Day 27: My Favorite Heirloom Tomatoes


There are so many choices with heirloom tomatoes. (Jennifer Simonson photo)

In yesterday’s post about heirloom tomatoes, I recounted some of the questions I frequently field from people who are curious about my obsession. Here’s another one: “So what’s your all-time favorite tomato?”

Impossible to answer. I like different varieties for different reasons, and since I grow new ones each year, that determination is always changing. Instead, I tell them about the ones I especially liked in my garden from the previous year.

Tomatoes with Thick Skins

When I’m choosing which tomatoes to grow, one consideration I have is whether they’re prone to splitting. Tomatoes split when a heavy rainfall causes the inside of the fruit to grow and expand at a faster rate than the skin can contain it. It’s particularly a problem with thinner-skinned heirloom types. Trying to maintain even watering helps, but when there’s a deluge it’s inevitable that some tomatoes will split. That’s okay if you’re able to use them right away, but when you give away as many tomatoes I do split ones just won’t do. That’s why I especially prize varieties that are more split resistant. Unless otherwise noted, the ones I mention here share that trait.

So Many Choices

I generally think of tomatoes in terms of size and color. Among the larger varieties, I really like the yellow and orange ones. They tend to be firmer with fewer seeds than the other colors, and they’re great for slicing. One of my all-time favorites in this category has always been Pineapple; I’ve grown it for years and it never disappoints. However last year I discovered a new favorite: Oaxacan Jewel. It’s a big tomato, 1-2 pounds, yet the plant was remarkably prolific for such a large one. It has a tangy sweet flavor—delicious. I also liked Amana Orange, Persimmon, and Orlov Yellow Giant. And you can’t go wrong with Kellogg’s Breakast; a big yellow and a stalwart in my garden for several years. Finally, William’s Striped, a beautiful orange and yellow striped tomato, also was a standout.

assorted heirlooms tomatoesSome people think the black/purple varieties are the most flavorful, and I tend to agree. Many of them were bred in Siberia or neighboring countries, so they tend to do well in our short Minnesota growing season. I like Black Krim and Cherokee Purple a lot, because not only do they have outstanding taste, the plants also produce quite a bit of fruit. Another good one is Black Prince; the fruit is smaller, about 2 inches, which makes it perfect for when you don’t need a giant tomato.

Great White isn’t actually white—it’s more a very pale yellow, but it’s among the sweetest, best-tasting tomatoes I’ve grown. It doesn’t produce a lot of fruit, but the ones you do get are memorable.

Green heirloom tomatoes are known for their sweetness, but unfortunately I’ve found them to be very prone to splitting. Aunt Ruby’s German Green is a little better in that regard. I think it’s the best green, and I know a lot of people would agree.

Among the pinks and reds, I really liked Mexico from last year. It put out a lot of very large fruit that didn’t easily split and had great flavor. Pink Brandywine and Mortgage Lifter are two of the better known and popular heirloom varieties, and there’s a reason for it: they’re superb varieties, and I recommend them to people that haven’t tried growing heirlooms before. I also like Caspian Pink, Bread and Salt, and Crnkovic Yugoslavian.

Medium size tomatoes are ideal for salads or cooking where you don’t need to use a 1-plus pounder. They’re also usually fairly productive for heirlooms. I have had good luck with Carmello, Sioux, Cosmonaut Volkov, Limmony, Kewalo and Aussie. Azoychka—a Russian variety—was a new one for me last year that made my list. As far as paste tomatoes go I’ve always liked San Marzano, but this year I plan to try San Marzano Redorta, which is much larger and is said to have better flavor.

I always grow a lot of different cherry-style tomatoes. They’re perfect to pick and eat while you’re tending the rest of your garden. A wonderful cherry I grew last year is Camp Joy. Not only is it a very productive tomato, it just won’t split when it rains. This is a really outstanding variety—I gave these away all summer and everyone loved them. Black Cherry is also a popular favorite. While it does tend to split, it’s so good that it’s worth growing anyway. Black Cherry tastes different as it ripens—I like to harvest them at various stages to enjoy either a tangier or sweeter taste.

I was pleased to discover Brown Berry last season; similar in taste and color to Black Cherry, though a little smaller, it also doesn’t split. Other smaller types that I like are Lollipop, Topaz, Austin’s Red Pear, and Blondkopchen. I also recommend Green Zebra; an absolutely gorgeous 2-inch tomato with a bright, lemon/lime taste. Although it’s a splitter, Green Grape is worth growing for it’s incredible sweetness. And Violet Jasper is among the most beautiful tomatoes I’ve grown, and it’s also flavorful and split-resistant.

My excitement in talking about heirloom tomatoes is tempered by the knowledge that it’ll be six months before I can savor one from my garden. But thinking about them, along with other heirloom vegetables, (don’t get me started on peppers!) is what gets me through these bleak months.

Which heirloom tomatoes do you  like to grow?

—Tom McKusick

Follow Notes from Northern Gardener throughout January as we offer our series on 31 Days to a Great Northern Vegetable Garden. Tomorrow: Extending the Season, part 1.


1 Comment

  1. […] maybe one or two big, long season varieties. Looking for some great tomatoes to try? Here’s a list from several years ago of heirlooms that do well in our climate […]

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