Tomato Characteristics, what I imagine I know

digit(ID/WA)January 28, 2010

I could sum up most of what I know about growing tomatoes in 3 or 4 sentences but I've been thinking a little about what I believe I know about varieties as my selections from the seed catalogs are made.

Here are my notions. Please feel free to critique these stereotypes, add to them, and just do some mental ambling thru my tomato patch. There's about 60 plants out there every year so there should be room for everyone!

Let's start with the large and small of it: I read somewhere (sorry, I hate to start out like that) that a large tomato cannot be as sweet as a small one because it would be impossible to handle it. I suspect that's true, altho' I know nothing of the physics of tomatoes. Squeeze a supersweet large tomato and it explodes!

It doesn't mean that all cherries are sweet and all beefsteaks are tart - just that the sweetest tomatoes are the little guys. And, most folks, really enjoy the sweetness in vegetables. A tomato is a fruit but an annual plant has only a few months to pack sugar into a sweet fruit.

That quickly brings us to plant maturity and the speed of ripening. I'm coming to the opinion that the sweetest fruit will benefit from the weeks and months needed by some varieties to ripen their fruit. Once again, this isn't an absolute but it just seems so and may be particularly true of those plants with larger fruit.

As well, I'm all but convinced that flavor is enhanced by long weeks of development for the plant and fruit. This may just be a part of a "tomato envy" issue, however. Is it possible that folks in places with much longer growing seasons, are enjoying much more flavorful tomatoes than I'm permitted??

That aside, let's go back to size but consider the size of the plant. Varieties that grow only to a small size, have the opportunity to ripen fruit earlier in the season. They also may develop more flavor in their fruit. There are other factors at play here, however.

If plant breeding emphasizes earliness of maturity - flavor, sweetness, everything else may be compromised. I have some deep-seated prejudices against certain varieties because of what I consider failures by the plant breeders.

Let's go at this flavor thing from a different direction: color. Pigmentation has a good deal to do with nutrients, those who know something about the subject tell us. I'm inclined to believe that these phytonutrients, outside of the sweetness/acidity, make up the flavor of the fruit.

This will be the 1st year for me to grow a "black" tomato. I have come to know DW's flavor preferences and varieties with a strong flavor rate very low. Well, not me! But, I'm very easily made happy with a tomato - of just about any sort.

DW doesn't have an "unsophisticated" palate. I've done my very best, to make sure of that. But, I think there is very little chance that she will like the Black Cherries that I'm growing this year unless their sweetness, just overpowers everything else.

DW likes pink tomatoes . . . I won't roll my eyes at that because I've discovered some exceptional pink tomatoes! A complexity of flavor isn't restricted to any one color but is there a "strong-flavored" pink? I've yet to taste one.

Yellow and orange tomatoes are of a special, personal delight. Maybe it's mostly visual. Partly it must have to do with my experiences trying to decide which gold cherry, I prefer most - Sungold or SunSugar. Okay, my tastes incline me to the sweeties.

Some red cherries have just been wonderful! I would like to shake the hand of the folks who developed Sweet Baby Girl or Sweet Chelsea or SugarSnack or SunCherry! I'm not even sure if the lighter colors have topped some of these, even in a single instant.

And, there you may see some of my prejudices and stereotypical thinking. All this, is designed to reassure me that garden space and months of care will be rewarded with tomato happiness.

Please forgive me, here in the depths of winter, for allowing my imagination to get the best of me, here in my garden.


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Enjoyed reading your post. Always nice to read another tomato growers views and especially those as well thought out as yours. Made me stop and think about a few things.

I agree that the ripening time has a lot to do with flavor. One reason I feel it is so hard to find a top tasting early tomato.

I'm trying Salisaw this year. A early red cherry that some say rivals or equals Sungold in taste. Hopefully I'll have a good year and can make a fair opinion. Cracking is what I have against Sungold.

