Antique beefsteaks produce relatively few fruit that are slow to mature. The length of time between starting the seedlings in February, setting them out in late April and harvesting them in August and September makes them vulnerable to all the stresses of their brief life: heat, drought, flood and disease.
Better, I argue, to grow a more pedestrian hybrid that will fruit earlier, be reliably healthy and extravagantly productive.
Among my suggested slicer varieties: Celebrity, Defiant, Pink Beauty and Fantastic. Hiu Newcomb, of Potomac Vegetable Farms in Vienna, got in touch to say she was a big fan of Celebrity (“very reliable”) and Pink Beauty (“great flavor”).
She also put me on to varieties that are now on my shortlist for this year: Moonglow, which she says is large, flavorful and crack resistant (a problem in a wet year like 2011), and Tangerine.
For Barry Perlow, a landscape designer at Meadow Farms Nurseries in Chantilly, the trail to the tomato grail leads to his native southern New Jersey, where market gardeners have been working with experts at Rutgers University to identify bulletproof hybrids with that elusive taste called Jersey flavor. “It’s a cross between sweet and tart,” he said, “a rich, full flavor.”
The poster child of the quest for the Jersey Tomato is Ramapo, introduced in the late 1960s but lost to cultivation until its champions at Rutgers brought it back into play through detective work and skillful breeding. The tomato is a classic red slicer, neither big nor small but plentiful and flavorful on a vigorous vine.
Perlow told me to call Ken Harris, a market gardener and nurseryman in Salem, N.J. Harris, of Marlboro Farm Markets, has been growing Ramapo both for his farm stands and to sell transplants to home gardeners in the spring. “It had that traditional old flavor, good acid-sugar ratio and texture,” he said. “Lots of juice and gel and yet it was firm enough to slice.” It was too thin-skinned to ship in a box, so commercial growers moved on.
After it was made available again, the folks at Rutgers surveyed about 1,200 home gardeners who grew the variety and asked if they planned to grow it again. More than 1,000 said they would, a pretty convincing vote of confidence.
Here’s the rub. A crop failure has made seeds scarce in 2012. Rutgers’s Jack Rabin hopes to have seeds available in April, a little late for seed-starting but not too late for Washington gardeners who can still sow seeds directly in May or put in seedlings a month later and still expect a tomato harvest, albeit in late summer rather than late July and August.