The Tomato Trial - Results of 2023 Tomato Trial and What's New for 2024

For years I  only planted tomatoes I could get in the local stores or  nurseries.   But I got tired of the same varieties and when I found something I  liked, they were not always available year to year.  So I started  starting my own using seeds I could find in the stores.  Then about three years ago, after tiring of the paste tomatoes I could get my hands on and trialing a few different paste type tomatoes, I dove into the world of tomatoes.  And what a world it is!  In 2023 I grew a number of new varieties as trials and in 2024 the world of tomatoes is getting bigger for me.  There was certainly some surprises in the trial, the amount of harvest being just one of the surprises.


Why Trial Tomatoes

Not unlike a lot of folks, tomatoes are one of the main staples for me.  I use and hot water bath can them whole, in pickled sauces, tomato sauces, pasta sauces, etc and although any tomato can be used for these types of applications, certain ones are better for some applications than others.  As Luke from the MIGardener channel explains in the video Don't Pick The WRONG Tomato Variety For Your Garden!  tomatoes are typically classified into the following types:

  1. Currant  - smallest of  all tomatoes similar in size to a currant.  They are a Land Race variety meaning they are the closest to the wild strain of tomato;
  2. Cherry - round snacking tomato that is less than one ounce;
  3. Pear - less than one ounce in size but are shaped like a pear;
  4. Grape - elongated tomato that is one to two ounces in size;
  5. Plum - typically two to three inches in length weighing from one to two ounces;
  6. Paste - has low moisture content (less than plum) weighing three to five ounces;
  7. Slicer - has  a high moisture weighing five to eight ounces in size;
  8. Beefsteak - has less moisture than a slicer, less seeds and generally weighs from eight ounces to two pounds.

Although the various types of tomatoes can be used interchangeably in a pinch, they may just require more processing to deal with skins and/or moisture content.  As I am a believer in using what I have, I have used the various types of tomatoes interchangeably, but in trying to find a new paste type tomato to replace the Roma tomato, which I had grown to dislike due to it's small fruit, growth habit and flavor, I thought I would set myself up better and choose varieties that were more suited and would add a nice flavor profile.  And do a little exploring and experimenting along the way.

When I set out in 2023 to decide which tomato varieties to trial, I used the criteria I discussed in Tomatoes - A guide to choosing tomato varieties to make my variety choices.  But also deciding that I should trial at least six of each variety to get a more representative sample with the qualifier that I plant more of varieties I had grown before to ensure I had tomatoes to can, should the new varieties not pan out.


The Tomato Trial  

With my variety choices made with the primary focus boiling down to canning whole tomatoes, tomato sauce and pasta sauce, I decided late in the spring that I would try some “Long Keeper Tomatoes”.  From my research,  the long keeper tomato was developed to keep for an extended period once picked, with one variety claiming to keep until Easter.  Researching further, I was able to find three varieties at Prairie Garden Seeds which I ordered adding Clare's, Winter Gold and Ruby Treasure to the trial.

With seeds in hand, I started all the tomato varieties on March 26, 2023 and they were placed under grow lights to germinate.  By the time I was done, I had started over 165 tomatoes.  By April 18 a number had emerged.

Tomatoes - seedling starting April 18 23

For the next weeks, the tomatoes spent their days under grow lights getting watered, fertilized with fish emulsion fertilizer and exposed to air movement from a fan to help toughen them up.  Although they were ready to plant much sooner, the weather was not conducive and I was not ready for them either.  So, they went out on the covered veranda on May 12 to live and harden off.

Tomatoes - hardening off - May 12 23

I had  also decided that I was going to grow the tomatoes the way I have grown them the last few years.  Namely, no pruning and trellised on a wire fence.  For years I had just let the tomatoes vine across the ground trying various methods to prevent the matting and tangling of vines that always occurred.  But it wasn't until I seen Living Traditions Homestead use wire and t-posts to trellis their tomatoes that growing tomatoes took on a whole new meaning.  So in 2022, using some page wire and t-posts I set up two fences on which I could trellis the tomatoes.  With a total height of five feet, the four foot wire left a one foot gap that allowed for planting and air flow.  Overall, other than putting the rows about one foot too close together, it worked like a charm.  Not only did the tomatoes not suffer from continual wet foliage, picking them was so easy and I never missed a ripe tomato when they ripened on the vine.  I was a game changer for me.

