We started seriously growing heirloom beefsteak tomatoes over 15 years ago. From the first year, I was captivated by the incredible flavor that one finds in the best beefsteak tomatoes. That first year, we grew 40 different varieties with wildly different results. In fact, the difference in quality between the best and the worst beefsteak tomatoes, in our community garden plot, was striking.
Early on, it didn’t really matter to me that over two-thirds of the beefsteaks I grew were quite mediocre, flavor-wise, because the flavor of the best varieties made everything worthwhile. Northern Lights, Red Brandywine and a few others were very good. But, by far, the best-tasting beefsteak tomatoes in our garden the first years were 'Cherokee Purple' and 'Black Krim' – two varieties that taste similar in many ways. In fact, the major difference, in our experience, between the two varieties, was that the 'Cherokee Purple' plants produced more than 'Black Krim'. Which is why, early on, 'Cherokee Purple' became our standard “black” tomato.
The smoky, complex sweetness, and velvety flesh of 'Cherokee Purple' was truly eye-opening, and it fueled our general love for “black” tomatoes. Since then, we have tried and enjoyed many more. Over the years, however, other characteristics have continually elevated 'Cherokee Purple' above the other beefsteak tomatoes grown on our farm.
'Cherokee Purple' shows good disease resistance under moderate disease pressure; and it produces early for a beefsteak variety. So when most plants in the field are going down with disease, 'Cherokee Purple' plants often manage to produce more quality tomatoes, and better quality tomatoes, compared to other beefsteaks. It is certainly makes sense that countless lists of top tomatoes include 'Cherokee Purple'.
Another important factor that makes 'Cherokee Purple' great, is that many have found it to be less affected by adverse growing conditions, when compared with other beefsteak varieties. When beefsteak tomatoes are over-watered, through over-irrigation or through unavoidable heavy summer rain, the resulting tomatoes taste watery and their texture becomes mealy. In our experience, 'Cherokee Purple' tomatoes are less affected by overwatering, and also less affected by other adverse conditions, including cold nights at the end of the season. In our experience they consistently produce high-flavor tomatoes with excellent texture under a variety of conditions that reduce fruit quality in other varieties.
These days we grow a relatively low percentage of beefsteak tomatoes at our farm. This is because we have found that it is easier to consistently produce smaller tomatoes with excellent flavor. We have also found that the losses associated with bruising and uneven growth are much reduced with smaller tomatoes. However, we always make room for 'Cherokee Purple,' and a handful of other exceptional beefsteaks – including one that we developed, called 'Orange Jazz.'
Although we are most well-known for our Artisan Cherry tomatoes, we have also been breeding beefsteak tomatoes – like 'Orange Jazz' — on our small farm. Up until this year, we have not formally released any beefsteak varieties, although we have been continuously tweaking and adjusting many almost-completed varieties for the past five years.
During this time, 'Orange Jazz' has emerged as the best new beefsteak variety in our collection. It is an open-pollinated (true-breeding) variety that was bred by first making crosses between heirloom parents; and then by careful selection, over time, for plants with exceptional combinations of characteristics.
It takes approximately seven generations of selections to go from a hybrid cross to a new true-breeding line, and for us, these selections have occurred on our farm and in winter populations grown in greenhouses and in the winter fields of a collaborating small farm in Mexico.
Like 'Cherokee Purple', 'Orange Jazz' has an excellent flavor profile that is also somewhat unique. The flavor of 'Orange Jazz' is remarkably complex for an orange tomato, with hints of stone-fruit that are quite different from anything else we have tasted.
'Orange Jazz' fruits also have relatively few seeds and an interior texture that is consistently smooth, with no white “core” in the center. The slightly flattened shape of 5-inch diameter fruits is also consistent, and the shoulders of the fruit are small, which results in more tomato slices per fruit, compared to many other beefsteak tomatoes.
I am not the best organic farmer. In fact, I am probably below average by many measures, including disease management. In the past 10 years, there has been a good dose of early blight, verticillium wilt, powdery mildew and other tomato diseases in our fields. While we have lengthened crop rotation intervals, and changed some of our growing techniques to improve our production, these diseases are endemic to our fields and represent a constant challenge to the tomato plants growing in our fields. While the presence of disease is a challenge for us as tomato growers, it is also an opportunity to select for disease resistance in our breeding projects.
When selecting breeding lines to move forward, general plant vigor is one of the most important traits we select for, after flavor. The vigorous plants we select from a diverse breeding population are vigorous because they are better able grow rapidly and/or because they are better at resisting the diseases and pests that can slow growth and weaken plants. Thus, over time, continued selection for plant vigor results in the selection of varieties that are often generally good at resisting diseases too.
'Orange Jazz' has benefited from our selection for plant vigor and the variety consistently produces well, compared to most other beefsteaks we have grown, including many with bona fide disease-resistance traits.
Once we have pretty much finished a variety and it “breeds true,” the next step is to have it tested by gardeners and growers throughout the country. We have a broad group of collaborators who grow our “finished” varieties using their methods in their environments. Their overall feedback on 'Orange Jazz' to date is that it grows vigorously and produces well in a wide variety of conditions. That said, it is still susceptible to common leaf diseases like early blight and leaf spot, and good growing practices that reduce the spread of fungal and bacterial diseases are definitely recommended.
'Orange Jazz' is now available through our online store, and we expect that a number of other seed companies will start selling 'Orange Jazz' seed over the next year.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.