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See Part 1 of this topic here.

In the previous post, I went over how to cross reference seed catalogs with some great outside sources both paper and online. Now let’s pretend we’re on a hunt for a juicy slicing tomato that’ll be great in sandwiches for the summer. We’re going to stick to traditional types here and just look at pink or red tomatoes that look a lot like those at the grocery store, so globe shaped. Also, we’ll be growing in the ground so we can look at indeterminate varieties. And we don’t have any disease problems, so we don’t need to restrict the search to disease-resistant types.

We’ll start with Tomato Grower’s Supply catalog. Here are a couple that jump out at me and why:

Fireworks #6002 (30 seeds) $2.65
What makes this variety really special is that it is one of the largest, earliest red slicing tomatoes available, and it has excellent flavor. This combination of size, earliness, and good taste is truly uncommon, but Fireworks is an exceptional variety. Its bright red fruit are 6 to 8 ozs., round with a pointed tip, and borne quite heavily on vigorous plants. Indeterminate. 60 days.

Positive traits: indeterminate, early, still a decent size for slicing, and good taste.
The Skeptic in me says: early tomatoes, even if indeterminate usually have bland flavor. And the size listed is almost always the maximum size, not the average size, so I would guess you’d get tomatoes closer to 4 oz.
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s Tomato Base says: 4-8 oz and only “good” flavor, which isn’t great.
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 2 positive reviews, 2 negative and 1 neutral. In this case, even the positive reviews say the flavor is average.
Bottom Line Decision: keep on the list, but move from the “Grow” list to the “Maybe” list.

Costoluto Fiorentino #4974 (30 seeds) $2.75
This Italian heirloom variety from the Tuscany region produces loads of bright red tomatoes with terrific flavor. Tomatoes are typically about 8 ounces, but may be larger, with a smooth shape rather than the heavily ribbed shape typical of Costoluto Genovese. The flavor is high in sugar, but also high in acid, making for outstanding taste that’s wonderful fresh or made into sauces. Indeterminate. 80 days.

Positive traits: indeterminate, heirloom, 8 oz sounds like an average size, good flavor
The Skeptic in me says: is it consistently good or does it depend on growing conditions?
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s tomato base says: high yield and “excellent” flavor
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 1 negative and 1 neutral. Complaints that the tomatoes were undersized, mushy and bland.
Bottom Line Decision: keep on the list, but bear in mind flavor and output may be dependent on growing conditions more than variety genetics.

Let’s move on to the Baker Creek Catalog:

Arkansas Traveler Tomato
A medium-size pink tomato that is smooth and a beautiful rose color. An excellent heirloom from Arkansas, tolerant to heat and humidity; crack and disease resistant. Good flavor; an excellent Hillbilly favorite.

Positive traits: indeterminate, heirloom, tolerant of different growing conditions
The Skeptic in me says: how big is medium, and what is the days to maturity?
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s tomato base says: 80 days and “very good” flavor
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 12 positives and 2 neutrals, wow! Consensus says size is variable but overall a heavy producer of pretty good tasting tomatoes.
Bottom Line Decision: Baker Creek’s own reviewers were glowing about it being disease-tolerant. I’d keep this one on the “Grow” list for sure.

Depp’s Pink Firefly
An historical Kentucky heirloom that dates to 1890 in Glasgow, KY. One-pound fruit are deep pink, creamy and full-flavored: sweet and tangy. Named for the fruit’s iridescence that can sparkle in the light, reminiscent of fireflies on a summer night, and the Depp family who preserved the seed. Vigorous potato leaf vines produce well. Quite rare. $2.50

Positive traits: indeterminate, heirloom, full-flavored
The Skeptic in me says: Baker Creek is notorious for omitting the days to maturity in their descriptions, also this is a potato leaved plant famous for making great tasting tomatoes, but more susceptible to disease in my garden. I think it’s also a beefsteak more than a globe tomato.
Cross references:
* Tatiana’s tomato base says: 80-85 days, with excellent flavor, 12 to 16 oz each beefsteak shaped fruits.
* Dave’s Plant Files says: 1 positve, 1 neutral reviews, both complaining of slow ripening (late variety).
Bottom Line Decision: This is on my personal “Grow” list for the future, despite it being a later potato leaved variety. For the example here though, for wanting a summer slicing tomato I’d cross it off altogether as maturing too late in the season. How many people want to eat BLT sandwiches in September or later?

The Bottom Line:
Looks like we’ll be growing Arkansas Traveler for sure, and possibly getting Fireworks. If we really want an early variety, our best bet would be to get a determinate but with the knowledge that the flavor isn’t always up to par with other, later types. If I only wanted to order from one company to save on shipping, sorting through Baker Creek is a harder job as the tomatoes are sorted solely by color, forcing the gardener to read through each description to find the medium-sized globes and determinate varieties.

But that’s what all of winter is for, right? Studying up on the catalogs like you’re preparing for your final exam in tomatoes. And if you pick the “wrong” types this year, there’s plenty more to choose from for next year! And don’t forget that swapping varieties with other gardeners through online forums can really save on cash and shipping, plus you get the first-hand account of how the varieties grew in their gardens.

Have fun!

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When I was first starting out selecting tomato varieties, I was overwhelmed by the catalogs glowing descriptions. How could every tomato be this good? How is someone supposed to choose honestly amidst all the positive descriptions and pick something that is the best for them? How do you narrow it down when the seed company’s job is to sell you seed packets?

After a few years pouring over glossy seed catalogs, I think I’ve discovered a non-biased way of reading between the adjectives and picking the very best tomato varieties for me.

Important information:

  • determinate or indeterminate (or growth habit)
  • hybrid or heirloom
  • best use (paste or cooking, salad, or slicing)
  • color
  • taste (subjective but key words to look for are: balanced, sweet or tart, fruity, old fashioned–see this post)

Cross references:
These are my secret weapons in the search for non-biased information about varieties. I try to check as many as I can, usually sticking with online resources as they are only a few clicks away and can be looked up quickly. The books are more limited in their selection, but can be quite detailed. Some seed catalogs have online reviews by customers, but those are really hit or miss.
Amy Goldman’s The Heirloom Tomato
Carolyn Male’s 100 Heirloom Tomatoes
Tatiana’s Tomato Base
Dave’s Garden Plant Files: Tomatoes
Baker Creek Customer Reviews (very limited)

First Steps before diving into the Seed Catalogs:

  1. What is your intended use for the tomato? If you mainly just want to make marinara sauce to last through a delicious Italian-themed winter, you shouldn’t waste your time reading about beefsteak varieties. Stick to the Paste section. If you think you want to have a couple BLT sandwiches over summer as well, then you should plant more than one variety, a paste (or a couple of paste types) and either a beefsteak or a globe tomato.
  2. How will you grow the tomato? If you are planting in the ground, space isn’t as much of an issue and you can try and get the biggest tomato plants you want. But if you are limited to containers, you’ll want to stick to determinate varieties or short indeterminates.
  3. How long is your growing season? If you live in zone 7 and have a long season, you can afford to look at varieties with maturity dates of 90 days. But if you are like me and live in zone 5, you’ll want to stick to tomatoes that mature in 80 days or less. This will assure you’ll actually get some tomatoes (and possibly a second flush of tomatoes) before frost.
  4. Are you open to non-traditional types like fun colors or potato-leaved foliage?Then have fun exploring the tomato descriptions for white, yellow, orange, and green fleshed varieties as well as striped, spotted, and ones with variegated leaves.  Otherwise, you could just stick with red or pink globes.To be Continued in Part 2!

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