Dreaming of Tomatoes...

Apr 11, 2013

heirloom tomatoes
With the first warm days of spring I find myself pining for those summer evenings when my husband and I sit on the patio and savor the bounty from our vegetable garden. I think back to the many tomatoes I grew last summer and ponder which ones I will grow this year.

Probably I will repeat many of our favorites, but I will also try a few new ones. Which types to choose?  There are so many factors to consider. 

Do I want to try a new variety for cooking and preserving, or for eating fresh from the garden? I have plenty of room for another tomato plant, but those with more limited space should consider whether a variety is suited to small spaces or containers.

Tomatoes are classified as either determinate or indeterminate based on their growth habits. Determinate tomatoes tend to be bushy in appearance. They grow to a certain height, generally three to five feet, and bear most of their fruit within a four- to six-week period. Determinate tomatoes are often chosen for canning since they yield so much at once.

Indeterminate tomatoes grow and bear fruit all summer, until the arrival of frost. These types need the support of trellises, stakes or cages to keep them from sprawling on the ground, where the fruit tends to rot.

Another characteristic to consider is disease resistance. Many hybrid varieties have been bred to resist diseases that plague tomatoes. When shopping for tomatoes, you may notice that the plant label includes the letters V, F, N, T or A. This is a code that indicates whether the variety is resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt, nematodes, tobacco mosaic virus or alternaria stem canker.  Keep in mind that resistance does not mean immunity. Home gardeners should still practice crop rotation and avoid planting tomatoes or other members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) in the same location for more than two consecutive years. That family includes eggplants, potatoes, peppers and petunias.

The popular heirloom tomatoes offer a wide range of flavors, colors, textures and shapes. While heirlooms may not be as productive as hybrids and tend to be more susceptible to disease, many home gardeners appreciate their variety. What’s more, heirloom seeds can be saved and replanted, and they will yield the same variety the following year. In contrast, plants from hybrid seeds don’t retain all the traits of the parent plants. 

I generally grow a mix of heirlooms and hybrids so I have the best of both worlds.  One of my favorite cherry tomatoes is ‘Sungold,’ an indeterminate hybrid that produces small golden-orange fruits with a tangy, sweet flavor. It is extremely productive. For a color contrast, I grow ‘Green Grape,’ an heirloom that is green on the inside and chartreuse outside when ripe.  It is about the size of a large grape and has few seeds. It has a spicy sweet flavor and looks beautiful halved in salads.

‘Mamma Mia’ is my favorite variety for sauces, bruschetta and dried tomatoes. It’s the only variety that I grow in multiples because it is so versatile. It is meaty, ripens earlier than most plum tomatoes and lasts in my garden until the first frost.

For sheer beauty, I grow ‘Marvel Stripe’ every year. This indeterminate heirloom produces large multi-colored fruit with streaks of red, yellow and orange. It is a star in any caprese salad.

My best-tasting tomatoes are ‘Japanese Black Trifele’ and ‘Cherokee Purple.’  Both are indeterminate heirlooms with dark fruit and rich, complex flavor. ‘Cherokee Purple’ produces large tomatoes while the ‘Japanese Black Trifele’ is a medium-sized pear-shaped tomato.

Napa County Master Gardeners have compiled a list of 44 favorite tomatoes that grow well in the county.  For more information about these varieties, visit http://ucanr.edu/sites/ucmgnapa/files/163307.pdf.  No matter which tomatoes you choose to grow this summer, you will be in heaven with the first bite.

Tomato Plant Sale: Napa County Master Gardeners are hosting a tomato plant sale on Saturday, April 20, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Choose from 44 varieties that grow well in Napa County. Come early for best selection. Tomato experts will be on hand to answer  questions. Location: Oxbow Public Market, south parking lot, 644 First Street, Napa. Plan your purchases with this Quick Guide to Tomato Varieties.

Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners (http://cenapa.ucdavis.edu) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions?