Update on the 2021 Tomato Project

By Kathryn Hamilton, EMGV

For the last two years Master Gardeners have conducted tomato-growing experiments at Briggs Avenue Community Garden. In 2020 we compared the performance of grafted and ungrafted heirlooms tomatoes. You can read about the project and find links to our You Tube videos on grafting here.

With the 2022 seed catalogues arriving, the time seems right to catch up on 2021’s tomato experiment. Our goals were two-fold:  participate in the Citizen Science Initiative initiated by the Klee Lab at the University of Florida. Here we were charged with evaluating three tomatoes from the lab and comparing them to the most commonly grown tomato in the home garden:  Better Boy. For fun, we asked: “would the Klee Lab Hybrid come close to rivaling the taste of some of our favorite heirlooms?” For even more fun, we decided to see what type of tomato the Shin Cheong Gang, a grafting rootstock, would produce.

The tomatoes from the Klee lab included a large slicer (BW Hybrid), a mid-sized cherry tomato (R-Hybrid), and the improved Garden Gem, a salad tomato reported to be one of the best tasting tomatoes EVER. Here’s what we found:

B-Hybrid vs Better Boy

Throughout the summer the BW Hybrid (the Klee slicer) and the Better Boy ran neck-in-neck, standing stronger than any of the heirlooms. They were alive and ekeing out tomatoes in mid-September, a month longer than the last heirloom of 2020.  They had comparable production. The B-hybrid produced slightly fewer, but larger tomatoes than the Better Boy, which gave off more, but slightly smaller tomatoes.  During the period in which we weighed and measured them, there was a difference of one pound between the total weights of the two tomatoes.

In our annual, very informal Master Gardener, Tomato-Lover Taste Test, Better Boy was preferred over the BW Hybrid by almost 2 – 1. Those who liked the BW Hybrid called it richer and more intense than the Better Boy. Positive comments about Better Boy included: “Smoother, more tomatoey taste, and juicer.” To see what other Citizen Science Initiative participants thought, go here. Our comments are under the entry for Durham.

R-Hybrid vs Shin Cheong Gang

Without question, the Shin Cheong Gang, a rootstock, which we grew to try its tomatoes was the sturdiest and most productive plant in the garden. By size only, it was immediately recognizable as “different.” It produced bags of cherry tomatoes on a highly disease-resistant plant.

The Shin Cheong Gang vine was nearly 12 feet long. It produced bags of tomatoes. Given that rootstock tomatoes are notoriously bad, one taster called the tomato “good enough” especially given the plant’s productivity and disease resistance.

The cherry-type tomatoes from the RW Hybrid were a bit larger, but grew in vined clusters, making it difficult to pick the ripest tomatoes which grew to the inside. They were also terribly susceptible to cracking. In taste tests, comments for the RW Hybrid went from “good enough” to “strong intense flavor.” Comments on the rootstock tomato included: “bright flavor; tomatoey and sweet; and ‘I like this, just not as much.’”

The vining growth habit of the RW Hybrid was a harvesting liability, especially for tomatoes growing deep inside the plant. The cracking was legendary.

Garden Gem

In “garden munches” early in the season, Garden Gem didn’t seem like a very interesting tomato, although one astute Master Gardner recognized its “potential” almost immediately.  Ultimately, Garden Gem lived up to its name.  The plants were disease resistant, prolific, easy to pick, crack resistant. While they weren’t large, they were perfect salad tomatoes, juicy and sweet. And in October, this was the last plant standing in the garden.

The Annual Master Gardener, Tomato-Lover Taste Test

For the third year in a row, in an event organized and hosted by Bev Tisci, a group of master gardeners gathered mid-August to taste-test and rank tomatoes from their gardens. This year we tasted 38 different tomatoes: 21 slicers; four smalls; three pastes, and 10 cherries. Here are the results of the top three tomatoes in each category.

Slicers: Carbon, Costoluto Genovese and Blazey (from Craig LeHoullier).

Paste: La Roma; Cuore DiBuo; Premio

Small: Garden Gem, Marriage Marzinera; Juliet and Tiger Tom (tied).

Cherry:  Artisan Blush, Sungold, Black Cherry.

A few notes: 

  • This was the second year that Carbon ranked first among slicers.
  • In 2019, Pink Berkely Tie-Dye took first place, but was unranked this year.
  • Lemon Boy earned third place in both 2019 and 2020; it was also unranked this year.
  • And look at that Garden Gem!
  • Proven Winners is selling seeds and starts of the original Garden Gem. Go here for additional information.
  • The Klee Lab will once again sell seeds in support of their research and will continue their Citizen Science Initiative. For a $25 donation you will receive seeds for R Hybrid, BC Hybrid, Improved Garden Gem, Improved Garden Ruby and Better Boy Hybrid. Click here for additional information
  • Several companies are selling seeds for Maglia Rosa, which gives Garden Gem its flavor.
  • As of this writing (December 29) Shin Cheong Gang seeds remain out of stock. That was also the case in 2020. Last year, by mid-January both Johnny’s and David’s Garden Seeds had stock. But this year, David’s Garden Seeds reports that their supplier no longer carries them.