Tomato taste test - American style

'Sungold', one of the top tasting tomatoes in both the US and UK taste tests. Image ©Jacquie Gray/RHS
In my last post here, I looked at a British tomato taste test featuring tomatoes grown in the glasshouse of a large seed company in Oxfordshire in England. This time, we cross the Atlantic to Morningsun Herb Farm, a retail and mail order herb and vegetable nursery about 50 miles north west of San Francisco.

Their annual tomato tasting days began back in 2003 so they have a fascinating record of visitors’ favorites for flavor. For their 10th annual Tomato Day, last year, ninety three varieties were tasted by a large throng of visitors.

The hybrid tomato 'Sweet Chelsea' tasted better than many heirlooms ©Sakata SeedsTop of the tree came ‘Sun Sugar’, with ‘Sungold’ in second place – ‘Sungold’ also came second in the British test. These were followed by ‘Brandywine Sudduth’, ‘Sweet Chelsea’, ‘Rosalita’ and in sixth place ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’. You can check the full list on the Morningsun Herb Farm website. In 2011 the top three were ‘Sun Sugar’, ‘Sungold’ and ‘Isis Candy’ followed by ‘Oaxacan Jewel’ and ‘Blush’ with ‘Snow White Cherry’, ‘Super Sweet 100’ and ‘Yellow Cherokee’ all equal. The voting was very close. But it’s worth mentioning that back in 2007 almost every singe person rated ‘Sun Sugar’ as “superb”. 'Sun Sugar', voted best tasting in the Morninsun Herb  Farm tomato taste test last year. Image ©Morningsun Herb Farm

So, in general, ‘Sun Sugar’ (cherry) and ‘Sungold’ (cherry) both of which scored exceptionally well every year, seem the most dependable tasty.

As with the British results, the varieties that did well were a mixture of modern hybrid varieties and older heirloom types. But, unlike the British taste test, all the voting took place on one day instead of being spread over a number of weeks. This is probably gives a fairer picture.

I should also mention that a couple of years ago New York magazine carried out their own very interesting tomato taste test involving two top New York chefs and an heirloom tomato expert.

Tomato Taste Test - British style

Everywhere you look, there are claims about how tasty are the tomato varieties offered by different seed companies. But, instead of relying on the seed company’s marketing department, isn’t the best way to simply ask people to taste a range of different tomatoes – and give their verdict?

Well, at Ball Colegrave, the British outpost of the Ball Horticultural Company (neither sell retail), that’s exactly what they did – last year, and the previous year as well. All the visitors who toured their summer trials – and who also voted for their Blue Flag awards for ornamentals – were invited to taste twenty five of their tomato varieties. All were grown under glass. The previous year they were offered forty seven varieties - which may be too taste boggling for any tongue.

I suspect that there’s a bias amobgst tasters towards familiar names which are likely to be tasted first and those with unfamiliar, or odd, names would tend to be sampled less often. But still...

The leader of the pack this year was ‘Sweet Aperitif’, with ‘Sungold’ in second place and ‘Chocolate Cherry’ third followed by ‘Suncherry Premium’, ‘Rosada’ and ‘Sweet Million’.

Last year, the top of the tree were ‘Sweet Million’, with ‘Rosada’ second and ‘Suncherry Premium’ third followed by ‘Trilly’ and ‘Sparta’ with ‘Sungold’ in sixth place.

Of course, this could hardly be called a rigorously scientific study. But the results do tend to confirm, over the two years, that gardeners will be very pleased with the flavour of ‘Rosada’ (mini plum), ‘Suncherry Premium’ (cherry), ‘Sungold’ (cherry) and ‘Sweet Million’ (cherry). And all four varieties, I should mention, have been awarded the prestigious Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Next time, I'll be looking at an American version of this taste test.

