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Tastiest tomatoes revealed

January 24, 2009|By ROBERT KESSLER

As gardeners we are called to grow the best tomato, according to Steve Bogash, regional horticulture educator for the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension. By best, he means fruit that tastes great, has a wonderful texture and grows on plants that produce enough harvestable fruit to make all the effort worthwhile.

Since 2001, Penn State Cooperative Extension, Franklin County, has hosted a tomato trial program to better meet the needs of the tomato-growing and -eating public. Every year we grow, taste and evaluate 24 or more tomato varieties.

The 2008 program included 56 varieties - heirlooms, heritage tomatoes, slicers, cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes. The high point of this year's program were the grape tomatoes. As you will read in this article, we were able to pick some winners, but every variety had its merits.

Our low point was the hail storm that destroyed the trial block in at our Chambersburg, Pa., facility, thus forcing us to haul all of the fruit for the tasting from the sister planting at the Penn State research farm near Manheim, Pa.

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We grow our tomato plants in three plant blocks on two sites. The tomatoes are supported in concrete-reinforcing wire cages about 6 feet tall and 6 feet in circumference. All season we train the vines, manage insects and diseases, harvest the fruit, then weigh and evaluate the fruit for sugar levels and other qualities.

On Aug. 27, 2008, 174 gardeners, "foodies" and commercial growers spent a day tasting, examining and evaluating the plants and fruit. This article presents the best of the tomatoes from our 2008 program.

While we look for many characteristics in each variety, most important of all is flavor. Secondly, we factor in the tasting panels opinion regarding overall appearance since we eat first with our eyes. One of the great challenges of organizing this annual trial is simply sorting through the many varieties of tomatoes available every year both on the market and making their way through the breeding process for inclusion in the trial. Our hope is that any grower of tomatoes can examine the annual report from this program and gain some assistance in selecting varieties for their next seasons' planting. As you look at your seed catalog to order your tomato seeds for 2009, here are some of our top choices.

Top tomatoes from the 2008 trial:

Carolina Gold: This variety has long been the standard in a yellow, mild flavored, somewhat sweet fruit. Although easily blemished and lacking what we regularly hear as "real" tomato flavor, it has long been the single best, yellow slicing tomato. Available from most seed suppliers.

Sweet Tangerine: This was the second year in our trial for this variety from Burpee. Although a little smaller than Carolina Gold, the plants produced a bumper crop of great looking, great tasting, fruit that our tasters really enjoyed. Tasters preferred the flavor of this fruit over Carolina Gold, but gave it slightly lower marks for appearance.

Mortgage Lifter: This is a great heirloom tomato that always produces lots of great tasting fruit. In past years, this has placed third or fourth, but the weather and conditions of 2008 placed it tied for first in the flavor category. Real tomato flavor in a fruit that produces great slices for sandwiches. Widely available.

Marianna's Peace: This variety surprised us a lot in the 2007 trial program; however, in 2008 it came in sixth overall. These extremely vigorous, disease resistant plants produced moderate numbers of very large pick fruit. One caution: These plants are huge, so trellis them accordingly. Tomato Growers Supply

Brandy Boy: Brandy Boy is part of a relatively new yet fast-growing class of tomatoes known as heritage types. Tomatoes in this group are hybrids between heirlooms and modern hybrids, so have the disease resistance and high yields that come through modern plant breeding, but have retained the flavor that is more commonly associated with heirloom types. Brandy Boy was No. 1 in the 2006 and 2008 programs. This is the tomato that should be in everyone's garden. Exclusive to Burpee Seeds.

Conestoga: This is the second tomato in our program in the heritage class. Our tasters loved the flavor, consistent size and great yields and placed it 5th in the slicing category. While primarily intended as a commercial tomato it should be available from regular garden seed suppliers as well. We planted many so-called early varieties in 2008, but none placed well in either the flavor or appearance categories. Conestoga not only came in earlier that those early types, but also had great flavor.

Apero: This was the year of the grape tomato in our trials patch and Apero was the standout variety. We got excellent yields of great tasting, mildly sweet fruit that had a long shelf life, were resistant to cracking on plants that resisted most of our common tomato diseases.

These are some suggestions of plants that you should either start from seed or ask for it at your local greenhouse. If you would like to participate in our taste testing, mark your calendar the next event from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 26 for Aug. 26 at Franklin County Extension, on Franklin Farm Lane in Chambersburg.

Bob Kessler specializes in consumer horticulture and energy for Penn State University. He can be reached weekdays at 717-263-9226 or by e-mail at rxk4@psu.edu.

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