Early Heirloom Tomatoes:
When I sell the heirloom tomato plants at the St. Paul Farmers’ market in early spring, customers are always curious about “when” they’ll get their tomatoes. The answer is definitely one of those, “it depends” qualifiers. It depends on which variety you choose, it depends on how big the plant is when you buy it, it depends on your soil and microclimate, but MOSTLY it depends on the weather and Mother Nature. This year (2012), the heirloom tomatoes at our farm in Forest Lake, MN are definitely early. By a good two weeks.
Most seed catalogs offer descriptions of the heirloom variety characteristics, including a number signifying the “days to maturity”. I always hesitate to tell people what those numbers are for each tomato variety. In my experience, the number is only meaningful on a relative scale, and people tend to treat numbers as absolutes. One variety is going to be earlier than another variety, for example, if the number of days to maturity is less, but rarely do the tomatoes follow these maturity dates with any precision.
Smaller is Usually Earlier:
The first tomatoes to appear in any given season tend to be the smaller tomatoes, like the cherries. I have also had reliable earliness with the Bloody Butcher variety of heirloom (my pick for the most flavorable early tomato that is not a cherry). I have tried Manitoba, Oregon Spring, Stupice, and several other early heirloom varieties, which all have great flavor for early tomatoes, but none of these have been as early as Bloody Butcher. A new early heirloom I tried this year was the Raspberry Lyanna. It was the earliest of all of my tomatoes (July 10th), and it had none of the typical heirloom imperfections (green shoulders, cracking, etc .), but the flavor was fairly mild. My taste runs toward the bolder, higher acid tomatoes so this was not one of my favorites for flavor.
The other early tomatoes include the cherry tomatoes. Cherry Roma was a new one for me this year and I will definitely grow it again – great taste, prolific, and no cracking. Black Mauri was another new variety that I am happily surprised with. Black Mauri, a dark plum tomato, came on the same time as the cherries, but has a much deeper flavor profile than a cherry. Principe Borghese is the most prolific of all the small tomatoes (it is determinate), and my “go-to’ tomato for sun-drying. Principe Borghese has that bolder flavor that you would expect with an Italian tomato (think tomato sauce).
Earliest Black Tomatoes:
Following the first flush of the smaller tomatoes were the “black” tomatoes (they are called black tomatoes and are typically of Russian origin, but they are really a dark purple or dark pink). The black tomatoes were the first of the larger, main-season tomatoes to appear, starting with Paul Robeson. Carbon, Black Krim, Vorlon, and Black (or Black Russian) were 2-3 days later than Mr. Robeson. I love the rich, complex taste of these black tomatoes, and last year I found Carbon and Vorlon to have the deepest flavor. Usually the main-season tomatoes develop their unique flavors more as the season goes on, so I will wait until late August-early September to do a 2012 taste test between the black varities.
Earliest Orange, Yellow & Striped Tomatoes:
On the heels of the black tomatoes were the yellow-gold tomatoes and some of the striped tomatoes, including Juane Flammee, Manyel, Limmony, Striped Roman, Tigerella and Gold Medal. The large orange tomatoes, including Persimmon, Kelloggs, and Hughs are still green as of August 3rd, as are the Green Zebra, Hillbilly, Mr. Stripey, and White Queen. Taste comparisons of these tomatoes will follow in a separate post.
Earliest Red and Pink Heirloom Tomatoes:
As noted above, the earliest of all of my tomatoes this year was the Bloody Butcher (a red) and the Raspberry Lyanna (a pink). The main-season red & pink heirlooms that are “relatively” early include Prudens Purple, Aussie and Carmello. Bali, a new variety for me which is small and pink and ribbed, was also early and prolific. Later varieties that are abundant, but still green include Brandywine, Dona (a surprise that it is late), Cosmonaut Volkov, Box Car Willy and Santa Clara Canner.
All in all, this looks to be a stellar year for heirloom tomatoes (and peppers). Mother Nature played some cruel jokes on us this spring however, giving us early strawberries and blueberries, but then snatching the harvest away quickly with too much heat. We shall see how long the tomato season lasts, but one thing for sure is that it is early this year in Forest Lake, MN.
How about your season so far? What are the earliest tomato varieties you are seeing? Please share, I’d love to know and compare!
Happy Trails and May Your Growing Season be Long and Plentiful!