Tomatoes - trellised tomatoes - 2022

With this past experience under my belt, I decided that I would duplicate these fences for the 2023 trial but with a twist.  As I have explored in Woven Landscape Fabric - A Homemade Woven Weed Fabric DIY project I have battled quack grass for years and although the home made Woven Landscape Fabric worked like a charm for the most part, I decided that I was going to use the Woven Ground Cover that continues to be highly recommended by Kevin and Sarah at Living Traditions Homestead  in The Weed Fabric SHOCKED Us! Does Weed Fabric Really Work? and Does Woven Ground Cover Really Work in the Garden?. To date, they continue to use it and still stand behind it.  So I ordered myself the same DeWitt UltraWeb 3000 - Woven Ground Cover from Grower's Solutions and decided that I would put it down in my squash row and between each row of the tomato trellis.

With 165 tomato plants to put out, I determined that I would need over 3 rows of trellising to accommodate the plants. Unfortunately I would be short on wire to do all the tomatoes and so decided to trial using a Florida Weave to trellis the last of the indeterminate tomatoes in part of a fourth row.  Unfortunately also, I would not have enough woven ground cover to do all the tomatoes so decided that the dwarf, tiny times and a few of the long keeper varieties would not get the ground cover.  Finally after getting the garden tilled, trellis built in rows wide enough to accommodate the woven ground cover and the woven ground cover in place, I was able to plant the tomatoes on  June 10, 2023.

Tomatoes - new planting - June10 2023

Planting took some getting used to because I was only planting through a small hole I had burned into the  ground cover. But before long, all the tomatoes were planted.  In the future, I may try a drill auger to make the planting hole, like Kevin does, to make digging the planting hole easier.  Although I had some concerns about water percolation through the fabric, consultations with Grower's Solution and Living Traditions Homestead put my mind to rest and I soon noticed that the water was percolating through, it just took some time.  But the most noticeable thing was that other than the weeds in the planting holes, I  never had to do any weeding and by July 2 the tomatoes were looking good and shading out any weeds.

Tomatoes - trellised tomatoes - July 2 2023

And soon it was time to start attaching the tomatoes  to the trellis and weave some of the branches through the wire.

Tomatoes - attaching tomatoes to wire July 2 2023

Or tie the tomato plant to the trellis if the tomato was not quite tall enough to reach.  This prevents the plant from falling over and/or crawling across the ground.

Tomatoes - tieing tomato to trellis - July 2 2023

For the duration of the season, other than the odd looping of string to tie up a number of branches at once, trimming some of the lower branches to ensure air flow and watering on occasion, nothing else was done with the tomatoes.  By August 19, 70 days from transplanting, they were looking good.  The woven ground cover was certainly doing a good job.

Tomatoes - trellis tomatoes August 19 2023

And by September 2, 84 days from transplanting, I was enjoying the first harvest of vine ripened tomatoes from different tomato varieties. 

Tomatoes - vine ripened - September 2 2023


The Tomato Trial - Harvest

Although having the tomatoes ripen on the vine is what most folks want, where I live complete vine ripening is not doable unless you have a greenhouse or something similar.  So to get some of the tomatoes to ripen on the vine was a nice surprise that's for sure.  But as is normal in these parts, once September hits, the days until the first frost are numbered. Daily watching of the local weather is just part of my activities and with a hard frost being forecasted for September 19, it was time to get all the tomatoes picked and in the house so that they can finish ripening.

