The holy grail of tomatoes

Adrian Higgins / The Washington Post /

WASHINGTON — Political punditry has its place, but the breathless and incessant chatter about the presidential race can become wearisome, even in Washington. Tomatoes, on the other hand — that’s a topic that transcends tedium.

Readers bear me out here. When I’ve written about tomatoes in the past, I heard from many home gardeners nodding in basic agreement with my premise: Brandywine and other large heirlooms are fine old varieties, but the payoff is often not worth the work.

Antique beefsteaks produce relatively few fruit that are slow to mature. The length of time between starting the seedlings in February, setting them out in late April and harvesting them in August and September makes them vulnerable to all the stresses of their brief life: heat, drought, flood and disease.

Better, I argue, to grow a more pedestrian hybrid that will fruit earlier, and be reliably healthy and extravagantly productive.

Reader favorites

Among my suggested slicer varieties: Celebrity, Defiant, Pink Beauty and Fantastic. Hiu Newcomb, of Potomac Vegetable Farms in Vienna, Va., got in touch to say she was a big fan of Celebrity (“very reliable”) and Pink Beauty (“great flavor”).

She also put me on to varieties that are now on my shortlist for this year: Moonglow, which she says is large, flavorful and crack resistant (a problem in a wet year like 2011), and Tangerine.

For Barry Perlow, a landscape designer at Meadow Farms Nurseries in Chantilly, Va., the trail to the tomato grail leads to his native southern New Jersey, where market gardeners have been working with experts at Rutgers University to identify bulletproof hybrids with that elusive taste called Jersey flavor.

“It’s a cross between sweet and tart,” he said, “a rich, full flavor.”

The poster child of the quest for the Jersey Tomato is Ramapo, introduced in the late 1960s but lost to cultivation until its champions at Rutgers brought it back into play through detective work and skillful breeding. The tomato is a classic red slicer, neither big nor small but plentiful and flavorful on a vigorous vine.

Perlow told me to call Ken Harris, a market gardener and nurseryman in Salem, N.J. Harris, of Marlboro Farm Markets, has been growing Ramapo both for his farm stands and to sell transplants to home gardeners in the spring. “It had that traditional old flavor, good acid-sugar ratio and texture,” he said. “Lots of juice and gel and yet it was firm enough to slice.” It was too thin-skinned to ship in a box, so commercial growers moved on.

After it was made available again, the folks at Rutgers surveyed about 1,200 home gardeners who grew the variety and asked if they planned to grow it again. More than 1,000 said they would, a pretty convincing vote of confidence.

Here’s the rub. A crop failure has made seeds scarce in 2012. Rutgers’ Jack Rabin hopes to have seeds available in April, a little late for seed-starting but not too late for gardeners in regions where seeds can be sown directly in May or where seedlings can be put in a month later and for a late summer harvest rather than late July and August.

For updates and availability information, e-mail Ramapotomatonjaes.rutgers.edu and put in the subject line: “2012 Ramapo waiting list for Home Gardeners.”

The good news is that a similar variety named Moreton should be available by next month, said Rabin. Moreton is a little earlier in the season and may need feeding a little more than Ramapo. “I would heartily recommend folks try it if they are an old Jersey variety lover,” he said.

Top performers

It’s clear that Rabin and his colleague take tomato inquiry seriously: They tested 145 mostly heirloom varieties over five years, and from that chose what they consider the 15 best:

Large fruited: Cherokee Purple, Mortgage Lifter, Hawaiian Pineapple and Prudents Purple.

Medium sized: Eva Purple Ball, Arkansas Traveler, Box Car Willie, Lemon Boy, Costoluto Genovese, Ramapo, Brandywine Red and Green Zebra.

Cherry: Snow White, Isis Candy and Yellow Pear.

These lists and recommendations are sound, but the truest test of a tomato variety is for you to grow it and see how it does in your soils, microclimate and preferred methods of cultivation. Recognize that no two seasons are alike and some years are better than others.