Thursday, November 29, 2012
Reflections on the 2012 tomato season
Post by Sabine Harvey
It is almost December and I still haven’t written my reflections on this past tomato season. Let me
start by saying that I grow all my tomatoes from seed. I grow these seedlings not only for my own
garden, but also for “my” school garden. In order to make a good comparison, I make sure the
seedlings get transplanted to the gardens in the same week. These gardens are located within a few
miles of each other, so you might wonder about how different they could be. Well, you might be
First, let me introduce this year’s “players”. Of course there were the yearly recurring performers,
who have proven their worth in the garden: Celebrity Hybrid, Early Pick and Juliet. In addition, I
grew Best Boy, Marglobe, Big Rainbow and three paste tomatoes: Amish Paste, San Marzano and
Celebrity Hybrid and Early Pick are mid-size tomatoes with a good flavor. Juliet is a large grape
tomato with a great taste. It is one of the first tomatoes to start producing and it is usually still going
strong in October. It is a great tomato for eating straight off the vine or for cooking. Once again,
these tomatoes did not disappoint.
After last year’s experiment with beef steak tomatoes (I am still not a fan), I may need to add Best
Boy to the list of recurring performers. 2011 was a tough year for tomatoes and Best Boy did not do
too bad. So I decided to give it another chance; it did not let me down and performed well in both
gardens. It is a big tomato, but not super gigantic. It has a good flavor and it is a pretty tough plant.
The fact that it is a tough plant came in handy, because the tomatoes in the school garden were
struck by a nasty disease early in the season. By mid June, the lower leaves on many plants looked
terrible. All I could do was remove the diseased foliage, make sure no one splashed water onto the
plants and keep my fingers crossed. While the weather stayed dry, the disease slowed down. Things
went downhill rapidly once it started to rain in August. Of course, I was fairly concerned that I would
bring this disease to my own garden. I made sure to disinfect my tools, I had a separate pair of
gloves for the school garden and I even went as far as changing my clothes and shoes before I went
from one garden to the other.
A local garden center donated the Marglobe seeds. Although the description on the seed packet
sounded promising, I was not impressed. Marglobe did okay in my own garden. The tomatoes were
about the size of an Early Girl, but they had very little flavor. The tomatoes were also very prone to
crack after a rain event, more so than other tomatoes. In the school garden Marglobe was downright pitiful. There, the tomatoes never grew any bigger than a very large cherry tomato and it was
also one of the first plants to succumb to the disease.
I thought we needed some color among our tomatoes, so I decided to grow Big Rainbow. This is a
yellow heirloom tomato with red stripes. Wow!!!!! The tomatoes were gigantic! Yes, I know, I am
not a fan of beefsteak tomatoes, but the flavor was absolutely amazing. In fact, I am not sure I have
ever tasted a better tomato (sorry Juliet). What is more, my teenage children agreed. On numerous
occasions I would find them in the kitchen making some sort of wonderful dish for themselves with
The only caveat – and I think this is true for all heirloom tomatoes – is that I find it really hard to
grow heirlooms in a garden where I only come a few times a week. Heirlooms are funny; you really
need to pick the tomatoes before they are at their peak. Unlike so many hybrids, that will happily
stay on the vine even when they are perfectly ripe, if you don’t pick that heirloom on time, you
won’t get to pick it all. So often I would see a beautiful Big Rainbow tomato but it just wasn’t ripe
yet. I would come back two days later and it would be cracked, rotting or eaten by the squirrels. Just
like me, the squirrels preferred this tomato over all the other ones!
Now for the paste tomatoes. My family eats a fair bit of tomato sauce. Since I haven’t bought a
tomato in a store for years, I decided to take it one step further and try to can my own sauce as
well. Hence the 3 different kinds of paste tomatoes. According to the literature, if you are going to
grow a paste tomato, you really ought to grow San Marzano which is kind of the standard of paste
Well, as one of my teachers at Longwood Gardens once said: Plants do not read books! I have no
idea what happened, but it wasn’t a pretty picture. In my own garden, this plant got some sort of
dwarfing disease. It looked very odd and it managed to produce a total of 3 tomatoes. Yes, you read
that right, 3 tomatoes. Clearly I should have yanked the plant out of the ground, but I am an eternal
optimist and I was hoping that it would simply start to grow at some point. Clearly I was wrong. In
the school garden, San Marzano did grow to full size, but the tomatoes just weren’t very impressive
and the above mentioned disease didn’t help either.
I tried Amish Paste for the first time in 2011. I’ll admit, it wasn’t the greatest producer ever, but I
thought it could have potential. I am glad I gave it another chance, because it did much better this
season. It produced nice, fat tomatoes, great for making sauce. It also managed to hang on in the
school garden longer than San Marzano.
However, my new favorite paste tomato is Gilbertie (It is a really cool name, especially when you try
to say it with an Italian accent). The tomatoes are huge and very, very fleshy. It is absolutely perfect
for making sauce. Yes, it was a little slow to get going. It also suffered in a major way from blossom
end rot, but so did the other two paste tomatoes. I now know that this tomato needs extra care
when it comes to watering and a supply of calcium.
This week, the first seed catalogues for 2013 started to arrive in the mail. Before I order any new
seeds for the next growing season, I would love to know what you grew in your garden and whether
you have any recommendations for me.