2023 Tomato Report
It’s about this time of year, at the tail end of Summer, that we hit ‘peak tomato’. The last weeks of August are when we’re awash with the fruits or, to be more botanically correct, the berries of the tomato. It’s also at this time when I like to take stock of how the year’s various varieties of Solanum Lycopersicum, (the tomato’s Latin name) have performed. Usually I conduct this assessment in my head. This year though, as the tomato is surely a crop that features on almost every plot, I’m sharing the evaluation. Hopefully this will be of some use to other WWOOFy tomato growers in selecting which varieties to grow next year and beyond.
Before I begin, some words on how the tomatoes have been cultivated. There are about 200 plants mostly in two greenhouses; one is 20 metres long, the other is more on a domestic scale at 6 metres. Some plants are also in two relatively compact polytunnels. None of the plants are outside. Tomatoes aren’t a monoculture in the undercover structures. All are grown alongside other crops, although many of these are fellow Solanaceae such as sweet peppers and aubergines. Because verticillium wilt (a fungus disease) is present in the soil many of the plants are cultivated in pots. This affliction is not uncommon in old established plots such as this which have grown tomatoes for nearly 100 years, so only varieties with good resistance are planted in the soil. Some of the pot grown plants are in a home-made potting mix and the others, mostly the more drainage sensitive cherries, are in pots of bark-based commercial compost. All the plants are raised from seed. The first sowing is made in mid-February and the last at the end of April. Early sowings are grown on in a small heated greenhouse. This staggered approach gives a cropping season from late in June through to the end of October, sometimes beyond if the Autumn stays warm. It does mean that at the end of August, at peak overall production, some plants are already nearing exhaustion while a few others, especially those in the cooler polytunnels, have barely begun to crop.
A few more words need to be said about the tricky 2023 growing season. It was very different from 2022. Here in Yorkshire we nudged 39 Celsius on one day last year and had a number of days over 30. This helped and hindered the plants. The main hindrance was ‘cooking’, some tomatoes literally fried on the vine. The advantage though, providing watering was copious, was rapid ripening and few fungal issues. 2023 has been a marked contrast. A hot June made for rampant growth, but a dull and cool July set the plants back. Most have picked up but some were accidentally over-watered during the cloudy weather and have subsequently lacked vigour. Ripening too has been delayed. Overall, 2023 will not go down as a vintage tomato season.
Despite 2023’s ups and downs there have still been plenty of tomatoes and with production now ebbing away what follows is a summary of how the 18 varieties grown this season have performed so far. Those varieties marked by an asterisk are regulars, stalwarts that have proved their worth and grown every year. The varieties without an asterisk are ‘on trial’, grown for one or more years with a view to seeing whether they have the characteristics required to earn a permanent place on the plot.
I only grow a few of this type as the number of tomatoes per plant is relatively restrained and they’re a hard sell compared to standards and cherries. Many beefsteaks are ‘determinate’, that is they have a bushy growth habit and reach a low, determined, height. The majority of standard and cherry tomato varieties, by contrast, have the potential to grow tall if side shoots are removed to suppress any tendency to bush. These types are known as ‘indeterminate’.
|Buffalosun*||Good.||Vigorous and tall. Seems disease free.||Orange red. Fleshy. Best of the four beefsteaks grown.|
|Costoluto di Parma||Medium (better cooked)||Produces quite a lot of fruit per truss. Seems prone to fungal problems.||Ribbed like its better known Fiorentino cousin. First outing this year, will try again.|
|Crimson Crush||Poor||Determinate. Reputed blight resistance not fully tested as grown under cover.||Very large pale crimson fruit generally, no more than five to seven per plant. Won’t get a further outing.|
|Mountain Merit*||Medium||Determinate. Plants show few signs of disease. Slow to ripen.||Medium large dark red fruit. From the same stable as Mountain Magic (below).|
Three Beefsteaks: from the left Costoluto di Parma, Mountain Merit and Buffalosun
In tomato talk the term ‘Standard’, in case you’ve not encountered it before, is used loosely to group what might be regarded as ‘normal’ or traditional tomatoes. This is usually considered to mean varieties that produce medium sized fruit between about three and seven centimetres in diameter. I grow a restricted range of these varieties, but standards are the mainstay of the overall crop comprising about 30% of the plants and probably more than 50% in weight of the fruit produced. All the below varieties are indeterminate.
