This time of the year, tomatoes are the stars of the garden. Neighbors, co-workers, cousins, mail carriers, even strangers that pass by have all got the wonderful summer gift of garden tomatoes.
In August, we take them for granted. But in March, we'd sell our soul to taste a tomato warmed by the summer sun. The earlier we pick, the better. Even though it's a miracle to pick in June, the true goal is to get a great-tasting tomato that ripens in early summer.
Last spring, I went through the catalogs searching for the earliest-producing varieties, ordered the seed and started them in April. They grew quickly in the greenhouse and were ready to be planted on Memorial Day.
Glen Drowns of the Sand Hill Preservation Center, an heirloom seed source in Iowa, persuaded me to start the plants later than usual and plant them out at our normal date.
"Some of those [big] early tomatoes just sit there with one tomato on them," he said.
I planted a few in my garden and gave the rest to Mildred's Daughters farm in Stanton Heights, the city's last working farm. In a completely unscientific test, we wanted to see which tomatoes produced first and which had good taste.
I did have a few big plants of 'Early Pick' and one of 'Early Girl.' They were gifts from readers who share my obsession with picking the first tomato. The plants already had fruit on them in April and were so large that they had to be handled carefully to get them into the garden.
These were the plants that gave me my first tomatoes, picked at the end of June. Both produce fruit a little smaller than a tennis ball and possess better-than-average taste.
Those two varieties, along with 'Sungold,' 'Fourth of July' and 'Stupice' (pronounced stew-PEE-chee), not only ripened quickly but continued to produce prolifically all through the season.
But two that I had high hopes for were a disappointment. 'Bradley' is a very early tomato a little bigger than a cherry. The seed catalog bragged it was the earliest of 300 varieties grown. The taste wasn't for me, and the same was true for 'Sandpoint,' whose fruit was a little bigger and a little later but not great-tasting.
Many of the early types are small fruited. One I liked was 'Whippersnapper,' which ripened very early and was loaded with sweet pink cherry tomatoes.
The Canadian series, including 'Canabec Super,' 'Maskabec,' 'Superbec' and 'Yorkbec,' all put on bigger fruit but were bland-tasting.
Mildred's Daughters specializes in heirloom tomatoes, growing some of the tastiest and most unusual ones available. I asked them to rate my tomatoes against some perennial favorites. They planted a row of my early tomatoes in June and the first fruits from 'Whippersnapper' were picked July 14.
Kathryn Robinson, an intern at the farm who worked closely on the row, tasting and recording harvest times, said 'Whippersnapper' was a favorite there. She also loved 'Tiny Tim,' an early cherry tomato.
"There's a nice initial burst of favor," she said. "Everything else didn't really have impressive taste."
'Juliet' also scored with her and others at the farm as a tasty and productive tomato. The only early tomato of any size to do well was 'Cosmonaut Volkov,' a medium-sized, tasty slicer also picked in July.
Next year, I'm going back to my old plan. I'm starting my favorites in March under lights, moving them to the greenhouse in April and picking in June. But I'll continue my quest for an early tomato that will rival the big meaty pink tomatoes of late summer for flavor.
I'll be at the Tomato and Garlic Festival at Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Garden from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. today. Bring a bag or basket of vegetables and get in for free. The produce goes to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
The Backyard Gardener appears periodically. Doug Oster can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 412-263-1484.