It’s that time of year again. If you haven’t already started your tomato seeds or planted seedlings in the garden, you need to decide what variety of tomato (or more likely, varieties of tomatoes) will suit your farm and family’s needs this season. From heirlooms to hybrids and cherries to beefsteaks in a rainbow of colors, the range of tomato options is broad and deciding what to grow can be downright overwhelming.
Each year, researchers at the Penn State Extension office in Chambersburg, Pa., work with Master Gardeners to make the decision a little easier. In the yearly Penn State Tomato Trials, researchers grow and review 30 to 70 varieties of tomatoes to assist commercial growers and gardeners in Franklin County, Pa., in selecting the best varieties for their needs.
The tomato variety trials began in 2000 to introduce new tomato varieties to gardeners, but once the Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association began funding the program in 2005, the trials began to support the commercial tomato industry, as well.
“For commercial growers, we look at yield. flavor, appearance, disease resistance in a ‘normal’ preventative program and marketability,” says Steve Bogash, regional horticulture educator at Penn State, who co-leads the trials. “For gardeners, we are primarily looking at flavor and appearance.”
The tomatoes are grown in both high tunnels and field plots using a combination of organic and conventional growing methods. Typically 170 to 210 community members, Master Gardeners and commercial producers are involved in the taste-testing process. Since the inception of the program, more than 300 tomato varieties have been tested, and some have stood out as clear winners.
“We are truly excited over Sakura Honey and our five-year favorite, Brandy Boy,” Bogash says. “Brandy Boy was the best slicer [in 2011] with good yield and excellent flavor. Sakura Honey was the best cherry/grape [in 2011] with amazing flavor and excellent yield.”
In the heirloom category, he points to Mortgage Lifter and Arkansas Traveler as good options for yield, disease resistance and flavor.
“There are always new tomatoes to be tested,” Bogash says. “My high-tunnel trial this year has 20 varieties, of which 12-plus are new. I cannot predict what the results will be, but tomato people always seem to be excited about [them].”
Here are some of the top-ranking tomatoes from the 2011 trials that you might consider including in your crop lineup this year. For a complete list, read Penn State’s Tomato Report 2011. (The tomatoes for the 2012 trial will be ripe for the tasting in mid-July.)
Cherry/Grape Tomato: Sakura Honey
According to the researchers, this indeterminate, red grape tomato stood out from the pack in 2011 with amazing flavor and beautiful pink, grape-shaped fruit.
Slicer Tomato: Brandy Boy
The indeterminate Brandy Boy tomato was introduced by Burpee several years ago as an alternative to the tasty but unreliable Brandywine tomato. It’s a highly productive tomato with large, pink, great-tasting fruit, nearly identical to Brandywine.
Heirloom Tomato: Pineapple
Pineapple is the only yellow-orange-red tomato tested that provided consistent production and good flavor. This indeterminate variety is soft and cracks readily, but makes an excellent addition to homemade tomato juice.
Container-grown Tomato: Bush Early Girl
A single Bush Early Girl plant will yield a high number of great-tasting fruit. Containers should have a diameter of at least 14 inches.