Monday, May 10, 2010

Heirloom Tomatoes to Try

It's that time again. A wonderous time of year, celebrated annually here after the last average frost date (around May 10). This is when those juicy tomatoes and other yummy summer vegetables can be planted in my garden (Zone 6b). And over the years, I've grown everything from 'Green Zebra' and 'Purple Cherokee' to 'Brandywine,' - often at the same time, as you can see above.

It can be tricky to start tomatoes from seeds, especially if you don't have ideal seed-starting conditions. So I typically buy organically grown transplants from my farmer's market or at nearby farms.  This supports my local community, and makes it easier for me to find my favorite heirlooms.

As you can see, last week's farmer's market had plenty of options, including the new 'Michael Pollen.' These yellow, egg-shaped tomatoes have green stripes and are supposed to look a bit like 'Green Zebra.'

This year, I only have space for seven tomato plants. So, I picked some old favorites, as well as a few new ones. I wanted different colors, sizes and tastes. And it was important the tomatoes matured at different times too. There's no point in having them all ripen at the end of the growing season ... just in time for an early frost. Here are the winners that will receive a spot in my garden ... drumroll, please.

The Winning Tomatoes for 2010

'Stupice' - Have a short, cold growing season? Or, are you just impatient like I am? This heirloom (pronounced "stu-peek-a") will please both of us. An import from the Czech Republic, the small red fruit ripen quickly, and taste great. 52 days from transplant.

'Rosa de Berne' - This Swiss heirloom has medium-sized, round, pink fruit with a sweet flavor, on very productive plants. 75 days from transplant.

'San Marzano' - I fell in love with this Italian heirloom last year, and here's a picture from my garden. Grow this variety yourself and see why it is considered one of the world's best for cooking and canning. Bright red fruit. 80 days from transplant.

'Principe Borghese' - One of my favorite late-summer traditions is to oven-dry tomatoes slowly with garlic and oregano from the garden. Then I freeze them, and eat dried tomatoes all winter. That's why I had to grow this Italian heirloom that's perfect for drying. Very meaty, small red plum tomatoes grow in clusters of 7-10 fruits. Perfect for bruschetta. 72 days from transplant.

'Isis Candy' - These yellow golden cherry tomatoes with red marbling are a long-time favorite. Tons of sweet fruit grow on productive plants all season. I often snack on a handful when gardening. 67 days from transplant.

'Black Sea Man' - This Russian heirloom delivers rich mahogany fruit with deep, reddish-green interiors. Full-bodied and intense in flavor, this tomato is great on sandwiches. Grows well in mid-sized containers. 75 days from transplant.

'Basinga' - A hard-to-find heirloom with yellow heartshaped fruit that have a red tinge on the blossom end. The sweet, tangy flavor is "mild but definitely not bland," according to Seed Savers Exchange. 80 days from transplant.

More Heirlooms: If I had more room and a longer growing season, I would grow these favorites again too...

'Black Krim' - Medium-large maroom fruit with green shoulders and green gel around seeds. Naturally salty; ideal for slicing, salads and cooking. Suitable for containers and patio gardens. 80 days from transplant.

'Brandywine' - Large pink beefsteak with excellent old-fashioned flavor grow on prolific plants. A very popular variety. 90 days from transplant.

'Cherokee Purple' - Originally grown by Cherokee Indians, this heirloom is more than 100 years old. Dusty rose-colored fruit with a complex, somewhat smoky flavor. The variety has better disease resistance than many heirlooms. Tolerates hot temperatures. 80 days from transplant.

'Green Zebra' - Yellowish green-striped, tennis-ball-sized fruit that wins fans (including us!) for its tangy, well-balanced taste. This open-pollinated cultivar was developed from four heirloom varieties. Tolerates cool, foggy conditions, and performed great when we lived on the California coast. 75 days from transplant.

'Hillbilly' - This heirloom hails from the hills of West Virginia in the 1880s. Huge, heavily ribbed, orange-yellow fruit is streaked with red. When cut, the pretty fruit makes a starburst patter. Low acid. Terrific taste. I'd grow it more often, if it didn't need 85 days from transplant.

