We talked with experts across the country to choose the 20 best tomato varieties. From flavor-filled heirloom tomato varieties to the sturdier hybrid tomato, discover which varieties are among tomato experts’ best kept secrets.
Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors and shapes.
PHOTO: DAVID CAVAGNARO
This lineup of America’s 20 favorite tomatoes will fill your growing season with an array of colors and fabulous flavors.
We tapped into the minds of all kinds of experts to help narrow the field. First, we invited members of the Seed Savers Exchange who have a special passion for tomatoes to nominate their favorite varieties. We also consulted people like Carolyn Male of Salem, N.Y., who has personally grown and tasted more than 2,000 varieties, and Robbins Hail, who tends 600 tomato varieties each season at Bear Creek Farms in Osceola, Mo.
After collating variety recommendations from Maine to California, we compared our emerging list of names with those that won top ratings in tomato taste tests around the country. Then we compared them with all the field trial performance data we could find, and checked the online variety ratings hosted by Cornell University and Dave’s Garden.
Before we reveal our top 20 picks, a few words on the hybrid versus heirloom variety debate. It’s a fact that hybrids are generally more productive and disease-resistant than open-pollinated tomato varieties (most heirloom tomato varieties are open-pollinated). But open-pollinated tomatoes generally offer the richest flavors, plus you can save their seeds to plant in future seasons. Hybrid tomato breeding focuses on the needs of commercial producers who favor tomatoes that resist diseases and ship well, often allowing flavor to take a back seat.
For home gardeners who want top flavor, open-pollinated tomato varieties often are your best choice. Of hybrids, only ‘Sungold’ consistently ranks with revered heirloom tomato varieties in lists of taste-test winners.
Since many open-pollinated tomato varieties tend to take their time ripening, they grow best in climates where summers are long enough to allow them to fully mature. Low productivity or disease susceptibility also can be issues. But when they are properly grown in well prepared soil, the open-pollinated tomato varieties profiled here stand strong long enough to produce good crops of such richly flavored fruits that you will want to eat every last one. Additionally, open-pollinated tomato varieties with broad, potatolike leaves (such as ‘Brandywine’) often put up a good fight when challenged by diseases.
Everyone wants homegrown tomatoes as soon as they can get them, so a great patch starts with varieties that mature early — in 65 days or less after transplanting. Since these early varieties will be eaten fresh, we suggest growing two — one orange and one red. ‘Sungold’ (57 days) is a shoo-in for the orange slot because of its outstanding sweet, fruity flavor and its ability to bear heavy crops over a long growing season. MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editor in Chief Cheryl Long reports that she has shared ‘Sungold’ with several people who claimed not to even like fresh tomatoes, and they each exclaimed, “This variety is delicious!”
Among early reds, the favorites for both flavor and productivity are Swedish-bred ‘Glacier’ (58 days) and ‘Stupice’ (62 days), from Czechoslovakia. Both are open-pollinated tomato varieties. ‘Glacier’ is often described as determinate or semi-indeterminate, which means it loads up with fruit all at once, then declines. In comparison, indeterminate ‘Stupice’ continues to bloom and produce tomatoes long after the first fruits have ripened.
A couple of early tomatoes are enough for most gardeners, but in short summer climates you should round out your planting list with some early hybrids. In a 2004 field trial at Colorado State University, a cool spring followed by a hailstorm in early August led to so many problems with heirloom tomato varieties that early hybrids such as ‘New Girl’ (62 days), a smaller-fruited, more flavorful rendition of ‘Early Girl,’ made the difference between having tomatoes and having none. Data collected by master gardeners in Green Bay, Wis., tell a similar story: Except for ‘Stupice,’ all of the successful tomatoes in their trial garden were fast-maturing hybrids like ‘Crimson Fancy’ (75 days), and ‘Beefy Boy’ (70 days), a naturally stocky producer of sandwich-worthy red beefsteaks.
The color parade continues as we venture into tomato varieties used to make sauces, or for drying into tidbits to jazz up pizzas or pasta all year long. Paste varieties have thick flesh with few seeds and little gel, so they cook into sauce quickly. You also can chop them into a chunky salsa. ‘Orange Banana’ (85 days) ranks highest for flavor among orange and gold paste tomatoes at Fedco Seeds in Maine, where dozens of paste tomato varieties are evaluated after they’re stewed with a little garlic and olive oil.
If you want really red tomato sauce, or need resistance to verticillium or fusarium wilts (two common soil-borne fungal diseases), try sturdy, dependable ‘Roma’ (75 days), which Cricket Rakita of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange says is the most reliable paste tomato he’s ever grown. Personally, I like the way ‘Roma’ bears its crop over a three to four week period, making it easier to can big batches of sauce and salsa that smell and taste like summer.
