You want to have the best tomatoes, right?
You might suspect that there are better varieties out there but the thought of doing elaborate trials to evaluate these tomatoes is just exhausting.
Here is a way to run a simple trial to discover new great tomatoes! It is based on how we run our tomato trials at Tourne-Sol farm to save on time and space.
1. Set Your Trial Goals
What makes a great tomato?
A great tomato can mean many things to different people. But here are some things that make most people’s lists:
- Great Flavour!
- Stunning Appearance
- No Cracks
- Heavy Yields
- Early Maturity
- Good Disease Resistance
Describe Precisely What You Want
- What type of tomato are you looking for? Cherry, Saladette, Beefsteak?
- What is their intended use? Sandwiches or sauces?
- Does the tomato have to be a specific colour?
- How do you grow your tomatoes? Do you grow them in the open field or in a protected area like a caterpillar tunnel?
- Are you growing tomatoes for sales or for home eating? If they are for sale, are they for farmers market or for wholesale?
When you’ve answered all these questions, you can decided on the clear goal for your tomato trial.
Here are two examples of trial goals:
- Find the best RED fresh eating tomato for a home gardener irrespective of size.
- Find the best yellow cherry tomato to grow in a catterpillar tunnel
You can imagine you would likely not have the same varieties in both trials!
2. What Will You Trial?
To have the best trial, you should start with the tomatoes varieties that seem promising. The more varieties you consider, the more chance you will find a real outstanding tomato.
Here are a few top tips for discovering a diversity of promising tomatoes:
- Open all your seed catalogs and peruse the tomato sections,
- Go grab a coffee with a neighbouring farmer or gardener to talk shop,
- Contact your local seed companies for recommendations,
- And of course scour the internet!
Make sure that you consider your full range of tomato varieties that fit your trial criteria from the classic workhorses to the new and trendy.
3. Design Your Trial Layout
How many plants will you evaluate per variety?
When we trial a tomato for the first time, we grow 2 tomato plants per variety.
This might not seem like much but it gives us a good first impression of the tomato.
How much space does each plant need?
We give sprawling plants extra space for a first trial. We plant our trial tomatoes rows 5 ft apart and we plant the tomatoes 3 ft apart in the row. This distance let’s us clearly see how each plant is performing
Where will you grow your trial?
If you are trialling tomatoes to grow in the field, trial them in the field. If they are intended to be greenhouse tomatoes, trial them in your greenhouse!
How much space will your whole trial take?
If you want to trial 20 tomato varieties x 2 plants/variety x 3 feet between plants, you will need 120 row feet.
With 5ft between rows x 120 row feet, you will need 600 square feet for you trial.
If you have less space, you might consider growing only one plant per variety at 2 ft inrow spacing.
4. Evaluate Your Trial
Your trial need to be as easy as possible to evaluate. If your trial is not easy to evaluate, it will take last place to everything else going on in your fields.
Mid July – Evaluate Disease
Walk your field and rate each tomato from 1 – 10 on how much disease is visible.
Mid to End August – Evaluate Harvest
We generally only harvest our trial tomatoes in the field once. That’s right, only one harvest!
- We harvest all the good fruit from a single variety into a bucket.
- MAKE SURE EACH BUCKET IS LABELLED WITH THE VARIETY
- We record how many buckets per variety.
- We record whether the fruit is particularly fragile or cracked.
This gives us a really good idea of the tomato’s potential. A plant that only yields two fruits is probably a lot less interesting than a plant that gave two full buckets.
Evaluate Taste and Appearance
We bring the well labeled harvest buckets to the wash station. We choose a few fruit from each variety and make a nice display.
We then rate each tomato variety from 1 to 10 on appearance.
Then we taste.
Again, we rate each variety from 1 to 10 on taste and try to write down any key words about how the variety tastes.
We make sure to do this with a few people. This helps balance different people’s preferences.
We clearly indicate the tomatoes that everyone loved.
Early September – We Might Harvest Again
Usually after a first harvest, we have a clear idea of what we like.
A second harvest about 10 days later can confirm those ideas. It can also give a chance for any varieties that might take a bit longer to kick in.
But since early tomato yields are important for us, a late heavy yielding tomato better be pretty amazing to make the cut!
Once we have found some favourite new tomatoes in our trial, we then decide what will happen next.
If we have any doubts about this great new tomato, we will add it to another trial the following year.
If we fell pretty confident about this new tomato, we’ll grow out 10 plants the next year with a 100ft isolation distance. If we still love the tomato, we will be able to get some seed for an initial release.
And then, we get to see if our clients love this new tomato!
If this tomato is a hit, we will probably grow 20 to 40 plants the next time we grow it out.
This might seem like a very simple trial system. But it has let us screen hundreds of varieties to discover tomatoes we really love. In some cases, we’ve dropped varieties we thought we loved after other varieties performed much better.
Do you have a crop you would like to trial? How would you design your trial?