Want more?


  1. What a great list, I am growing Principe Borghese for the first time and I look forward to making sun dried tomatoes with them. I look forward to hearing how your tomatoes do this year.

  2. Great list and now I know how to pronounce Stupice! I have so many extra tomato seedlings that I was giving them away at kids' soccer games. All delivery people leave with tomatoes - I'm becoming a scary tomato lady.

  3. Kerry, Free tomato seedlings? Another reason I wish we lived closer to each other... Thanks for stopping by. Teresa

  4. Kristi: I can't wait to try Principe Borghese. Hope you have great luck with yours. I know the San Marzano tomatoes are excellent for drying too. Enjoy enjoy... Teresa

  5. So many to choose from...... We planted two plants a couple of weeks ago (zone 7). They already have several blooms. We planted six more today. I can't wait for some tomatoes and basil, my favorite summer combination. Carla

  6. Carla: Sounds like your plants are off to a good start. Enjoy your harvest and let me know how it turns out. Thanks for stopping by. Teresa

  7. I really need to get more experimental with my tomatoes now that I have more room. Clearly there are some good things I'm missing. What I really loved about this post, however, was your nifty plant tags on your seedling trays. What a simple and cleaver way to ID your plants.

  8. Kat: Thanks for your nice note. Those are pretty nifty plant tags the farmer used to mark the seedling trays. I've seen popsicle sticks used, as well as reusuable tags, which is what I use. It's so easy to forget what you've planted, isn't it? Have a great day. Teresa

  9. Excellent post Teresa! I heart tomatoes. I'm going to take a stab at canning for the first time this year. Thanks for the info.

  10. Stacy: Good luck with canning tomatoes. Would love to hear how it turns out... Thanks for stopping by. Teresa

  11. Oh dear, just when I thought I had chosen everything I was going to grow this year. 'Green Zebra', check. 'Principe Borghese', check. A handful of 'Isis Candy'? There's got to be a place I can squeeze them in. Thanks for the tips.

  12. Hi Marie: Are you sure you can't squeeze in just one more plant? 'Isis Candy' is definitely worth it... ;) Thanks for stopping by. I enjoy reading your blog very much. Teresa

  13. That's a huge list, Teresa! I think you must really love tomatoes! Ha ha!

  14. Hi Victoria and Kim: I never have enough to grow too many tomatoes at the same time. But I do love variety, as you can probably tell. Enjoy your lovely garden too. It's been a terrific May, hasn't it? All best, Teresa

  15. The list says how you love tomatoes, Teresa. I have planted hairlooms but it's impossible for me now to identify those. Now I need to wait and explore. I should try your reusable tag next time.

    Looking forward to see the photographs of your tomato garden.

  16. My two heirloom favorites for decades have been - 'San Marzano' for making the best sauce, and 'Prudens Purple' the best slicing tomato out there, I eat one a day all summer long : )

    Last year due to a severe ankle injury I wasn't able to get to my local farmer's market early enough in the season and everyone was sold out of Prudens Purple plants. I searched high and low for weeks. Finally settled on Cherokee Purple. I was extremely disappointed in both the texture and flavor (no real tomato flavor and I found the texture to be mealy compared to Prudens Purple). Last summer was the first year I went without my daily Prudens for lunch.

    This year, I made it a high priority to get to the market super early each Saturday morning - I got the first Prudens Purple plants of the season - YIPPIE!!!!

    I'm looking forward to my 2 sandwich's a day, a thick slice of Prudens on homemade bread topped with a slice of goat's cheese (baked in the toaster oven until the cheese melts)... the tomatoes haven't even formed yet and I'm already enjoying them : )

  17. Evelyn: Thanks for your interesting message! Now I can't wait to try 'Prudens Purple,' especially if you think they taste better than 'Cherokee Purple.'

    I've noticed that different heirlooms perform better in different climates. Meanwhile, my tomatoes aren't getting off to a great start with this rainy, cold weather, but here's hoping for the best. Cheers, and thanks for stopping by. Teresa