruits to be fairly soft and watery. This is not likely to be on our list for next season.
Yellow Butterfly, yellow cherry tomato. We found this to be very similar to Ildi, except with slightly larger fruit. We tasted a second time to try to decide which was the better, but could not really separate them. Again, not likely to be grown by us next season.
Yellow Pear, small yellow pear shaped tomato. I was looking forward to growing one of the pear shaped varieties, and may well try a different sort next year. However, we will not be in a hurry to grow Yellow Pear again. We sampled several fruits to be sure, but none were particularly good. The flavour was poor, the flesh mealy and with little juice. Overall, a great disappointment.
Sungold, orange cherry tomato. Despite my aversion to hybrid varieties, it is hard to fault Sungold on many points. We have grown this for many years, and found it to be a reliable bearer of heavy crops. The trusses are of good size and the fruits consistent in their characteristics. This is much to be expected from a hybrid. The most striking characteristic is the sweetness of the fruit; it is by far the sweetest of the varieties we have grown, and perhaps one of the sweetest available. It has a good tomato taste, but perhaps it is a little too sweet for me; I would prefer a more rounded experience. Compared with our other favourites, such as Gardener’s Delight and Black Cherry, it lacks complexity and the sweetness is, for me, the overwhelming characteristic. The only other minor complaint is that it does not keep so well on the truss, becoming quite soft and with a tendency to split as soon as it is ripe. Nonetheless, it is a good, reliable tomato, with a decent flavour. This is the only orange sort we have grown, and I may look for another orange variety to try next year, but I will have to grow Sungold until I find a replacement that CT likes just as much.
Black Cherry, dark reddish brown cherry tomato. Despite its name, Black Cherry is not black; it ripens to a dark, dull reddish chocolate brown colour. The fruits are quite attractive and of a large size for a cherry tomato, and the plants offer a good yield of consistent quality. The flesh is particularly juicy, and the flavour strong, rich, and delicious. I have read that the dark tomatoes have in common a richness and complexity of flavour. Perhaps this is true, as we grew the heritage variety Black Russian one season and that produced quite large tomatoes with a similarly rich, almost smokey, flavour. Black Cherry has plenty of sweetness, although not so much as some of the other sorts described above, but the sugars are well balanced with a little acidity, resulting in a delightful, rounded experience. The only slight complaint would be that the skins are a little thicker and more chewy than the other cherry tomatoes we have grown. This is certainly a variety I hope to grow next year, and we may well also try another of the dark sorts.
Banana Leggs, pale yellow cylindrical tomato. Despite somewhat weak, feathery growth, Banana Leggs does manage to produce a reasonable yield of quite large cylindrical fruits. These are clearly the best of the yellow tomatoes we have grown. The flavour is not particularly strong, but quite pleasant, and the texture quite reasonable. We grew this last year, but were not so impressed with the fruits, which we found to be rather watery and lacking flavour. However, that was an awful year for our tomatoes, most of which we lost to blight; the first time we have had our under cover crop affected. I am glad that we gave this variety a second chance, as, in the interests of cultivating a variety of sorts, I am rather inclined to grow this one again next season.
Green Zebra, green striped tomato of medium size. Green Zebra, as the name suggests, produces tomatoes that are green when ripe, which makes harvesting a little tricky. The light green skin is striped with darker green, and when ripe there is also a little tell tale yellow to the colouring. We found the flesh of this good sized tomato to be very juicy, and quite delicious. The flavour is unique amongst those varieties we have grown, although it is hard to describe precisely what makes it so; it has a good tomato taste but is somehow very refreshing, with a pleasant acidity. The plants appear to be vigorous, but although the fruits are of good size, the set was only modest. Overall, though, Green Zebra is an excellent variety, and certainly one I plan to grow next year. There are not so many tomatoes that are green when ripe, but there are others; whether they share common flavour characteristics I have no idea, but it might be interesting to explore one or two further varieties.