T&M splash the cash on world record pumpkin

World record Pumpkin weighing 2009 pounds. Image ©BigPumpkins.com
Remember last year when Thompson & Morgan paid £725 ($1149) - for just one snowdrop bulb? I wrote it up here. Well, they've splashed the cash again. My old friend at T&M, Managing Director Paul Hansord, has paid 200 euros – that’s £168 or $266 – for one pumpkin seed. No, no... Not one packet, not one pound, not one kilo. One seed. But it's one of just five seeds produced by last year's 2009lb (911Kg) record-breaker (above, click to enlarge. Image ©BigPumpkins.com) which is called "The Freak II".

I thought I’d simply quote you Thompson & Morgan’s press release, in full.

“Growing giant pumpkins is no longer a hobby - to many it has become a competitive sport! So if you want to grow the biggest and the best, you need to start off with the very best genetics.

“At 9pm on Saturday 19th January, the European Giant Vegetable Growers Association held a live auction of pumpkin seed varieties as part of www.bigpumpkins.com chat room. A total of 23 lots were included in the sale.

“Poised by their computers, 67 enthusiasts logged on to take part in the bidding which went on for almost 4 hours. However, lot 23 was the one everyone was waiting for; it was seed from last year’s world record-breaking pumpkin - a hybrid raised by Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island, which weighed in at 2009lbs (911Kg) at Topsfield Fair in the USA. Ron’s was the first ever pumpkin to weigh more than 2000lbs. After a frenzied bidding war, a single seed from Ron Wallace’s prize-winner was sold to Thompson & Morgan for €200.00. World record pumpkin seed, and ordinary pumpkin seed. Image ©Thompson & Morgan[You can see how big it is compared to a normal pumpkin seed (right, click to enlarge).]

“Managing director, Paul Hansord said, “When compared to the usual giant pumpkin seed price of around 46p ($0.73), this seems extortionate. But we’re paying for the pedigree. If you want to grow a really huge pumpkin, you need to start with record-breaking, genetically proven, premium seed.”

“Auctions of pumpkin seed have been running since 1997. Trading encourages growers and enthusiasts to raise stronger and more competitive hybrids. The highest price paid for a single pumpkin seed was in 2011 from a previous record-breaker which weighed 1810lbs (821Kg). The price was £1009 ($1600); an exceptionally high price due to the fact that the fruit had only produced 5 seeds.

Thompson & Morgan is now searching for a ‘growing partner’ with specialist knowledge of growing giant vegetables to help raise this precious seed in an attempt to break the record for the world’s heaviest pumpkin.”

T&M’s propagator must be mightily relieved they’re looking for someone else to grow the seed for them. Can you imagine the phone call? “Hello Paul. You remember that pumpkin seed you paid a fortune for? Well, down here at the nursery it’s been a very bad year for slugs…”

You can read more about Ron Wallace and his pumpkin in The Boston Globe.

Book Bullet: Just Vegetating – A Memoir by Joy Larkcom

Just Vegetating by Joy Larkcom is published by Frances LincolnI always wondered what was in Joy Larkcom’s filing cabinets. In her house in Suffolk she had a whole row of them - steel, four drawers each – all along one wall of her work room. And then when we visited her in her new home in Cork – there they all were. But without them she would not have been able to produce this extraordinary memoir.

For decades, Britain’s “Queen of vegetable growing” has directly or indirectly influenced just about every home vegetable grower – on both sides of the Atlantic. An influential pioneer of organic growing, she also introduced many heirloom European and Asian and American varieties to a far wider community of growers as a result of her research trips around Europe, China, Japan and North America. She learned Mandarin for her Chinese trip, took her kids out of school for a year to tour Europe in ramshackle caravan, pioneered baby leaf salads, brought seed back from round the world and grew it, and tested and tasted the results. She took copious notes, took copious pictures too, kept decades of old seed catalogs and research reports – that’s what was bursting out of those filing cabinets.

And some of all that has found its way into her new book. Joy has distilled her life’s experience – well, some of it anyway – into this unique memoir which brings us accounts of her on-a-shoestring travels, her discoveries and insights, the best of the articles she’s written over forty years, together with her more recent reflections. It’s an approach which is hugely engaging, consistently revealing and which bursts with proven approaches to growing food.