There is a number of opinions and methods for and about ripening tomatoes in the house but I can assure you that it works just fine.  Some folks figure that the green tomatoes should be canned as such and although there are a lot of good recipes that use green tomatoes, ripe tomatoes is my preference.  Methods to ripen are as varied as the opinions about green tomatoes and although putting them in a shallow box works, I find that just dumping them on a bed sheet on the floor works just fine.  In fact, I would say it works better.  So over the course of two days, each variety was picked in it's entirety and the fruit was weighed so that I could determine how much of each variety was produced.  After weighing it was dumped on a section of the sheet so as to enable me to be able to monitor ripening, pick out ripe tomatoes easily and know what I was using while canning.  In total I harvested  267.0352 KG (588.7 pounds) from the 165 plants, which were grown in 101 days, and they were spread over three separate areas in my house.

The first room contained (from top to bottom)the Bush Beefsteak, Charlie's Red Stalker and Opalka.

Tomatoes - ripening - September 19 2023

Another room contained the Arbuznyki and Paul Robesen (top to bottom).

Tomatoes - Paul robesen and arbuznyi - Sept 19 2023

And the Amish Paste were included in that room as well.  Top tomatoes are the Paul Robesen from the previous picture.

Tomatoes - Amish Paste - September 19 2023

And finally, littered throughout my dining room amongst everything else were boxes and crates of various tomato varieties.

Tomatoes - boxes of tomatoes - sept 19 2023

However, as with a lot of things with the garden, things don't always go as planned. Although I followed the process for using the Florida Weave, I am not sure if I waited to long to trellis the tomatoes, I broke some stems or if things were not done just right. Regardless, I still got some harvest.  It was just not that great and the plants certainly did not look healthy. 

Tomatoes - Florida Weave -  2023


The Tomato Trial - Ripening and Processing

Over the next weeks, I noticed that the Charlie's Red Stalker were ripening faster than the other varieties and that the Paul Robesen and Arbuznyi were difficult to determine ripeness unless you gently squeezed each tomato  A factor that unfortunately forced me to compost about two gallons of over ripe and rotten tomatoes as I left them too long.

Tomatoes - ripening Charlie's Red Stalker - October 1 2023

The other interesting thing I noticed is that although the Long Keeper variety Ruby Treasure turned red, the Winter Gold ripened yellow and the Clare's was ripening yellow with a hint of red.  This made it difficult to know when they were ripe enough to eat and trial and error proved beneficial.

Tomatoes - Clare's tomato ripening

However although the Winter Gold remained yellow, over time the Clare's did develop more of a red mottling.  I did use some in sauces but the thicker tougher skins did prove somewhat problematic running through the food mill.  But the main thing I wanted to see was how long they would keep.  So although I used the Winter Gold and Ruby Treasure in sauces, I put a number of the Claire's tomato in a basket on my kitchen counter and left them there.  No special treatment at all.  By April 16, 2024, 212 days from harvest, they were showing signs of drying but they still tasted like a tomato, not at all like a store bought one though.  These had flavor!  They were quite good in the tomato sandwich I had for lunch. I am impressed.

Clare's tomato -long keeper - 212 days from harvest - April 16 24

As the tomatoes ripened, the beef steak and slicers were used to can whole tomatoes, solely because of their flavor and  ease of peeling.  The paste were turned into some chili sauce but were also combined with all the other varieties to make pasta and plain tomato sauce, each batch being slightly different in water content and flavor, dependent on which tomatoes were ripe at the time.  My oven became my friend as large quantities of tomatoes would ripen at once and need to be cooked down to evaporate off some of the water.

Tomatoes - boiling down sauce

Finally, on November 5, after what seemed to be a short period of time, the last of the tomatoes were turned into plain tomato sauce, 49 days after harvest.  If you want to find out what I turned  267.0352 KG (588.7 pounds) of tomatoes into and whether I saved any money, be sure to check out Preserving the Garden Harvest by Canning - Does Home Canning Save Money.

Tomatoes - last canning plain tomato sauce - November 5, 2023


The Tomato Trial - It's More Than About Sauce

Although the Tomato Trial had somewhat clear goals when it started, over time it morphed into gathering a little more information than what tomato varieties make a good sauce.  I made notes of things that stood out as unique such as how quickly the varieties ripened, how easy they were to remove the skins and although subjective, I rated them for flavor.  But I also decided to measure the pH.

