Richard Oswald polls the experts and slices into controversy: Which tomato is the best? And how can you best grow it?
The other day my son Brandon called, looking for tomato plants. “Do you have any Beefsteak?’ he asked. “Those are the best.”
That’s one opinion.
Here on the farm outside of Langdon, Missouri, we started a few plants in a little hothouse — about six different tomato varieties. We have white ones, cherry ones, strawberry ones, Striped Tigerellas and Striped Romans. We even have Plum Lemons, but no Beefsteaks. So Brandon started me thinking about which tomato really is best.
I made some calls, and it seems that each tomato grower I spoke to has a different favorite. Rusty Lee of Lee Farms in Truxton gave me the blueprint for the perfect tomato, but maybe not the tomato itself.
“The perfect tomato,” Rusty said, “is a perennial that’s not too firm and not too soft, not to acid and not too sweet.”
Case closed… except that here in the temperate zones where subfreezing temperatures put a regular end to our growing season, the perennial tomato is strictly annual.
Over in Doniphan, Nancy Smith, a director of Missouri Farmers Union and marketing director for Sappington Market in St. Louis, says she does have a favorite called the Cherokee Purple. She wouldn’t go so far as to say it was the best. “The perfect tomato would be perfect both for slicing and canning,” she said. While she likes the Cherokee Purple for the table, Nancy prefers to put up Rutgers or Marglobe because of their flavor and tendency to ripen uniformly.
Ken Scott, another MFU director, from Poplar Bluff, grows tomatoes that he sells in local farmers markets and to food retailers near his farm. Ken likes Mountain Fresh because his customers appreciate a longer shelf life that holds well on the vine. “My Mountain Fresh plants get about four feet tall but aren’t too bushy,” he says. Besides tomatoes, Ken grows okra, lots of it. Last year he sold over 7000 pounds. “Tomatoes and okra definitely go together in the garden and on the plate,” Ken adds.
Rusty Lee likes the Jet Star. It’s not a new variety, but not old enough to be considered an heirloom. “Jet Star is not too sweet and not too acid. It’s firm,” Rusty said, “but not too firm. It makes the perfect eight ounce fruit that, when sliced, is just the right size to cover a hamburger patty. What more could you want? It’s a good middle of the road tomato–the only tomato my wife and mother-in-law will can.”
Where wife and mother-in-law agree, Rusty is wise to go along.
Rusty grows vegetables on about 20 acres. He sells wholesale and retail in the St. Louis area, including direct marketing to about 200 customers through Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA).
As you could guess, there are also different opinions on how to grow the perfect tomato. Ken Scott doesn’t try to follow organic practices but he does like to keep his growing methods natural. Ken buys his plant food from Zone Products in Dexter, MO. Zone offers a variety of nutrient sources like fish emulsion, kelp, liquid calcium, natural foliar sprays of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. This spring Ken is erecting a 70 foot hoop house where he can grow his tomatoes inside, on the ground.
Nancy is an unconventional grower because she’s willing to use about anything at her disposal to produce perfect tomatoes at low out of pocket costs. She utilizes non-traditional nutrient sources like surplus dried milk or used sheet rock (sheet rock is made from gypsum) to give her plants, and livestock too, the nutrition they need. “In the past we’ve picked the horn worms off the plants and fed them to the chickens,” she said, all except the ones that are parasitized. “If they have larvae on them we leave them so the wasps (Braconid wasps that lay their eggs inside hornworms) will be around again next year.”
Nancy also makes good use of unsold produce from Sappington Market. “Last year we made compost from 93 tons of leftover vegetables,” she said; that mulch is used later to grow more vegetables. Old newspapers replace plastic or mulching cloth in her garden. Wetting the newspaper keeps it flat on the ground until it can be covered with wood chips. Like Ken, Nancy also uses natural products such as kelp and fish meal to feed her plants, and she buys some high quality sifted mulch, a mixture of horse manure and wood chips, that costs about $6 for a 40 pound bag.
Rusty’s tomatoes are produced on raised beds. He moves a layer of top soil from either side of a 5 foot wide strip to a bed about 30 inches wide. “That way,” he says, “the top soil is twice as deep.” He likes to incorporate fertilizer into the bed before covering it with plastic, black early in the spring to warm the soil, and white later on as soil temperatures heat up. He also buries a drip irrigation tube in the bed and uses it not just to water the plants but feed them as well. “The soluble stuff I put on through the drip tubes is a lot more expensive, so I try to put most of my fertilizer on the beds before we mulch,” he said. Rusty has tissue samples analyzed throughout the growing season to be sure his plants have everything they need.
Everyone agrees, perfect tomatoes like perfect weather: hot but not too hot (85 degrees), moist but not too wet. A good yield can be as much as 15 pounds per plant. With 3000 to 4000 plants per acre, an acre of tomatoes can produce 30 tons of fruit. Like Rusty says, “That’s a lot of tuhmaters.”
If, like Brandon, you’re stuck on the idea of a beefsteak, Nancy recommends Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifters. Mortgage Lifters were bred in the 1940s garden of Charlie Byles. It took him 7 years of cross pollination to perfect. When he was done he had a large pink fruit weighing nearly 2 pounds.
After eating Mortgage Lifters, Charlie lived to the ripe old age of 97, which raises the question: Could the perfect tomato also be the fountain of youth for aging tomato lovers? If not perennial, then perennial-inducing.