Just Vegetating – A Memoir by Joy Larkcom is published by Frances Lincoln

  • A unique presentation of a life’s work helping us all grow better vegetables
  • Fun to read, with great pictures of Joy’s gardens (and family) and veg growing around the world
  • Combines entertainment with top class practical advice

Just Vegetating was published in Britain in June. It becomes available in North America in September but advance orders can be placed now. There’s a review for British readers on my Simply Gardening blog, and a profile of Joy I wrote ten years ago on my website and some thoughts on visiting Joy in Cork on a 2009 Transatlantic Gardener blog post.



Rotten research on tasteless tomatoes

Tomato 'Sweet Million' - rated highly for flavor by Raymond Blanc. Image ©Sakata Inc
This week the New York Times reports a paper in the journal Science which is said to reveal why modern tomatoes have no flavor. Apparently, the mutation that plant breeders bred out in order to prevent greenback (green shoulder) also “plays an important role in producing the sugar and aromas that are the essence of a fragrant, flavorful tomato”.

Harry Klee, a tomato researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was not involved in the research, is quoted in the Times as saying that the discovery “is one piece of the puzzle about why the modern tomato stinks.”

What planet are they on? Modern tomatoes don’t “stink”. Some don't taste of much, one or two are pretty much inedible, but there are plenty of modern tomato varieties with both a high sugar content and a wonderful flavor. Why base a serious piece of research on such prejudiced judegement - apart from the fact that it makes good copy?

Tomato 'Apero', rated highl;y for sweetness and flavour by the RHS. Image ©RHSIn 2007 the Royal Horticultural Society grew forty two different cherry tomatoes. You can read their report. Twelve were recommended for gardeners and received the RHS Award of Garden Merit. The sugar level was measured in each and the flavor assessed. Let me quote a few comments on three individual varieties: ‘Apero’ (left, click to enlarge), with a Brix-test result of 9.5% average sugar content, had a “good flavour”. ‘Golden Sweet’, with a Brix-test result of 10%, had a “good flavour and texture”. ‘Rosada’ (below right, click to enlarge) had a Brix-test result of 10.5%, the highest of all, and a “good sweet flavour.” True, it would have been better if they could have given a little more detail on flavor, but still – they rated them highly. All are modern F1 Hybrids. Tomato 'Rosada', rated highly by the RHS for sweetness and flavour. Image ©RHS

‘Sweet Million’ (top, click to enlarge), another modern F1 Hybrid, bred in Japan, also has an AGM but although it has a lower Brix test result of 7.1% the good balance of sweetness and acidity creates a flavour that was praised by renowned chef Raymond Blanc in the RHS magazine The Garden. He said this gave “a good tomato experience… juicy, excellent mouth-feel’”.

In fact Raymond Blanc took part in an extensive tomato taste test reported in The Garden in 2007. A number of varieties had good flavour, many of them modern. As well as ‘Sweet Million’ Raymond Blanc also liked ‘Santa’, another F1 Hybrid bred in Japan, and the opinion on ‘Santa’ was summed up by three judges: “Clean, meaty flavour. Well-balanced acid/sugar. Juicy fleshy texture.” ‘Santa’ is probably the most widely grown supermarket cherry tomato.

Another of Raymond Blanc’s favourites in the taste test was ‘Floridity’: "This is the best so far, good texture, excellent tomato experience," he said. The collective view of all the tasters was: “Outstanding flavour. Fleshy and juicy. Perfect acid/sugar balance”. This is a British-bred F1 Hybrid plum type.

Modern tomato varieties have no flavor? Nonsense.

So. Firstly. It’s simply not true that modern tomatoes have no sweetness and no flavor. Secondly, some modern varieties taste better than others; same as potatoes, carrots, apples and other vegetables. Choosing the right variety, modern or heirloom, is crucial. Thirdly, how you grow tomatoes makes a huge difference to the way they taste. Fourthly, if the researchers kept their tomatoes in the fridge all bets are off anyway – that’s a great way to ruin the flavor.