I have read that that quite a few varieties of tomatoes, specifically heirloom and heritage varieties, are not acidic enough to be water bath canned without extra acidification.  And although it is not a big deal to use citric acid, lemon juice or vinegar to add that acidity, I was having a hard time with a tomato not being 4.6  pH or less.  So, because I could not find a lot of information about pH for specific tomato varieties and I own a OakTon pH2+ pocket pH meter, I decided to put it to use and record the pH of each variety.  I realize there may be some variability between tomatoes within the same variety or between the same variety grown in different sites, but I figured it is somewhere to start.

I chose one tomato at random from each variety for the testing and numbered them as:

  1. Paul Robeson
  2. Arbuznyi
  3. Amish Paste
  4. Bush Beefsteak
  5. Charlie's Red Stalker
  6. Opalka
  7. Early Girl
  8. Ropreco
  9. San Marzano
  10. Prairie Pride
  11. Sophie's Choice
  12. Green Zebra
  13. Ruby Treasure
Tomato varieties sampled for pH

They were then sliced in half so that the pH could be taken in the liquid part of the tomato.   I find it interesting to see the seed content, water content and various characteristics that make up each variety.

Tomato varieties sampled for pH - sliced view - October 23 23

And once the Winter Gold and Clare's  were ripe, or so I figured, they too were sampled for pH.

Tomatoes - winter gold and clare's for pH - November 1, 2023

With all this data, a table was created that summarized everything I had noted from the Tomato Trial.  Things like:

  •  my highest producing variety was the Charlie's Red Stalker at 2,483.5 grams ( 5.48 pounds) per plant, which also had one of highest flavor markers, was one of fastest to ripen and was easy to skin;
  • my largest average tomato fruit was an Amish Paste at 3.4 ounces, which also held a close third place to being the highest producing variety;
  • Clare's long keeper variety had the lowest pH at 4 which along with thicker skins would explain why they keep so well;
  • although Bush Beefsteak have been one of my favorites for years, they are actually one of the lower producing varieties at 1,072 grams (2.36 pounds) per plant, even being beat out by the Ropreco variety which had a smaller fruit size.  However, they rated high in flavor but had a low ph at 5.1;
  • only Bush Beefsteak, Green Zebra, Arbuznyi, San Marzano and Opalka, five out of the 15 varieties, had a ph of 4.6 or higher.  But despite this, when combined for sauce, the pH of the sauces was always 4.6 or less, due to which other varieties they were combined with;
  • although I had some health issues with the Early Girl, Sophie's Choice, Prairie Pride, Green Zebra and the dwarf and cherry varieties, they still produced for me.
Tomato Variety 2023 data

I find it interesting to see all this information in one place as an aid to choosing which varieties to continue planting in future gardens and which ones won't be moving forward, at least for now.


The Tomato Trial -  What's New for 2024

With so many varieties out there it seems that I should be trialing as many as I can.  With the success of the Clare's tomato, I started researching over the winter to see what else is out there for long keeper varieties.  I had a few suggestions made to me on social media and a few kind folks even sent me some seeds to try which also included some seeds from their personal favorite varieties.  But while doing the research, I came across a number that I thought I would add due to their flavor descriptions, growth habits and because I thought they would be fun.  But rest assured, I will not be planting 165  again.  I decided that in addition to the proven varieties being the main focus, I would be trialing four plants of each new variety.  