If you’re on a flavor quest, look at Polish heirlooms with pepper-shaped fruits such as ‘Opalka’ (85 days). This variety was discovered by Male and is quickly becoming a favorite among gardeners who have canning and drying on their minds.
Rounding out our fab four is ‘Amish Paste’ (79 to 85 days), an heirloom tomato from Wisconsin described by Nashville, Tenn., gardener Tracy Carter as “a great paste tomato that’s heat tolerant and good for fresh cooking.” Although it is sometimes labeled as an indeterminate, ‘Amish Paste’ produces a huge concentrated set of orange-red fruits, followed by a few more fruit clusters in good seasons.
When it comes to the main crop of summer tomatoes, people like Brookeville, Md., gardener Susan Belsinger are devoted to ‘Brandywine’ (78 days). “It produces all summer, though not in huge quantities. I like the size, flavor and texture of this Amish heirloom,” Belsinger says. Others praise ‘Brandywine’s’ rich balance of acidic and sweet notes, which pleases so many palates that it’s always the one to beat in taste tests. But ‘Brandywine’ can be challenging to grow; common problems include diseases, uneven ripening, fruit cracking and aborted blossoms due to humid heat.
More dependable varieties that deliver huge, juicy fruits include ‘Big Rainbow’ (90 days), an orange tomato with red streaks and blotches inside that give each slice a stained glass look. In Berea, Ky., Bill Best reports that ‘Big Rainbow’ shows good disease resistance, and master gardener David Woods, of Peters Seed and Research in Riddle, Ore., says that the 16- to 20-ounce fruits are worth the wait.
Both Male and Hail nominated another gold/red bicolor variety for our list. Hail says that ‘Lucky Cross’ (90 days) “literally melts in your mouth,” and Male thinks it’s the best bicolor tomato she has ever grown. With ‘Brandywine’ as one of its parents, ‘Lucky Cross’ is mostly orange with a glowing red heart.
So-called black tomatoes are really purplish, and their complex, smoky flavor often is associated with these dark fruit pigments. Although it’s a modest producer under the best conditions, ‘Cherokee Purple’ (80 days) is quickly forgiven by thousands of gardeners who are addicted to its fruity, yet rich, tomato flavor. Released through the Seed Savers Exchange in 1991, ‘Cherokee Purple’ often appears in the top three taste test varieties, neck and neck with ‘Sungold’ and ‘Brandywine.’
A deep purple color, inside or out, is a common hallmark of Russian heirloom varieties like ‘Black Krim’ (69 to 90 days). Wade Collins, farm field leader at the Seeds of Change Research Farm in San Juan Pueblo, N.M., names ‘Black Krim’ as his favorite “for pure gastronomic pleasure,” noting hints of wine and saltiness in its flavor. In Oregon, Woods thinks ‘Black Krim’ carries a taste of honey. Compared to ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Black Krim’ is more productive and less prone to cracking. However, both of these gourmet picks should be harvested just as they become ripe, and then eaten within a few days before they turn soft.
Green tomatoes lack the rich supply of lutein and other antioxidants found in red and orange tomatoes, but they earn a place on our list with their kiwi colors and tart, citrus flavors. “Forced to pick one tomato, it would be ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green,’” (80 days) says Clarksville, Tenn., gardener Jim Fitch. Describing the flavor as “authentic tomato,” Fitch says this green variety with faint yellow streaks is “moist without being watery, and meaty without being mealy or pulpy.” Woods names it as his favorite for “rich, zingy, tangy flavor,” but because of its tendency to melt down in steamy weather, we recommend growing ‘German Green’ as a culinary treat, rather than as a main crop variety.
You can sample the spicy, piquant bite of green tomatoes with fewer production risks by planting ‘Green Zebra’ (75 to 80 days). Like most varieties that produce small, 3-ounce fruits, ‘Green Zebra’ prospers under a wide range of growing conditions. If you want the emerald green color and spicy flavor of green tomatoes, ‘Green Zebra’ is the “better-safe-than-sorry” choice.
Once you’re covered for early tomatoes, cooking varieties and tasty lovelies for fresh eating, perhaps you still have room for another delicious tomato. In Newtonville, Ontario, Mary Brittain, owner of The Cottage Gardener, suggests ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast’ (80 days), a melon-orange beefsteak tomato named by Darrell Kellogg of Michigan. “The 1-pound fruits are both meaty and juicy, with a taste that packs a wallop,” she says.
A comparable heirloom from Virginia, ‘Aunt Gertie’s Gold’ (75 days), is one of Male’s favorites because of its unique flavor, unmatched by “any other variety, of any color or shape,” she says. Others feel the creamy texture of ‘Aunt Gertie’s Gold,’ combined with her bold fruity notes of melon or mango, make her a true garden treasure.