Transatlantic award winners: Hollyhock and chili pepper

Finally, in my last look at award-winning seed-raised plants for 2012, from both sides of the Atlantic, a Fleuroselect Gold Medal winning hollyhock and All-America Selection chili pepper, developed in Britain. For more on All-America Selections and Fleuroselect, see my earlier post.

Hollyhock 'Spring Celebrities Crimson' - Fleuroselect Gold Medal Winner 2012. Image © Fleroselect
Hollyhock ‘Spring Celebrities Crimson’

The Spring Celebrities Series of hollyhocks has been developed in Holland, and represents the latest in dwarf, annual hollyhocks. OK, for many (most?) of us that’s a problem in itself: hollyhocks should be tall and elegant, and so they should be biennial – sow seed one year, flower the next. Right?

The point about their being short, and flowering from a spring sowing, is that they fit better into the growing regimes that growers already have established and so the plants are more likely to find their way into garden centres.

‘Spring Celebrities Crimson’ reaches just 2ft/60cm in height and those rich red, 3-4in/8-10cm double flowers are very pretty. It flowers from a spring sowing because, unlike most hollyhocks, it doesn’t need a period of cold to initiate flowering. Other colours in the series are soft pink, lilac, lemon, carmine rose, purple, and white.

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Chili Pepper 'Cayennetta' - All-America Selection 2012, Image © VegetalisChili pepper ‘Cayennetta’

This is a chili pepper, developed by a British company, that’s an All-America Selection – how’s that for Transatlantic success. And with a plant that until recently hardly anyone in Britain grew.

‘Cayennetta’ produces bright red fruits, green at first, about 3-4in/7.5-10cm long on bushy and well branched, rather upright plants that fill out well and don’t usually need any support. It’s ideal in a container. The fruits are relatively mild, slightly spicy, with an SHU rating of 10-20,000,

What’s more, ‘Cayennetta’ not only thrives at cooler temperatures than most chilies but it’s also good in heat; the dense foliage helps protect the fruits from sun scorch.

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Amazing crop from one cucumber plant

Cucumber 'Socrates' - 129 cucumbers from one plant. Image ©Enza ZadenJust a quick one to tell you about Mrs Anne Byas, a gardener from West Molesey in Surrey on the southern edge of London (and only a few miles from where I grew up).

It's just come to light that last year she had an amazing crop of cucumbers - 129 from one plant. The variety was 'Socrates'. One hundred and twenty nine! The previous year she thought she was doing well with forty but last year...

'Socrates' is a mini-cucumber for the greenhouse with fruits about 7in/17.5cm long, in a very attractive dark green shade. It comes with built-in resistance to the dreaded powdery mildew and also some other cucumber diseases. It thrives in cooler conditions, and produces seedless fruits without pollination. Ideal if you only have space for one plant. 

Anne sowed just three seeds, they all came up, so she gave two away to friends. The first fruits from her remaining plant started cropping in early June and continued until 29 November and she didn't know what to do with them all. "There's a only a certain amount of cucumbers my neighbours and I can eat," she said.

It's also worth mentioning that 'Socrates' is highly rated in the US. In organic trials run by Colorado State University 'Socrates' came out top for yield. "'Socrates' by far, produced the most cucumbers per plant," said their report. Need I say more?

Cucumber 'Socrates' was developed by the independent Dutch company Enza Zaden. 'Socrates' is available in Britain from Johnsons Seeds and in North America from Johnny's Selected Seeds.



It's worth mention

Transatlantic award winners – Viola and watermelon

Continuing my occasional look at this year’s award winning seed varieties – from each side of the Atlantic – a watermelon and a viola. For more on All-America Selections and Fleuroselect, see my earlier post.


Watermelon 'Faerie'

All-America Selections Watermelon 'Faerie' is unusual in watermelons in combining pink flesh with yellow skin – most varieties with pink flesh have dark green skin. And that attractive skin also develops faint pink stripes. The flesh is sweet, with a crisp texture and a high sugar content.