St Pierre, red tomato of medium size. We have grown this traditional French variety for several seasons, but this is the first time we have really taken note of the flavour and texture of the fruit. In previous years, they have been added to various culinary concoctions and we have failed to really assess whether it is worth growing. The plants are vigorous and the yield good, with medium sized fruits of good quality. I rather wish we had given this more attention before, as the flavour and texture are both excellent. The flesh is juicy and rich, with a good balance of sweetness and acidity. Whilst they are no doubt very good when cooked, they are also clearly a superb slicing tomato. I rather imagine that this will become one of our standard varieties to be grown year after year.
Moneymaker, red tomato of medium size. We have grown this old variety for many years. It was my grandmother’s favourite, and I seem to recall her tomatoes being of rather good flavour. In our more recent experience, however, I have been rather disappointed with the flavour, which has been mediocre, and texture, which has been rather mealy. I would not have grown this variety again, except that I had some seed from a magazine. That said, the plants have produced a good crop of fine looking tomatoes. As for the flavour and texture I cannot say, as they have yet to ripen, and will therefore report on that in a later post.
Golden sunrise, deep yellow tomato of medium size. In terms of flavour and texture, this variety has much to recommend it. The fruits are of medium size, with quite a pleasant flavour and juicy flesh. There is a sweet finish to the taste, but also a good balance of acidity. However, I am not quite so satisfied with the plants themselves. As seedlings, they were not robust, and of the two planted out, one grew reasonably, if rather slowly, but the other remained very small indeed for quite some time, so I have some doubts regarding vigour. Although the fruits are a good size, the crop is not particularly large. Since we have plenty of space this would not necessarily deter me from growing this variety again. What is more problematic is fruit quality. We have found the skin to be prone to splitting before it is ripe and scarring, resulting in rather ugly fruit and some wastage. Overall, despite its many good points, I am rather inclined to search for an alternative than to try this variety again next season.
San Marzano, red plum tomato. This is the classic plum tomato, and widely grown. Indeed, we have grown this sort ourselves for several seasons. However, we have not had particularly good results. The plants tend to be a little stunted, and in comparison with others, rather poor. The crop is modest, and not particularly fine. No doubt the plum tomatoes are best used for culinary purposes, but nonetheless I would expect rather better texture and flavour. We found the flesh to be rather mealy, with little tomato flavour. Clearly, for a tomato to become such a classic, others must fare rather better than we have. It is hard to find a reason for the relatively poor performance of this variety, as others grow with great vigour and produce heavy yields and excellent fruit. Whatever the reason might be, I am not really inclined to try this variety again.
Principe Borghese, red plum tomato. This is yet another variety that we have grown for several seasons. This smaller, more rounded plum tomato fares rather better for us than San Marzano, having a good texture and a reasonable flavour. The flavour does not compete with the finest of our varieties, such as Marmande and St Pierre, but is perhaps a good culinary sort, as it has a meaty texture with fewer seeds. I may well grow this next year, although it might also be worth exploring another variety of plum tomato.
Marmande, large red tomato. This old French variety generally produces large, slightly ribbed, slicing tomatoes, although the sample we tasted today was rather smaller than is typical, as the larger fruits have yet to ripen. This is perhaps my favourite tomato. The texture is very pleasant, the flesh juicy, and the flavour simply superb. The plants are strong growing and never fail to produce a good crop, by weight if not always in number. Marmande is certainly one of our staple varieties that I hope to grow for many years to come.
Pera d’Abruzzo, large red tomato. This vigorous plant appears to be producing some very large fruits. I believe these are supposed to be meaty fleshed with few seeds and ideal for culinary purposes. None are yet ripe, so I will report on flavour and texture in a later post.
Costoluto Fiorentino, large deeply ribbed red tomato. This Italian variety is typical of the various deeply ribbed sorts, which seem to be closely related. The fruits vary considerably in size; the sample tasted was rather small, as the larger fruits have yet to ripen. We have grown this sort for several seasons, and in general have been quite happy with the results. It is particularly good when cooked, which is beneficial, as some fruits, due to the extremely deep ribs, can exhibit some scarring and wastage, and are not always ideal for slicing. In our experience the texture can sometimes be a little mealy and the core is often large and best removed. The flavour, though, is reasonable, neither especially sweet nor especially acidic. Although we have enjoyed these tomatoes over the past few years, I am tempted to try another strain, or one or two of the other large tomato varieties instead, such as Cuore di Bue and Brandywine.