Since 81% of the tomato varieties available in 1903 have become extinct due
to the marketing tactics of the Petro/Chemical conglomerates that have
bought out or run out the regional seedsmen, I hardly think a concern for
the genetic diversity of this planet is zealotry.
When I retired from the Air Force in 1977 and we settled in a Baltimore
Suburb, I began to get serious about gardening, which had long been a
hobby, but on the back burner due to the military situation. It's kind of
hard to garden while living in Military housing and flying combat missions
out of various Southeast Asian bases, but I did manage to raise a 'mater or
two in such unusual places as Neah Bay, Washington and Clarke Field in The
The first order of business was to construct raised beds on the quarter
acre of impenetrable clay that came with our otherwise satisfactory home.
That took two years, but I finally wound up with 200 sq. ft. under somewhat
I used "Jim Crockett's Victory Garden" as a guide with great success,
followed by "Growing Vegetables the High Yield/Small Space Way" by Duane
Newcomb. That book seems to have been Mel Bartholomew's primer,
incidentally. Because both of those books were written before it became
politically incorrect to advocate the use of even safe chemicals, they have
disappeared from the shelves.
I soon realized that there is a great disparity in the quality of vegetable
varieties. I ordered about a dozen catalogs through National Gardening and
this soon produced fifty or more! I wound up on everybody's list and my
mailbox overflowed! Upon reading these "treasures" I found an amazing
similarity of offerings. These places were seemingly all using the same
wholesalers! At that time I grew a wide variety of vegetables, but have
since concentrated on tomatoes and a salad garden with lettuces, cukes,
bell peppers and a few carrots. Oh, maybe a few turnips and a little
spinach to have something in the ground at other times, but that's about
it. I barter with produce stands for the rest of my veggies. There's more
to know about only tomatoes than I can ever assimilate. One of my first
projects was to find the best tomato. Hoo Boy!..... I tried a bunch!.....
Better Boy, Supersonic, Beefmaster, Celebrity, Early Girl, Big Boy, Big
Girl, etc. ad nauseum. I didn't keep records in those days but I tried
about ten varieties a year between 1978 and 1990. There was an amazing
similarity. Almost all of them were far better than the miserable excuses
available from the Supermarkets or even the Produce Stands and Farmers'
Markets. I settled on Early Girl, Better Boy and Beefmaster VFN as my
favorites, although I continued to try other hybrids until 1993. Yes, I
tried my free sample of OG50. <G> If I had to rate the home garden type
hybrids against the commercial types I'd, probably give the home hybrids as
much as a five on a scale of one to ten and the supermarket types no more
than a two, MAX! What happened to six through ten? Patience.... It took
me over fifteen years to learn what I'm about to impart in one missive!
In the Summer of 1990, or thereabouts, we were visiting Montecello, and I
discovered a seedsman known as Dr, Jeff McCormack, a professor at the
University of Virginia, He was, and I believe still is, involved in the
restoration gardens at Montecello and owns his own Seed Company, Southern
Exposure Seed Exchange. His catalog advocated the use of the old open
pollinated varieties which have withstood the test of time, although it did
recognize that there are advantages to the home gardener in corns and other
air pollinated landraces that benefit from hybrid vigor. I tried a few of
Jeff's tomatoes and immediately found seven or eight! The difference in
the flavor was as great as that between what I had considered good and that
of the Supermarket cardboard!
Seed Savers Exchange was mentioned in Jeff's catalog and I joined that
organization in 1992. In 1993, I had occasion to call Dr. Carolyn Male, an
ardent seed saver, and spent a fascinating hour and a half on the phone
between Baltimore, MD and Albany, NY (ON MY NICKEL). It was the most
productive hour and a half of gardening time I have ever spent. As a
direct result of that call, I have progressed to the point where I grow
well over a hundred varieties of heirloom tomatoes each year, in three
different gardens, the largest of which is about two acres.
With that background in mind, I can't give you a favorite, but I can give
you a partial list of the best for me in several categories. I would give
any of these a nine.
1. Big Juicy, succulent reds--- Mortgage Lifter VFN, Sojourner South
Brandywine Red, Druzba, Abe Lincoln, Old Virginia. German Red Strawberry,
Page German Red, Olga's Biggest.
2. Super flavored and great textured pinks-- Anna Russian, Blue Ridge
Mountain, Stump O' The World, Purple Perfect, Eva Purple Ball, Brandywine
Pink, German Johnson, Pruden's Purple, Jeff Davis, Scarab (my own
discovery). OK. so I'm biased!
3. Yellows, most of which are either too bland or too tart for my taste.
Manyel and Lillian's Yellow Heirloom are exceptions. I would give either
of them a nine. A couple of eights here would be Dr. Wyche's Yellow and
4. Red/Gold Bicolors. Regina's Yellow for hot climates and Marizol Gold
for cooler weather.
5. Novel but outstanding in flavor as well. Aunt Ruby's German Green
which stays green after ripening to a superb flavor. Its pale green flesh
sets off the lime jello green gel. This one is gorgeous on a red lettuce
salad! Cherokee Purple is a maroon color with green shoulders and green
gel as well as great taste. Looks terrible, tastes great!
6, Outstanding under hot, disease prone conditions. Tropic, Arkansas
Traveller, Mission Dyke, Super Sioux, Homestead 24-F, Peron, Porters'
Where's my ten? Like the farmer said when he first saw the Elephant,
"There ain't no such animal!" I might give a ten to any of the above when
eaten in the garden with the dew still o them. If some runs off your chin,
that's fine, too.
All of these varieties are available from either Southern Exposure Seed
Exchange, P.O. Box 170, Earlysville, VA 22936 or Seed Savers Exchange, a
non profit organization that publishes an annual catalog for members only.
This is the "mother of all seed catalogs" and carries more varieties than
all other mail order sources combined. Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North
Winn Road, Decorah, Iowa 52101. The wealth of varieties without cultural
information may be a bit overwhelming for the beginner but this is really
"where it's at."
As far as disease resistance goes, I find Mortgage Lifter VFN AKA Red
Mortgage Lifter from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange to be more resistant
to the diseases that have built up in my garden than any other variety.
Abe Lincoln is another. The SESE catalog is unique in that it does provide
disease resistance information on heirlooms.
As far as I'm concerned, the hybrids are OK if you don't know any better
and you don't know any better if you've just grown Brandywine and a few
others that the kingpin seed sellers want you to try.
BTW, I have it on good authority that Dr. Randy Johnson, the developer of
the Mountain Series, grows German Johnson at home for his own use. <G>
Here endeth the epistle,:-)