Although growing strongly, the plant spreads less than many varieties, reaching about 10-12ft/3-6.m across and it produces fruits which are a great family size – about 7-8in/18-20cm across and weighing about 4-6lb/1-8-2.7kg. Plants are resilient, and pest and disease tolerant.

Sow seeds in individual pots about four weeks before the last frost date in your area at about 75F/24C. Germination takes 7-14 days, harden off before planting out.

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Viola ‘Sorbet XP Delft Blue’

Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner Viola ‘Sorbet XP Delft Blue’ is the latest in a long series of excellent Sorbet varieties; the Sorbet XP Series, with nineteen colours, is an upgrade on the Sorbet Series with twenty three colours.

The colouring in ‘Sorbet XP Delft Blue’ is delightful, that cheekyViolaSorbetXPDelftBlueFleuro blue and white face (right, click to enlarge) always appeals. The plants are neat and bushy – reaching about 8in/20cm high and the same across - and ideal in window boxes or small containers with dwarf daffodils. What’s also important is that all the plants will be same size and flower at the same time – no tall stragglers and no late flowering plants to spoil the effect.

These are mainly plants for winter and spring, though they can also thrive in summer in cool climates. Sow at 68F/20C, grow on at 60C/15C and harden off before planting out.

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Book Bullet: Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide by Steve Sando

HeirloomBeanGrowersguide-9781604691023lOK. The return of the Book Bullets. Now that growing food is becoming so popular, we’re getting away from books about growing edibles in general and seeing more books on growing individual crops. And this is vital because it ensures that food growers appreciate the often dramatic differences between individual varieties of the same crop. And just one quick look at this book reveals the vast variety of edible beans. And this is just Steve Sando’s top fifty.

There’s excellent advice on how to grow beans, written in an infectiously enthusiastic style - but frankly, as Steve says, they’re pretty easy to grow. Then the heart of the book is the bean-by-bean guide.

British gardeners will be surprised to see runner beans grown for their seeds, indeed the book tends to pass the European enthusiasm for fresh beans on one side, but everyone will be taken by the variety of colors and flavors and uses.

Although focused on heirlooms, and New World heirlooms in particular, there’s plenty to tempt the gardener – and the cook.

The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Grower’s Guide by Steve Sando is by published by Timber Press.

  • Reveals the humble bean as a delicious and attractive, yet easy to grow, gourmet food.
  • Passionately written, elegantly illustrated – and with recipes too.


Transatlantic award winners – Ornamental Pepper and Agastache

OK, back to my short series looking at award winning seed-raised plants from both sides of the Atlantic, next up is an ornamental pepper and a first-year-flowering perennial Agastache. For more on All-America Selections and Fleuroselect, see my earlier post.
Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive': All-America Selection 2012. Image © All-America Selections

Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive'
All-America Selection Ornamental Pepper 'Black Olive' is an ornamental variety with three ornamental features and three uses. Firstly, the foliage which opens green but soon turns dark purple and it may be enlivened by green flashes. Then, there are small purple flowers and they mature into small, more or less tubular fruits which stand up from the branches to show themselves off. In colour, they begin green then turn purple and mature to fiery red.

'Black Olive' reaches 10-24in/25-60cm high and can be used as an ornamental container plant, the branches can be cut for indoor arrangements and the hot fruits can be used in the kitchen.

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Agastache 'Astello Indigo': Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner. Image © FlkeuroselectAgastache ‘Astello Indigo’
Fleuroselect Gold Medal winner Agastache ‘Astello Indigo’ is a first year flowering hardy perennial with slightly minty flavoured foliage and long spikes of pale blue flowers opening from dark blue buds.

Making bushy and well-branched plants which reach about 20in/50cm high and 14in/35cm across, the result is a slightly rounded, compact plant which never looks unnaturally dumpy and which produces flowers on side shoots and not just at the top.

Flowering from July to October from a spring sowing, plants should come into flower about four months after sowing, depending on the temperature at which they’re grown.

Plants are unusually attractive to bees, and can be used in sunny borders and large containers.

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