With the snow outside will try to finish requests and then set down and try to pare my 2010 grow list down to at least 50 varieties. I was hoping to keep it to 35 but don't see that possible with all the new ones I have received. Jay

Breeders for so many years ignored taste when crossing seeking disease resistance, firmness and good looks instead. There has been some change during the last few years. There has been a few good ones developed.

I like a large Pink Beefsteak. Just not many that set well here. But taste wise hard to beat.

There are only a few yellows and oranges I really like. Sungold and Kellogg's Breakfast are 2 I grow every year.

You left out green when ripes. I find the flavor of a few to be unique and worth growing. Evergreen and Cherokee Green are two that are very good.

I like the flavor of some of the blacks. And Blacks seem to tolerate my conditions as a whole better than most of the other colors. I grew two plants of one last summer that I didn't get marked that were as good as any black's I have ever grown. Can't go a year without an Indian Stripe and a Cherokee Purple in the garden. Amazon Chocolate is another nice one.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2010 at 7:40PM
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***Let's start with the large and small of it: I read somewhere (sorry, I hate to start out like that) that a large tomato cannot be as sweet as a small one because it would be impossible to handle it. I suspect that's true, altho' I know nothing of the physics of tomatoes. Squeeze a supersweet large tomato and it explodes! ***

Where in the world did you get the idea that "sweet" had any thing to do with soft skin, or variety size?. I grow 18 verities each year For lack of more space. My notes on one called crnkvic. was that it grew great but was to watery. Skin so thin that I puctured one with my finger nails. It reminded me of a balloon half filled with water. Nothing to do with how sweet it was. I am talking about verity size here, not size as in one that was grown under limited conditions. A couple of days ago, I ate a bush beefsteak from my indoor plant that was only golf ball size...probably the sweetest tomato I have ever eaten. I am thinking of wild berries etc. too.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2010 at 10:25AM
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Jay, I left out the green when ripe because I don't have any experience with them. Since using green tomatoes in the kitchen hasn't been very successful for me, I've probably made the mistake of avoiding that color even for those varieties that will not change as they ripen. This is my limited experience showing itself.

'Kid, I wasn't really talking about tomato skins but rather the general softness of the fruit.

Size and sweetness? In the tomato trial linked below, only 1 of the 7 cherry tomatoes rated down with the 25 larger-fruited varieties in sugar content (brix). In other words, the 6 tomatoes with the highest sugar content out of the 32 varieties, are all cherries.


Here is a link that might be useful: Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences tomato trial

    Bookmark   January 30, 2010 at 12:59AM
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highalttransplant(z 5 Western CO)

Hmmmm ... I hate to open my mouth, and remove all doubt of my ignorance, but I'm wondering if it's an acid, sugar ratio thing. I mean, do cherry tomatoes tend to also have a high acid content as well? Because in my limited tomato experience, I've been disappointed when I taste cherries described as sweet as candy, to find that to my palate ... they're not. But maybe what I really am not caring for is the acidity of them. A big, meaty slicer seems sweeter to my tongue, but maybe it's just less acidic, which makes it seem sweeter to me.


    Bookmark   January 30, 2010 at 1:56AM
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Steve good buddy, With good respect and a thanks for your deep thoughts, I have to say that I think you are drawing conclusions too quick. I will use the example of some one that drives country roads for years and decides that red cows are bigger than black cows. Quite true but not because they are red or black, but because they are hereford or angus. . The good doctor over in tomatoes could probable give the gene number and reason for each of the traits you bring up.
Anyway, have a good day and thanks for helping us enjoy the long days of winter.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2010 at 10:57AM
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Dan Staley

I've grown tomatoes in 4 states, for almost four decades, all different climates, and my undergrad ag college was surrounded by tomato fields. Every fall we were forced to go out there on roads splashed with red from tomatoes falling off trucks and collect rots, wilts, fungi, bugs, soil, leaves, fruit, capsules, stems, flowers, carcasses...and I still grow tomatoes, and I like to think that I can bore anyone to tears...

