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What’s the best tomato to grow in Sonoma County?

Come early October, is there nothing better to do than head out to the backyard (or patio) for the last tastes of summer before the weather sets in? For so many of us, homegrown tomatoes are our garden’s summer gold. Families bond over the planting in the spring. The kids have a natural snack all summer with a cherry tomato plant. Meals are planned and dishes prepared around our back yard’s bounty of colored orbs and globes. Our community of tomato growers in this area is pretty vast. The well-spring and sources of our tomatoes reflect the diversity of our community, too.

In our home, the new calendar year also marks the beginning of the tomato cycle. Every New Year’s Day for decades I’d sit with my Dad and pour over his collection of seed catalogs which arrived in the mail the previous autumn. We’d sit at his kitchen table and plan his tomato patch’s glorious new arrivals. He had old seed packets to inspect, all wrapped in a tired and crusty rubber band, and we’d wonder if any were still good. But the real joy was reading the catalog’s descriptions of the new tomatoes with the old man. Finally we’d pick one or two newbies, send in our check and our new year was underway. I still order tomato seeds every Jan. 1 the same way and think about my Dad. Sonomans have been buying tomato seeds from catalogs for at least a century, I think. Baker Heirloom Seeds in Petaluma is a good place to begin this coming New Year’s Day.

David Laverine saves seeds from his favorite tomatoes and trades the heirloom seeds with his friends. His year is marked by autumn seed collection dates at home and at friend’s places. He says keeping seeds are really simple: “You just save some seeds from the best tomatoes, or better yet the mutations and then put them out in a bowl until they ferment (when they get covered with a white film), which strips the natural coating, then just run the mess through an open sieve and dry the seeds on a plate. It’s easy to save seeds!”

If you are interested, there is the incredible Community Seed Exchange in Sebastopol with seed saving classes. We really shouldn’t be supporting the industrialized seed industry with their monopolistic practices all the while our small community of seed savers practices a civilization saving seed exchange, right?

My ex, Bonne usually picks up fantastic and wonderful tomato plants every year at the annual Spring Garden Sale at the county’s Jail Industries Garden. The sheriff’s department set it up to help the inmates get some life skills and job momentum and she gets a great deal on fantastic heirloom varieties. Tomato Day at the Jail nursery is one of the highlights of her gardening year. Many of us pick up tomato plants at our neighborhood farmer’s market in Spring. Others buy their plants at garden centers or grocery stores. There are so many tomato sources in Sonoma County gardens!

We were big fans of the liz candy tomato, a gorgeous, full-bodied tomato with a flavor that boasts a bright mild acidity with a lingering finish. Peter Posert photo.
We were big fans of the liz candy tomato, a gorgeous, full-bodied tomato with a flavor that boasts a bright mild acidity with a lingering finish. Peter Posert photo.

But what is the best tomato to grow in Sonoma? There are so many from which to choose. We had to find out, so we gathered the tomato growing gang and had a super fun backyard tomato taste-off! Our clear 9 favorites (listed alphabetically) out of the 23 tomatoes we tasted on this day were:

Amathyst Creme: Rich and creamy texture, with bright melon tone and soft acidity. These are bold, rich, divine flavors in a little yellow and purple package. Grower - Bonne Posert.

Atlantic Sunset Grape: Orange-gold with a splash of purple on the shoulders, this is a small-to-medium sized grape tomato with exciting, evolving, layers of flavors. Grower - Brenda Bee.

Berkeley Tie Dye: This is a glorious mildly acidic with plenty of sweetness and citrusy tomato quality. Grower - Brenda Bee

Black Cherry: Dark brown to purplish. Spicy and delicious, sweet and super high mid-palate tomato flavors and good balance. Grower - Ryland

Brad’s Atomic Grape: Crimson with purple stripped color - earthy nutty quality and rich ripe melon/nectarine fruit quality with just a touch of acidity. Grower - Brenda Bee

Kellog’s Breakfast: Rich bright yellow large orb of deliciousness. Bold acidity and tangy with good depth of acidity and a touch of herbal notes followed by a sweet/tang aftertaste. Grower - Daniel Miles

Liz Candy: The late harvested darker stripped tomato is an absolute winner. Gorgeous full-bodied flavor with a bright mild acidity and lingering finish. Multilayered fruitiness that is multi-dimensional. Grower - Brenda Bee.

Pearson: Medium large bright red globes. Glorious depth of flavors, grown from seed in Oakmont. This is a spectacular, prolific, all around tomato. Grower - Wendy Barton

Sun Sugar: Smaller bright orange-yellow cherry tomato. A huge burst of sunshine, it literally tastes like the sun, with lingering aftertaste of sweetness balanced with moderate acidity. Grower - Bonne Posert

Beyond the best tomato, we learned something more this year:

Tomatoes can teach us a lesson. We all hold each other up and support each other in families and social bubbles with caring posts and open cages not unlike our thriving tomato garden. In that, our tomato patch is pretty strong around Sonoma County. So many people tend to our community so well, and there is always room for another gardener, right? We hold onto and support each other, while looking for the next glorious tomato to come along.

Tasting Panel: Ellen Grant, Heidi Haigis, Brenda Bee, Peter Posert, Mandy Masciarelli, Anne Kopache, David Laverine, Cindy Poirer.

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