Male also loves ‘German Red Strawberry’ (80 days), a bright red tomato shaped like a giant strawberry. It’s also a better producer than most heart-shaped varieties. Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Mo., notes its unforgettable flavor. “In red tomatoes, ‘German Red Strawberry’ is one of the best I have tasted,” Gettle says, calling its flavor “sweet and rich.”
Just to be on the safe side, consider allotting a planting hole or two to proven, disease-resistant hybrids that grow well in your area. Orange/yellow hybrids that deliver both disease resistance and great flavor are listed in “15 Tasty Hybrid Varieties,” below.
Starting with delicious, reliable varieties will create a solid foundation for your tomato patch, but your plants will produce even better if you give them the care they prefer. Here’s how:
1. See to the soil. Organically grown tomatoes taste better and are higher in nutrition when they grow in soil that’s enriched with compost or other types of organic matter. In the article Grow Great-tasting Tomatoes (April/May 2005), we explained how hairy vetch can be used as a combination cover crop and mulch for happy, healthy tomatoes. Unless you planted some vetch in early fall, simply mix about two gallons of compost into each planting hole. In a tomato trial at Iowa State University, compost increased overall yields by 40 percent, while early yields shot up by more than 200 percent.
If you don’t have enough compost on hand, mix about a half-inch layer of fresh green grass clippings along with your compost. Grass clippings contain abundant nutrients, and research from University of California at Riverside suggests that grass clippings release their nitrogen into the soil much faster than compost.
2. Start your seeds. Don’t be in too big of a hurry, because your plants will grow better if you set them out after the soil has warmed. You can set out a few varieties early as long as you protect them from cold and wind with cloches, tunnels or cages wrapped with plastic or a double thickness of row cover. (See Enjoy Fresh Tomatoes All Year, February/March 2007, for proven season-stretching techniques. Seed-starting Basics, December/January 2006, covers growing tomatoes from seed.)
3. Be supportive. Your tomatoes will produce more fruits if you tie them to a sturdy trellis or stakes, or enclose them in wire cages — plus they’ll be less susceptible to insects or mold. As soon as you have some type of support in place, pile on the mulch to suppress weeds, maintain soil moisture and support the plants’ roots — you can use grass clippings, straw or chopped leaves. In a Hungarian study, grass clippings were as effective as black plastic in enhancing tomato yields, and at North Dakota State University, tomatoes mulched with grass clippings produced about 30 percent more fruits than those grown using plastic mulch.
Most major seed companies offer seeds for many of the varieties named here — they are favorites after all — or you can find them through companies that specialize in tomatoes. For example, Tomato Growers Supply Co., offers about 15 of the 20 varieties we’ve recommended.
Your best buy is probably the “Rainbow’s End Heirloom Mix” from Renee’s Garden, which includes 20 seeds each of ‘Brandywine,’ ‘Green Zebra’ and ‘Marvel Stripe’ that have been dyed with food coloring so you can tell which is which — a deal at $2.69. For the same price, you can expand into the “Summer Feast” collection that includes color-coded seeds of ‘Black Krim,’ ‘Sweet Persimmon’ and ‘Italian Costoluto’ — a lumpy, pleated Italian tomato that’s great in salads.
The “Essential Tomato Garden” collection from Kitchen Garden Seeds ($14.85) includes three disease-resistant hybrids that mature early (‘Sungold,’ ‘Milano’ and ‘Jelly Bean’). The main season selection is a pretty French hybrid, ‘Carmello,’ with an improved strain of ‘San Marzano’ for cooking. Late-season thrills are provided by ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Persimmon’ — a big, orange heirloom with bold yet fruity flavor. The “Heirloom Tomato Garden” collection ($13.65) also is a great lineup that includes ‘Black Russian,’ ‘Green Zebra,’ ‘Costoluto Genovese,’ plus ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Persimmon.’
Tomatoes are more frequently weakened by diseases than by insects, but several diseases are easily prevented by growing resistant varieties. The disease-resistant hybrids named below are famous for good flavor and represent a range of forms and colors. The letters indicate disease resistance:
V — Verticillium wilt is caused by a soil-borne fungus that causes plants to wilt and die while they are still green, usually when they begin loading up with fruit.
F — Fusarium wilt fungi enter through roots and cause plants to turn yellow as they slowly wilt to death, often while holding green fruit. Two Fs indicate resistance to two different strains of fusarium.
N — Nematodes are a concern mostly in warm, sandy soils. These microscopic pests cannot attack the roots of resistant varieties.
T — Tobacco mosaic virus is seldom a serious disease in gardens, though sometimes it occurs in serious regional outbreaks.
Contributing Editor Barbara Pleasant is one of America’s most trusted garden writers.
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