IME it is how you treat them and the variety you choose. And, esp here on the Front Range or in low-humidity areas, you can easily choose a variety that struggles and doesn't give you good fruit. Sweetness/acidity is a genetic function that can be overcome by abuse, but not care.

That said, in this place my production is still spotty and I can't say I have it down. The BH is still complaining over the amount of space allotted to toms and the spotty harvest from some (so a re-work of what gets planted, where is coming).

So maybe I'm not the best judge.


    Bookmark   January 30, 2010 at 12:40PM
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Bonnie, I think you are exactly right. In trying to find that list of varieties and their brix rating, I was surprised to come across some that didn't taste especially sweet to me but the pH is so low . . . how could they be anything but tart?!?

Perhaps, that acid/sugar ratio is of primary importance to what we perceive as "taste."

Kenny, you may be correct, also. I'm limited as to what I can put my hands on, in reading or as a ripe tomato in the garden. And the tomato forum?! I'd better stay out of there with these kind of thoughts . . .

Dan, I've got 9 new varieties to try this year. And, there's about 9 tried-and-true to put in, also. Risky behavior on my part. (I've come quite a ways from planting 1 slicer variety and 1 cherry each year but, nothing ventured, nothing gained. :o)

A garden can be a complex of variable elements and factors to be considered from every angle and possibility.

But, Id still need to count everything on my fingers and toes.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2010 at 1:50PM
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I'll be growing 35-50 varieties again this year. And have grown tomatoes for over 40. First taste is a personal preference. And varies to differing amounts with each person. I do feel different colors tend to have similar traits often but there is always the exception.

All I will say about the doctor on another forum is remember the views and opinions expressed may not be true here in our climate and our gardens. I know many very good tomato growers and breeders who I correspond with. It is always interesting to compare results and the differences from one area to another. And even with my coworkers at work who I give advice to and also plants. My garden is deep sand. But a mile south is tight ground. The same variety in the same year can taste different between the gardens. I attribute it to the soil and nutrients in it. I know some disagree with that. That is the nice thing about our country we are each entitled to our opinions.

One factor I've found that affects some varieties more than others in cool temps especially in the fall. One variety that the taste goes downhill fast in cool temps is Kellogg's Breakfast. Jay

    Bookmark   January 30, 2010 at 2:12PM
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highalttransplant(z 5 Western CO)

Interesting about the temps, Jay. The Kellogg's Breakfast I grew for the first time last year, didn't ripen until about our first frost, so the nights were very cool by that time. I wasn't all that impressed with the flavor, but maybe I need a large yellow/orange tomato that has a shorter DTM?

    Bookmark   January 30, 2010 at 6:17PM
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I really decided on a whim to try Orange Minsk this year, Bonnie. It was my least rational decision, I just wanted to try a couple unique varieties from Jeff Casey in Calgary, had read and appreciated some things that Andrey Baranovski had said about the varieties he had brought out of Belarus, and liked the idea of an orange beefsteak - there it was.

Since I made that impetuous choice, I've learned that some (Victory Seeds) consider it an 90-day tomato -- big oops! I'm hoping that a grower in Calgary may have found that it does well with a cool start and cool nights and I'll be okay. Jeff has it as a "midseason" - that can't be 90 days!!

Maybe, I'll start it 2 weeks early and give it a head start . . .

Too much water certainly deprives plants of flavor, or dilutes flavor, anyway. I have shared plants with a gardener who runs water on her garden every-single-day. The same tomato variety in my garden has fruit about 30% smaller and 100% more flavorful.


    Bookmark   January 30, 2010 at 7:15PM
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david52 Zone 6

I think temperature - particularly nighttime temp, has the most to do with flavor development, as well as how long it takes to get them to ripen.

Soil temps seem to have more to do with plant development than fruit development. That can be overcome by growing them in really rich soil, w/o too much nitrogen. I can grow huge plants here, 8' stretched out, the stem coming out of the ground the size of my wrist, in 100 days.

