It may seem early, but now is the time to pick the tomato varieties you want to grow in your garden this summer, according to an expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.
You may have noticed that your seed catalogs showed up earlier than ever this winter, noted Steve Bogash, Penn State Extension horticulture educator based in Franklin County. "With the rapid growth in vegetable gardening, demand promises to be higher than ever," he said. "If there are specific varieties of vegetables that you truly want for the coming season, you may want to get your orders in early."
And Bogash knows -- perhaps better than anyone -- that there is a huge range of tomato cultivars from which to choose.
"Here at the Penn State Extension office in Chambersburg, Pa., we've been running variety trials focusing on tomatoes since 2000," he said. "We've evaluated more than 300 varieties across the complete spectrum of tomato types in that time. Every year we examine 30 to 70 varieties, looking at taste, production, disease resistance, ease of training and appearance.
"Some varieties have floated to the top of our list as great for your garden."
Following are some varieties Bogash recommends that you consider for the coming season, along with his comments about them:
-- Sakura Honey. "When you examine and taste many tomatoes, it's rare for one kind to make a major impression, but this variety really stood out from the pack in 2011 with amazing flavor and beautiful, pink, grape-shaped fruit. This was easily the standout in flavor in last season's program."
-- Red Pearl. "Excellent flavor, tender skin, high production and moderate disease resistance made Red Pearl another top pick from our 2011 trial program. This variety has good red color and is highly resistant to cracking."
-- Five Star. "2011 was the year of the grape tomato in our trials program. Five Star was another great producer with good-looking, well-flavored fruit. This one has very few seeds and is highly resistant to cracking."
-- Maglia Rosa. "This is a very unusual variety, as the fruit are an elongate, cherry type that are mottled pink. Our tasters describe the flavor as ketchup-like. In both 2010 and 2011, the plants produced for only about five weeks, but they did make a lot of fruit that was well worth the garden space."
-- Sun Gold. "No tomato article is complete without a mention of Sun Gold. This yellow-orange tomato is the candy of the tomato world. Production is high, the plants are moderately resistant to disease, and the fruit taste is awesome, but the fruit crack like mad. Every gardener should have one or two of these plants, so there is something to eat while gardening."
-- BrandyBoy. "The Brandywine tomato long has been heralded as the best-tasting tomato in numerous trial programs, but each plant produces only a few fruit, which are very inconsistent in size and shape, and the plant's highly susceptible to diseases."
"BrandyBoy tomatoes were introduced several years ago, and they immediately took top honors among red, slicing types in our program. When gardeners ask what single tomato to grow, this is the one. BrandyBoy is highly productive with large, pink, great-tasting fruit that taste nearly identical to Brandywine."
-- BHN 589. "BHN are the letters used by a tomato breeder in Florida who primarily provides seeds to a commercial-grower cooperative. Don't let the letters and numbers discourage you from growing what are usually excellent varieties of hybrid tomatoes. BHN 589 has become a standard for many regional tomato growers as the plants produce copious amounts of great-tasting, good-looking, medium-sized, red tomatoes."
-- Scarlet Red. "Like BHN 589, Scarlet Red is primarily a commercial tomato, but it makes the crossover into the home garden extremely well. This is easily the deepest red tomato that we've trialed, and it has that perfect sugar/acid balance that often is referred to as 'real tomato flavor. Production hint: only remove about three suckers, or you really will reduce production."
-- Big Beef. "This variety has been around for a long time, and it still belongs on a top-tomatoes list. These are big, great-tasting fruit that run on the soft side. The plants are very robust."
-- Celebrity. "For years, Celebrity was the standard red that we compared others against in our trials program. While it has been surpassed by some of these other varieties, it is still a great producer of medium-sized, good-flavored, round, red tomatoes."
-- Pineapple. "While there really aren't any great yellow/orange/red tomatoes, Pineapple is the one that provides the most consistent production and good flavor. It's soft and cracks readily but is the best of this type that we've trialed. Pineapple makes an excellent addition to homemade tomato juice."
-- Mortgage Lifter (Radiator Charlie). "Excellent flavor and high production make Mortgage Lifter the No. 1 large, pink heirloom. I recommend it to growers. High production and moderate disease resistance separate this variety from most heirlooms."
-- Arkansas Traveler. "This variety makes relatively small fruit at 5 to 8 ounces, but the production is good and the flavor excellent."
-- Marianna's Peace. "This variety originally came into our program as one of those sample packets included with your order. The fruit are very large -- often more than a pound -- pink and very flavorful. The plants are enormous and require very tall supports. Even after every other heirloom has started to fade in the fall, Marianna's Peace will keep on producing."
-- Stupice. "A lot of tomatoes claim to be early, but most don't taste like much. Stupice is the one early tomato that tastes like a real, mid-season tomato. The fruit are small at only 3 to 6 ounces, but they will beat most other tomatoes onto your plate by two to three weeks."
Patio or Container
-- Bush Early Girl. "Without a doubt, Bush Early Girl is the 'top of the heap' among slicing tomatoes that you can grow in a container. A single plant will produce a huge number of great-tasting fruit. Be sure your container is at least 14 inches across (bigger is better) and feed them well to get the most from these robust plants."
-- BushSteak. "Second only to Bush Early Girl is BushSteak. These plants produce heavy crops of large, meaty fruit about a week after you start to pick Bush Early Girl. Again, use large containers and feed them well."
-- Sweet 'N Neat (Red, Scarlet, and Yellow). "We've looked at a lot of container-type cherry tomatoes, and while most varieties are at least OK, the entire Sweet 'N Neat series produces copious amounts of delicious fruit on very compact plants. You can grow them as hanging baskets or in ground pots. Plant single plants in 8-inch pots or three plants in 14-inch pots."
Bogash said that consumers should be able to find some of these seeds from their favorite garden center, but some varieties will be more difficult to locate.
"We have examined so many tomatoes over the years, and these are only a few of the standouts from our program," he said. "There are many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tomato varieties. Our goal for this program has been to introduce new varieties to growers."
More information, including a list of seed companies that supply seeds to the Penn State Extension variety trials program, is available in "Tomato Report 2011: The Best of the Penn State Tomato Trials," available on the Web at http://extension.psu.edu/vegetable-fruit/fact-sheets/tomato-report-2011 .