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
this tomato.

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.

Sabine Harvey

10 Comments on “Reflections on the 2012 tomato season

  1. Sabine,

    My regular paste tomato is called “Big Mama”. It's a Roma variety and the first tomatoes are as large as your fist. It is fleshy, but can suffer from blossom end rot if not kept evenly watered. Even with my drip irrigation system, I had some “BER: on it this year.
    My regular cherry tomatoe is “Sun Gold”. It's hugely productive and really sweet. It does suffer from cracking, but mainly from rains and over watering.

    My regular sandwich tomato is “Brandywine”. Like most hierlooms its not hugely productive, but it is tasty and one slice will cover an entire BLT.

    As you are, I'm starting to receive catalogs and looking forward to next year.

  2. Tomatoes season? Forget mine this year. Got zero result from diseases and no-diseases problems.

  3. Sabine, I also love Big Rainbow, a rosy-bottomed yellow-gold slicer which is gorgeous on a platter, Mandarin, an orange hybrid that is tart and nice for casseroles and soups, and Purple Cherokee, an heirloom that is richly flavored.

  4. Hi Kent, Thanks so much for the recommendations. I think I may have to try Big Mama in 2013. “She” sounds like a lot of fun!! It seems to me that paste tomatoes suffer from Blossom End Rot more than other tomatoes, at least this past season. Nice seeing today.


  5. Hi Nancy, one of my neighbors was actually raving about Purple Cherokee, so that one was already more or less on my list of trails for next year. Always nice to get confirmation!! I do love tomatoes with different color; especially when you can them, you end of with very colorful jars and more complex flavors!

  6. Dear gardener, I am so sorry to hear that. I would hate to see you give up on, what is for me, one of the highlights of the summer; that first fresh tomato of the season. You can just taste the sunshine. So is there anyway we (Master Gardeners) can help you? Just say the word and you will probably get more advice than you ever dreamed off. Not to mention, some of our home horticulture experts can actually make house calls. Just let us know!


  7. Hi Sabine,
    This year I grew Mountain Magic because it is supposed to resist fungual diseases and wilts. IT IS! A very prolific “saladette” tomato. I was concerned that I could use all the tomatoes it produced and then I found Ina Garten's roasted tomato recipe.
    Lemon Boy was great for me this year. It is a tasty yellow tomato and very disease resistant.
    I will have to try Big Rainbow next year.

  8. Sabine,

    What are your soils like and what major physiographic province are you in(coastal plain, piedmont, ridge and valley)? I've got sandy clays out on the coastal plain of the western shore of the Chesapeake. I find, as Kent does, that Brandywines make great slicing tomatoes from my garden. A warm brandywine tomato sliced on a plate with a salad of baby shrimp and green beans in a vinigrette served with a whole wheat baugette for sopping up the tomato juice/dressing combo has come to epitomize summer for me.

    As for cherry tomatoes, I go for mexico midgets. They are a little bit like the sweet 100s that I used to grow out in California, small, but intensely flavored. They are such heavy producers that invariably I let some fall on the ground and they always self seed. I don't even plant seedlings of them anymore, I just transplant the volunteers that show up where I had the adults the previous year. Indeterminant and quite leggy – they tend to sprawl.

    Take hope with the blight in your school garden – a couple of years ago I got no tomatoes because of blight, but the next year the blight only came in late August/Sept, after much production. This despite the fact that my husband keeps finding the blighted vines that I separate for the trash (rather than compost) and helpfully dump them in compost for me! I'm excited to try Gilbertie as I similarly was disappointed with Amish paste not producing as much as some others. However, it sounds like I should give it another try. -Hali

  9. We are also on the Coastal Plain, but on the Eastern Shore and we happen to have very heavy clay soils. It can be a great soil for growing tomatoes, as long as I add enough compost and do not let it dry out.

    I tried growing Brandywine for two seasons: it was a disappointment. The plants got disease ridden fairly quickly and the tomatoes did not have a lot of flavor. Of course this was quite some years ago and I have learned a lot since then. Perhaps it is time to give Brandywine another chance!

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