Linked is the average temperatures for Cortez, mine are about 5ยบ cooler since we're higher up. Toto, this ain't Kansas.

A couple of work-arounds, which sometimes work and sometimes don't. I like to set out plants that already have flowers, so they ripen in July when it does get a bit warmer. And then when it drops down into the 40's at night, I just start picking them green / blushing and bringing them inside to ripen - there is no reason to leave them out there.

Some varieties, under my night-in-the-fridge conditions, and this is subjective, will develop better flavor ripened inside where its warmer than out side - Thesslonki (sp), black cherry, Aunt Gerties Gold, and OTV Brandywine come to mind.

Another way to tell which ones do develop better flavor inside is to dry them - the flavor distinctions are pretty remarkable.

Anyway, Sungold comes through outside, great sweet taste every year.

Note on the over-watering. I'm conflicted a bit here, because I agree that too much dilutes the flavor, OTOH, there is nothing like getting a rain and going out and finding 40 plants covered with split tomatoes. If the soil is kept really moist, that won't happen.

Rambling on here, 2 feet of snow on the ground.....

    Bookmark   January 31, 2010 at 12:40PM
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The nearest weather station to my garden looks a WHOLE LOT like Cortez for summer temperatures. The difference is winter temps and your summer precipitation numbers are just pathetic, David.

I have real problems with tomato splitting with certain varieties but not Sungold, so much. I've seen that said about them and, you know, there are plenty of folks who do NOT like such a sweet tomato. Some claim that they are "cloying" and "mushy" . . ? I think it is down right funny that famed, North Carolina Tomato Man, Craig LeHoullier considers hybrid Sungold, with his line-up of heirlooms as, "hands down best cherry to my taste, prolific, orange fruit, indescribable flavor!"

Ha! Well, I like 'em too.


little cooler & drier in my garden than here:

    Bookmark   January 31, 2010 at 1:15PM
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I'm looking forward to drying some tomatoes this year. Well, I'll "allow" DW to dry them since she's the one with a new dehydrator.

This will really be a new experience for me . . . do I have to soak the dried tomatoes in olive oil before tasting them? (Just kidding. ;o)


    Bookmark   January 31, 2010 at 1:20PM
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Dan Staley

Temperature is indeed one of those important things - tomatoes have genetic responses to temperature, setting sugars in lower temps (storing food for seeds) and shutting down in higher heat (avoiding wilt and chemical breakdown of sugars/photosynthate). The BH just taught a class in plant physiology yesterday (?) and going over her lesson plan reminded us of how wonderful plants are and why we got this degree. Almost magical how they do it.

And Jay's excellent comments above remind us that we need to pay attention to make our gardens work well. Our house is in a warm spot on the southwest side of a hill, and we have family a couple miles away near the bottom of a drainage on the NE side of a hill and their garden is much different and colder than ours.

I give my tomatoes two years in the garden and then eliminate that var. if it doesn't work out for some reason (last year and the hail is making things problematic).

I'm envious of some of you above and your dozens of varieties. I only have room for ~10 plants this year... :o(


    Bookmark   January 31, 2010 at 1:44PM
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Moisture is one thing I didn't mention. I'm in deep sandy soil. So tend to forget about it being an issue. I have a friend in PA and we share seeds and compare impressions and results. When I first mentioned KB being in my top 3 he couldn't believe it. So the next summer he would skip watering it when he watered others and it made his top ten. There are so many factors involved. So many variables we don't have control of. Like Dan said location can make a lot of difference.

Sun Gold is one most either really like or don't. Not many in between. My main complaint is here in my sand it is the only tomato out of several hundred varieties I've ever grown that I've had split trouble with. And again personal taste preferences enter in.

Dan like I said from helping coworkers with their gardens I've noticed the differences location and soil can make.

