THERE’S NOTHING LIKE the flavor of a truly ripe tomato, still warm from the sun and dripping with juices. Some years — last summer, for instance, thanks to cloudy days and cool temperatures — we barely get to test whether there’s “nothing like the flavor of a truly ripe tomato.” It happens. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have a long growing season, but cool weather dominates for most of it. That’s why tomato-loving Northwest gardeners know to select reliable varieties that ripen quickly even when summer heat fails to show up.
Mother’s Day is one of the high holidays of the growing season; it’s the point at which (usually) the weather has stabilized, the soil is warming and days are getting luxuriously long. It’s finally time to plant tomatoes, and you’ll find peak inventory at local nurseries, farmers markets and plant sales. I reached out to a few local experts to ask which tomato varieties deliver ripe fruit — before Labor Day — with rich flavor and a strong growing habit.
Almost everything I know about cultivating tomatoes I’ve learned from Matt and Leda Langley at Langley Fine Gardens, a small family farm on Vashon Island. Matt and Leda have been growing tomatoes and supplying plant starts to local nurseries for years. Among the more than 65 varieties they’re growing this year, they say these are the best:
● ‘Black Cherry’ — 1-inch mahogany fruits with a smoky-sweet flavor that grow in heavy clusters on vigorous vines. (65 days to harvest)
● ‘Juliet’ — generous trusses of elongated “mini-Roma” fruits with good flavor that hold fresh on the vine longer than most of the cherry types that succumb to cracking. (60 days)
● ‘Jaune Flamme’ — a French heirloom with abundant, plum-shaped tomatoes that look like apricots, with their orange skin and rosy red flesh. Excellent flavor for fresh eating and also good for sauce or drying. (75 days)
● ‘French Carmello’ — round, juicy fruit with rich tomato flavor and a nice balance of sweet and acid. The vigorous plants are disease-resistant and very productive. (70 days)
Also, the Tilth Alliance Edible Plant Sale is back! The in-person sale takes place May 7-14 at Rainier Beach Urban Farm & Wetlands. With limited capacity, reservations are required; details at tilthalliance.org/special_events/mayedibleplantsale.
Sign up to shop from a huge selection of organic, locally grown starts that thrive in our growing region, including these customer favorites:
● ‘Sungold’ — a go-to favorite of almost every gardener I know. Prolific trusses of orange cherry tomatoes have real tomato flavor, rather than being just sugar-bombs like other cherry types. (65 days)
● ‘Stupice’ — Sweet, red 2-inch fruits ripen reliably even in a cool growing season. (60 days)
● ‘Plum Regal’ — compact, disease-resistant plants that produce blocky paste-type fruit good for fresh eating and making sauce. (75 days)
● ‘Green Zebra’ — The ripe fruit is bright green inside and out but still tastes like a ripe red tomato. This one is a feast for the eyes on a mixed platter of sliced tomatoes. (75 Days)
Liane Smith, a plant buyer at Swansons Nursery who keeps nursery shelves stocked with tomato starts from Langley Fine Gardens and other regional producers, confirms ‘Jaune Flamme’ is a customer favorite. Smith also praises ‘Anna Russian’ as “surprisingly early for a tomato of its size.” It’s a heart-shaped variety introduced by a Russian immigrant in the 1980s and is big, juicy and meaty. (70 days)
Pro tip: When purchasing tomato starts, choose stocky plants that are 6 to 8 inches tall with healthy green leaves and sturdy stems. Avoid plants that are already in flower or setting fruit — the larger and more established your tomato plant is when it begins flowering, the greater your yield will be.