What follows is the barest skimming of tomato varieties, as there are hundreds. You’re sure to find something out there that suits your soil, gardening techniques and taste buds. As you may have guessed from my previous comments on this blog, I like these tomato varieties:
- Mortgage Lifter – I’ve never been able to decide whether I like Mortgage Lifter or Marmande best; some years one wins out, other years the other wins out. This is a big, husky plant that will grow at least six feet tall. I’ve never had the ambition and time to see just how tall it will get, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it would reach 10 feet or more. It tends to grow a central leader (stalk) and the branches are relatively widely spaced. The central leader does make it really easy to stake, compared to bushier plants. The fruits are large, dark pink to light red, and make good salad or slicing tomatoes. Excellent flavor. Sometimes it will crack around the stem end.
- Marmande – another excellent eating tomato, and it bears a little heavier than Mortgage Lifter, in my experience. It’s also less susceptible to cracking. The fruits are a little smaller, but still good-sized. It was first offered by Vilmorin, in France. The town where it originated holds an annual midsummer tomato festival to celebrate this and other tomatoes. This was my first exposure to the difference between hybrid and heirloom flavor; my father gave me a nursery seedling that he had left over. I was too young as a gardener to think about saving seeds, but it started me checking out heirlooms, and I never looked back. Marmande will often set fruits in cooler weather than most tomatoes.
- St. Pierre – Like Marmande, St. Pierre is a French heirloom. The French approach growing and eating food with a passion I admire. This one has been gracing gardens and tables since 1880. It bears heavily and tastes great. It’s also a little unusual in that it makes both a good slicing tomato and a good canner.
- Roma – Tomatoes have been grown in Italy since at least 1548, when a letter to the grand duke of Tuscany – one Cosimo de’ Medici – noted he had received a basket of tomatoes at his Florentine estate. You can slice Romas for a salad, but this is a paste tomato, and the real value is in thick sauces, tomato paste and ketchup. They also dry fairly well and can then be packed in olive oil for winter storage. Having tried both, I would say I prefer Amish Paste to Roma.
- Rutgers – Although it was developed by scientists at Rutgers University, it’s still an heirloom. It was bred in 1934, well before the days of GMOs and gene splicing, which goes to show you that old-fashioned methods work just fine. The focus was on breeding a tomato that would be a good canning and juice tomato and I have to say I think the breeders more than met their goals. It’s also a heavy producer.
- Yellow Pear – these were first grown in Europe in 1805. The fruits are slightly larger than my thumb, clear yellow and very tasty, with a different flavor than the red varieties. It not only bears heavily but keeps right on pumping out great quantities of tomatoes until a hard frost finally kills it. It’s so vigorous that if you can protect it from early frosts and the weather stays halfway decent, you’ll be eating these with Thanksgiving turkey. It makes a really pretty salad with a cherry tomato variety such as Chadwick’s.
- Chadwick’s Cherry – Alan Chadwick was a Shakespearean actor who got interested in organic gardening. He was one of the founders of the organic gardening movement (and enamored of double digging, which shows how even smart people can be led astray). He spent years in the Santa Cruz area and bred this tomato sometime in the 1960s. It’s not really a sweet tomato, but still very flavorful and productive.
- Principe Borghese – this one is a drying tomato. In Italy, they are often simply uprooted at the point of maximum production and draped over a fence or hung from a wire in the sun. You’ll get more tomatoes if you prune a stem with lots of ripe tomatoes and hang it to dry, while leaving the rest of the plant to keep growing. The pruning stimulates production of more fruiting branches, as long as you don’t get carried away and cut it back too heavily. Once dried, they store well, and can be submerged in olive oil. The plain dried tomatoes are also good for a snack, eaten out of hand like raisins.
- Costoluto Genovese – yep, it’s an Italian heirloom, Italians being at least as passionate about their food as the French are. This one has been around since the 18th century and is still grown in Jefferson’s Monticello gardens. It’s a sauce tomato, deeply fluted and lobed, best when the skin is removed. This one is quite heat resistant, so if you live where summers are scorchers, plant it in preference to Marmande or Mortgage Lifter.
- Brandywine – I know this is supposed to be the best of the best as far as flavor is concerned, but I would take Mortgage Lifter and Marmande over Brandywine. It’s also not as productive as the other two, so although I’ve grown it, it’s not one of my regulars. The other disadvantage of Brandywine is that it’s a potato-leafed variety. Unlike regular-leafed tomatoes, which are self-pollinated, potato-leafed varieties will cross amongst themselves; a nuisance to seed-savers.
- Thessaloniki – obviously, it’s a Greek variety, as evidenced by the name. Just barely makes it into the heirloom category, as it was officially introduced into the US in the 1950s by Gleckers Seedsmen of Ohio. Odds, are, however, that it’s been around a lot longer than that. It’s resistant to cracks and sun scald. Like Mortgage Lifter, this one should be staked. It matures early, compared to some of the others on this list, and has a little twang of acid in the taste.
- Amish Paste – technically, this is a plum/roma variety, meant for sauces and such. In reality, it’s a big meaty heirloom (some weigh nearly a pound) that is plenty juicy and tasty enough to use a slicer. It originated in the area of Medford, Wisconsin – site of the oldest Amish settlement in that state – supposedly around 1870, but may very well be older. However, it was seeds of the variety from Lancaster, Pennsylvania that were first commercialized. This one is indeterminate, and really should be staked, especially since the fruit is heavy enough to break down the branches. The foliage can be a little thin, which increases the risk of sunscald, but I haven’t found it to be a major issue.
Choosing the Best Tomato Varieties
If I could only have one slicing tomato, I would go with Marmande. It’s a little more prolific than Mortgage Lifter and not as prone to cracking. Marmande is a semi-determinate and doesn’t need the extra-tall stakes required for Mortgage Lifter. It also sets fruit a little earlier, although the difference is not dramatic. If I could only have one all-purpose tomato, it would be St. Pierre. It makes a good slicer and also cans well, it’s prolific and it tastes great. It also tends to be bushier than some of the others, which helps protect the fruit from sunscald. Amish Paste is another one that would make a pretty good all-purpose tomato, even though it’s supposed to be a paste variety.