|Cocktail Crush||Medium||Reputed good disease resistance apparently confirmed. Seems to be a prolific cropper.||New this year for me. Flavour somewhat disappointing. May get another outing next year.|
|Mountain Magic*||Excellent||Medium strong grower. Very disease resistant. Slow to split.||Dark red fruit but smaller than most standards. A relatively new variety, now one of my favourites.|
|Shimmer||Good||Strong growing, apparently very disease resistant.||Elongated orange red fruits with faint greenish stripes. Seems a prolific cropper. Has novelty value. Too early to tell whether this’ll get a further trial.|
|Shirley*||Medium||Reliable, fairly early to ripen and slow to split. Good disease resistant.||Red. One of the most popular varieties for amateur growing. A good all-rounder.|
|Sparta*||Good||A strong grower with good disease resistance although somewhat marred, in my experience, by a tendency to stem rot.||Red, one of the larger fruited standards. On balance superior to Shirley.|
Three Standards: from the left Mountain Magic, Shimmer and Sparta
For me cherry tomatoes are small fruited varieties regardless of the shape of the fruits. That means those below include tomatoes sometimes considered ‘cherry plums’ (i.e. those with more elongated fruits) such as the variety Modus and those often called ‘grape’ (i.e. those with the smallest fruit) such as Crokini. All the cherries I grow are indeterminate. Some will climb very tall, for example Bottondoro, Golden Crown and Sungold can easily exceed three metres if there’s adequate height. Up to ten trusses (shoot or ‘branch’ on which tomatoes are carried in clusters) per plant are possible.
|Bottondoro*||Good||Strong, towering growth. Prone to blossom end rot (black bottomed fruit).||Orange. Slightly elongated. More prolific and less likely to split than Sungold.|
|Brad’s Atomic Grape||As yet unknown, reputedly excellent||Relatively weak grower. The foliage appears prone to fungal problems.||An odd tomato. Olive green flesh with blushed red skin when fully ripe. Has yet to ripen a single fruit! In its defence was planted late in an open polytunnel.|
|Crokini||Good||Tall and quick to crop.||Small, grape sized red fruit. Prolific, but troublesome to pick as fruits don’t part from the truss readily. May become a regular on the plot.|
|Golden Crown*||Excellent||Plants are very variable in habit. Some strong growing, others more weedy. Good disease resistance.||Yellow, small to medium sized cherry. Now my favourite yellow tomato.|
|Honeycomb||Excellent||Plants seem temperamental, easily upset by over watering or too much feeding.||Orange, round. Some fruits tend to drop as they ripen. Could become a regular if it didn’t have such bad habits.|
|Indigo Blue Berries||Medium||Medium to strong growth. Relatively slow to ripen.||Fruit starts blackish blue, but turns partially red when ready. Mainly grown for its novelty value.|
|Modus*||Medium||A vigorous, tall growing and heavy cropping variety. Especially useful for ‘on the vine’ sales as most fruits on a truss ripen at the same time.||Small red cherry plum with a glossy skin that looks attractive.|
|Sakura*||Good||Robust, tall growing plants. Fruit doesn’t split. Usually a prolific cropper.||Large red cherry. Not quite as good in flavour as the old favourite Gardener’s Delight, but easier to grow.|
|Sungold*||Excellent||Tall growing, but can be temperamental.||Orange cherry. Prone to splitting and various disorders but in most seasons the best flavoured tomato on the list.|
Five Cherries: from the left Sungold, Modus, Golden Crown, Sakura and Bottondoro
I read some time ago that there are as many as 300 varieties of tomato available from seed merchants in the UK, this excluding heirloom types obtainable through projects such as the Heritage Seed Library. The 18 above therefore represent only a fraction of the myriad range that can be grown. It’s a very personal choice with flavour a key consideration but ease of cropping and saleability (the plot is a semi-commercial setup) are also factors. If pushed to choose just a few favourites I’d probably go for: Mountain Magic as it combines flavour with durability, Sungold for taste despite its vices, Sparta as a reliable red standard and Sakura as a red cherry with decent flavour and high yield.
We hope you found Mr Fluttergrub’s tomato report as fascinating as we did and hope it’ll be helpful for anyone who is growing their own, on whatever scale. Perhaps you have an alternative approach to growing toms? If you’d like to share your tomato growing experiences we’d love to hear about them and we can add them to the WWOOF ‘hive mind’. Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org