Cherry Tomato Champs
Remember when cherry tomatoes first started popping up in salad bars and restaurants across the country in the 1970s? Twenty years later, their popularity continues to grow, fueled by new introductions by tomato breeders and seed companies. With more and more cherry tomato varieties on the market, it's hard to know which are the best to grow.
To find out, last summer we recruited eight of our crack National Gardening test gardeners from around the country to trial six of the most popular red cherry tomato varieties -- 'Gardener's Delight', 'Large Red Cherry', 'Red Currant', 'Super Sweet 100', 'Sweet Chelsea' and 'Sweet Million' -- in their home gardens. The results of the trial are given below. And for gardeners who'd like to try one of the new yellow or gold cherry tomatoes, we've included our recommendations of the best varieties below.
We asked testers to grow all the varieties as they would their normal tomato crop and then rank each cherry tomato variety for plant vigor, disease resistance, ease of growing, cracking, quality, yield, overall performance and flavor. Cherry tomatoes are more closely related to their wild tomato kin than larger-fruited tomato varieties.
Perhaps for that reason, most varieties grew vigorously and had few problems, producing more than enough fruit for a small family. What set the varieties apart were the differences in flavor, size and susceptibility to cracking. In the end, it came down to how the tomato looked and tasted, and that's what NGA's testers used to decide the winners.
And the Winners Are
For overall yield, flavor and sweetness, our eight testers unanimously voted 'Super Sweet 100' the winner. Its parent, 'Sweet 100', revolutionized the cherry tomato world with its terrific yields (up to 50 fruits per cluster) and its novel, sweet taste when it was introduced in 1978. 'Sweet 100' got its name during field trials in California, when a European gentleman in a newly starched white shirt picked a sample of cherry tomatoes from row 100. The seeds and juice spurted all over his shirt as he ate the fruit. He just laughed and gushed, "Boy, that 100 is a sweet little devil." The rest is history.
'Super Sweet 100', introduced in 1982, is an improved version of 'Sweet 100' with added disease resistance. All varieties marked as 'Sweet 100' on the market today are actually this newer strain.
Linda Sapp, owner of Tomato Growers Supply Company, which grows more than 200 varieties of tomatoes in Fort Myers, Florida, wasn't surprised that 'Super Sweet 100' was declared the winner. "When you think of the classic red cherry tomato, most people remember the sweetness, reliability and production of 'Sweet 100'," she says.
An old standby, 'Large Red Cherry', was first runner-up in the trial and was liked for its trademark large size and slicing-tomato flavor. 'Sweet Million' had better crack resistance (a common problem with cherry tomatoes) than any other variety tested but fell short in flavor and yield, coming in third overall. The other three varieties ('Sweet Chelsea', 'Gardener's Delight' and 'Red Currant') were considered average in yield, sweetness, crack resistance and overall quality.
Here's how the testers described the six varieties, in order of preference:
'Super Sweet 100' (65 days from transplant).
'Large Red Cherry' (75 days from transplant).
'Sweet Million' (65 days from transplant).
'Sweet Chelsea' (67 days from transplant).
Despite the glowing description, all these improvements didn't add up to a better cherry tomato for our testers. 'Sweet Chelsea' impressed some testers with its fruit size and yield, but when compared with the other varieties, it ranked fourth overall. "The plants were disease-free and fruits were jumbo-sized, but with only an average flavor," explains Arthur Schumann of Portland, Oregon. "It's just a middle-of-the-road variety."
'Gardener's Delight' (65 days from transplant).
Testers said the vines were vigorous and high-yielding, but the fruits were the most susceptible to cracking of all varieties tested and the flavor was bland. "Taste is everything for me with cherry tomatoes," explains Leanna Rusch. "Even though 'Gardener's Delight' produced a lot of fruit, they had little flavor."
'Red Currant' (70 to 75 days from transplant).
'Red Currant' was considered an interesting novelty crop by testers, but it rated low overall. "The fruits were very attractive in salads, but the taste was too tart and skin too thick for best eating quality," notes Fred Hahn of Lewis Center, Ohio. "No more than two or three fruits ripened at one time, making them buggers to harvest," adds Jacqueline Dewar of Los Angeles, California. Though 'Red Currant' produced an abundance of tiny fruits, the poor flavor and the harvest difficulties ranked it last in most categories in our test.
The best test of a cherry tomato is to grow it (and taste it) yourself, of course. Use our results as a starting point for you own search for the best of these little reds (just be sure to include 'Super Sweet 100'!). And I'll see you at the salad bar.
Although we tested only the most popular red cherry tomato varieties, our story wouldn't be complete without mentioning the gold varieties gaining in popularity.
If you really want the sweetest cherry tomatoes, you might want to go for the gold. "I think gold and yellow cherry tomatoes are generally sweeter than their red counterparts and add another color to salads and cooking," notes Linda Sapp, owner of Tomato Growers Supply Company in Fort Myers, Florida.
In the indeterminate plant size class, 'Sweet Gold hybrid' produces fruits of 'Super Sweet 100' size and taste but has a deep gold coloring. 'Sun Gold hybrid' is another popular indeterminate gold cherry, but its flavor is more reminiscent of a pineapple than of a tomato. "It's definitely a different eating experience from the average tomato," says Sapp. (There's now a red version called 'Sungold Red' available.)
For an earlier harvest of gold and yellow cherries, try growing determinate varieties get only two to three feet tall, such as the 'Chello hybrid' or open-pollinated 'Gold Nugget'.