As a result of this research, I discovered that seed companies seem to have their own definitions of tomato types with no standardization, or so it would seem.  But regardless, I have added the following varieties, grouped as indicated by seed company, to the Tomato Trial for 2024:

  1. Indeterminate - Beefsteak
    1. Pink Berkley Tie-Dye - from Wild Boar Farms - 8-12 ounce fruit, matures in 65 - 75 days;
    2. Beauty King  - from Wild Boar Farms - 12 - 20  ounce fruit, matures in 75 - 90 days;
    3. Solar Flare - from Wild Boar Farms - 6 - 10 ounce fruit, mid/early  season;
    4. Lovely Lush - from Wild Boar Farms - 4 -6 ounce fruit, mid/early  season, high in anthocyanin, great post harvest storage;
    5. Ponderosa Pink - from Heirloom Seeds Canada - Juicy flesh with a sweet flavor. Fruits are low in acid and contain few seeds;
    6. Oxheart - gifted - old heirloom, 10oz–1 lb. 
  2. Indeterminate - Paste
    1. San Marzano Lampadina II  - from West Coast Seeds - matures 75 -85 days;
    2. Super Italian Paste - from Heirloom Seeds Canada - 8 -9 ounce fruit;
    3. Amos Coli - from Wild Boar Farms - Large Meaty Paste Heirloom. Very Good Production. Dense Meaty with Great Well Balanced Flavor;
    4. Provenzano - from Heritage Harvest Seed - fruit are huge, meaty and have very few seeds.
  3. Indeterminate - Slicer
    1. Bloody Butcher - gifted - 3 - 4 ounce fruit, 55 days;
    2. Black Zebra - from Annapolis Seeds - medium sized fruit with dusky red and green-black stripes;
    3. Cherokee Purple - from Rare Seeds - deep, dusky purple-pink color, superb sweet flavor, and very-large-sized fruit, 80 days;
    4. John Baer - from Heritage Harvest Seed - 3 -6 ounce fruit, 75 days from transplant;
    5. Lucid Gem - from Wild Boar Farms - 4 - 5 ounce fruit, good post harvest storage;
    6. Cosmos - from Wild Boar Farms - 2 - 4 ounce fruit, good post harvest storage.
  4. Indeterminate - Plum
    1. Viva Italia - from Annapolis Seeds - 75 - 80 days;
    2. Principe Borghese - from West Coast Seeds - semi-determinate, matures 70 - 75 days.
  5. Indeterminate - Pear
    1. Wine Jug - from Wild Boar Farms.
  6. Indeterminate - Cherry
    1. Cosmic Eclipse - from Wild Boar Farms - 2 - 3 ounce fruit;
    2. AAA Sweet Solano - from Wild Boar Farms - 2 - 4 ounce fruit;
    3. Napa Rose  - from Wild Boar Farms - 2 - 4 ounce fruit, can be harvested by cutting off cluster;
    4. Garden Peach - gift - 1 - 3 ounce fruit, good storage ability;
    5. Piennolo Del Vesuvio -  from Annapolis Seeds - traditionally picked and hung indoors, where they slowly ripen to full flavour over a period of several months;
    6. Blueberries - gift- 85 days to maturity.
  7. Indeterminate - long keeper
    1. Burpee's Long Keeper - gift - 6 ounce fruit, semi-determinate.

Coupled with the proven winners from the first year of The Tomato Trial, I think it should be an interesting year with a tomato patch filled with all the different varieties.  I may be regretting all the cherry tomatoes, but I can always freeze them to add to sauce later.


Final Thoughts

Although The Tomato Trial's sole purpose at the start was to discover new paste tomatoes that would be better suited to my needs, I found that the addition of non paste type tomatoes add some flavor benefits that out-weigh the extra boiling time to evaporate the water.  And so, the exploration into other types of tomatoes coupled with the desire to grow rare type tomatoes almost forced me into widening my rating criteria.  It has been an interesting journey thus far and one that I am excited to continue in the 2024 garden.  I started all my tomatoes on March 31, so the journey has begun for this year already.

tomatoes - new tomato starts for the Tomato Trial - April 27 24

I hope you found this information interesting and that perhaps you found out some additional information about a variety you are growing.  But remember those Tiny Tim and Dwarf varieties I brought into the house and put in front of my south window?  Well, they gave me a feed of fresh tomatoes almost every week for most of the winter. Something I will consider doing again.  I had peppers growing too but they only  gave me the odd one.

Tomatoes - indoor growing

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