Steve I will be interested in your results with Orange Minsk. It is one I had on my list but have received so many new ones to try that it probably won't make it this year. I've had good results with many of those from the former Russia countries. I'll be growing several new ones from that area this year. One is another orange from the Ukraine. Apfelsin. It seems many of the varieties from there are very hardy. Jay

    Bookmark   January 31, 2010 at 7:06PM
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jaliranchr(z5 EC CO)

And the aridity of the region does affect the brix, I've learned over time. I've been in on many discussions of this with some of the top-notch guys. Mulio over at the tomato forum is the genetics genius and Fusion Power isn't far behind. They laugh at me because I don't care for sungold, but then, I like tarter tomatoes. They told me that is harder for me to find the tarter ones because of the aridity we have which does bring out the brix. Now, I don't pretend to have the knowledge they do, but I know my experiences and the discussions I've had with them over the years. I think you all are right that the temp differentials we have also play a big factor.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2010 at 10:31PM
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I'm happy we could get you to weigh in, Jali!

As Jay says, taste is a matter of personal preference. I don't know how it could be otherwise. And certainly, the variability of the environment and methods makes a difference as we see with what folks are saying here.

I develop prejudices and that's no good. Trying to get things sorted out is fun for me and I'd like to imagine that I gain a broader experience by doing that but being open to something new and avoiding risk at the same time is part of my nature.

First off, I want the variety to be "happy" in my garden. The right variety is key to success but there are some that are broadly adapted. Lots of built-in disease resistance has to be important for something that can grow from humid Florida to frigid Minnesota to arid Arizona and every hill and dale in between.

But then we have heirlooms . . . you know, some could define an heirloom as a variety that stays in a single location. It is in an environment for which it has become highly adapted after selection over many, many generations. I don't think that any of us could say that we have anywhere close to an ideal tomato-growing environment. And, I know that Jali is happily working on that finding just the right choices for her difficult part of the country.

Personally, I was startled and very pleased to find that several early-maturing Mediterranean heirlooms were happy in my garden! I do NOT need to go with some tomato called "Glacial Runoff" or "Siberian Barrens" or something like that. Now, I'm even looking around with greater pleasure and less suspicion at my local environment.

Those Minsk tomato seeds are my very 1st purchase of an eastern European variety. Reading some things that Andrey Baranovski had to say about seed he has made available to the West made me realize that Andrey is basically, a very honest guy. If these varieties have that hardiness that Jay talks about but might still have the flavor that I'm looking for - I need 'em!


    Bookmark   February 1, 2010 at 12:53PM
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Dan Staley

BTW, folks are starting to graft heirlooms onto VFN rootstock to such a degree that it is almost on the verge of catching on. I'm going to give 'er a whirl this spring with 2 VFN roots and see how it goes. And hope the hail stays away.


    Bookmark   February 1, 2010 at 1:14PM
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mtny(SW MT zn 3)

...ah yes hail...a tomatoes best friend...

    Bookmark   February 1, 2010 at 2:38PM
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david52 Zone 6

I was tempted to buy those root stock seeds from Johnny's, at about $1 a piece.

And then all these warning bells went off:

- snake oil
- $1 a piece for a seed? 'are they crazy?
- vague phobia of corporate control over food
- realization that hey, idiot, you live in a place where tomatoes don't do all that well anyway.

So I saved my $20 to bet on the ponies.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2010 at 9:20AM
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I'm planning on trying a few plants of Maxifort and also He Man for grafting purposes this year. Will see how they do.

I agree with Jali about the aridity of our region having an influence. I'm another that isn't as high as others on Sungold. There are other cherry types I like as good or better. The only way to know is too grow it in your garden under your conditions.

Black from Tula and Carbon both have done well for me and to me have good taste. BFT especially sets well for me in the heat. Others don't care for the taste of either. These are just a few more of the many examples I could list. The "famed" Brandywine has never done well or tasted that great here in my garden. Others say it is the best they have ever tasted. Jay

    Bookmark   February 2, 2010 at 6:17PM
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