Ode to Sungold

As the curtain closes on the summer garden and the autumn garden edges towards its glory, I’d like to offer thanks. No, not a religious thanks for a summer of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, and other warm weather vegetables. But thanks to a person, the person who bred Sungold cherry tomato.Sungold near season's end

Anyone not familiar with Sungold tomato should be. It’s sweet and tangy, not at all cloying, enveloped in persimmon-orange skin. I once grew over 20 varieties of cherry tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme), including Sungold, for a magazine article. As a friend walked down the row, sampling fruit from each plant, she proclaimed, “That’s one row of lousy tomatoes.”

Agreed, excepting a few varieties, one of which was, of course, Sungold. The other exceptions were Gardener’s Delight, Sweet Million, and Suncherry, all three of which are rarely seen these days, probably because Sungold eclipsed the others with its distinctive appearance and, I think, even better flavor.

(My cherry tomato row didn’t include marble-size, so-called currant tomatoes, botanically, S. pimpinellifolium. They are very sweet, very small, and very tasty. I don’t grow them anymore because, for me, they’re too messy, dropping fruits all over the place. The following year, seedlings can grow to become a tomato jungle.)

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My Discerning Ducks

    Every morning when I throw open the door to my Duckingham Palace (a name coined by vegetable farmer Elliot Coleman, for his duck house), my four ducks step out, lower their heads as if to reduce air resistance, and race to the persimmon tree. They trace a large circle around the base of the tree, scooping up any fallen persimmons and, still running, gulping them down quickly enough so no other member of the brood snatches it.Duck eyeing my persimmon fruits
    The circle is wide because of the low, temporary fence I’ve set up around the tree. Within the fenced area, I gather up most of the fallen fruit for myself. The ducks, can’t, or haven’t figured out how to, fly over an 18 inch high fence.
    My tree is an American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), native to eastern U.S. from Florida to northern Pennsylvania. Until they are dead ripe, most American persimmons taste awful, with an astringency that dries out your mouth. (As Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, wrote, “When a persimmon is not ripe, it will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment.”) Some persimmons never lose that astringency, even when ripe, and here, in the northern reaches of persimmon growing, the season isn’t long enough to ripen most persimmons.Ducks not sharing persimmon fruits
    But good persimmons, when ripe, taste like dried apricots that have been soaked in water, dipped in honey, and given a dash of spice. Mine are selected varieties that ripen this far north, the first, Mohler, beginning in early September, and the second, Szukis, beginning in early October. (I grafted both varieties on one tree.) They also set fruit without the need for the separate male pollinator that most American persimmons require.
    I highly recommend planting an American persimmon tree. Besides bearing delicious fruit, the tree is attractive all season long and shows off its pretty bark in winter. All this, without the need for spraying or pruning. (I wrote about American persimmon in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)Persimmon fruits on tree

And the Winning Tomatoes Are . . .

    As of this writing, tomato plants have not been killed by cold. But with cool weather and disease, they’re pretty much done for the season, bearing few or no fruits. That is, except for Sungold, the most tasty variety of cherry tomato. It just keeps pumping out ropes of orange fruits.
    I grew over 20 varieties of tomatoes this year, all heirlooms, except for Sungold. My main criterion for planting any variety is flavor, which was very similar for certain varieties of tomato. They did differ in productivity, my second criterion for choosing a variety. So next year I plan to pare down the number of varieties I grow to the best tasting, most productive ones.
    Topping that list will be San Marzano. Right off the plant, eating one is like eating bland cotton. Thrown into pot with a little water to prevent burning and simmered till soft, and the flavor morphs to tart, tomato-y richness. No wonder, canned San Marzano tomatoes are labeled as such in Italy.
    Moving on to fresh eating tomatoes . . . Sungold, of course, with eight plants supplying enough for grazing outdoors and salads indoors. Anna Russian, Paul Robeson, and Red Brandywine all have excellent flavor and bore well and late into the season. Anna Russian is also quite good for paste.
    Carmello and Valencia are good-tasting tomatoes, although not as good as Anna Russian and company. I’ll grow these two because they’re also very productive, and their fruits are almost perfect spheres. Many heirloom fruits are interesting for their convoluted shapes but sometimes I want just a standard issue, round tomato (that also tastes good).
    One more possible variety is from seed a reader sent me a few years ago, a variety labeled Winterkeeper. The fruits allegedly store very well. The plants are still growing well; soon I’ll see how long into fall I’ll be eating tomato sandwiches. Ones I’ve already sampled have pretty good flavor.

Persistent, Young, and Vigorous

    Every time I walk back to the compost bin and see the volunteer tomato vine insinuating itself out of a gap in the slats of the bin, I’m reminded of the importance of crop rotation. This vine is still lush and green, and laden with perfect, red, pear-shaped tomatoes.
    Sure, the vine could be healthy because its roots are running through the rich, brown compost within the bin. Perhaps the vine is so healthy because, as a random seedling, its genetics, by lucky chance, makes it so.
    Most likely, this plant is so healthy and productive because it’s growing where no tomato has grown before. No disease spores linger there from previous crops of tomatoes. (The plant got a late start for the season, so its youthful vigor could also have a hand in its health.) Compost pile tomato
    I rotate my tomato beds every year, but that only puts them 10 feet or so from beds of the previous year. That’s the problem with home gardens; it’s hard to get plants far enough away from where they recently were. Thorough cleanup and mulching help, but go only so far.
    I have the luxury of two vegetable gardens separated by 50 feet of lawn, one of which hasn’t been home to tomatoes for over a year. Next year it will be.
    The flavor of the compost-grown tomato? Good enough, not great.


And the Best Cherry Tomato Is . . .

 Take your picks from the descriptor grab bag: Honey, Gold, Drop, Sun, Bunch, etc. Now put a couple of them together and you might end up with a luscious-sounding name for a tomato variety. People have done this, and reeled me right in. This year I got fished into planting a few, new (for me) varieties of cherry tomato.
    Sungold is the gold standard of cherry tomatoes, the one I always grow. Its rich aroma underlies a sweetness livened with just the right amount of tang. One problem with Sungold is that it’s an F-1 hybrid, which means that you can’t save the seed and expect the resulting seedlings’ fruits to have the flavor of Sungold. The flavor might be better, but it’s more likely to be not as good. The other problem with Sungold is that the seeds, which must be purchased, are expensive.
    The first of this year’s lineup was the variety Solid Gold, a yellow, teardrop shaped tomato. Like Sungold, it’s an F-1 hybrid. Perhaps it would offer better or different, but also excellent, eating. It has been billed as having “outstanding flavor of true grape tomatoes” (by those selling the seeds). Grape tomatoes are tiny tomatoes, a different species from other tomatoes, with very good, very sweet flavor.

Tomatoes-Honey Drop, Honey Bunch, Solid Gold

Tomatoes-Honey Drop, Honey Bunch, Solid Gold

    Honeybunch, the second in the lineup, is another F-1 hybrid, this one red and teardrop shaped. “As if a pearl tomato(?) had been drizzled with honey,” so they say.
    The flavor of another variety, Honey Drop, was likened to that of honeydew melon. This one’s a Sungold look-alike and is open-pollinated, so seedlings should generally yield the same fruits as the parent.
    All three of these new varieties have borne early, and their stems have been heavy all season long with beautiful golden or red fruits. One reason their stems are so laden with fruits is because we don’t pick them. Not when we also have Sungold tomatoes to munch on. Solid Gold, Honey Bunch, Honey Drop, and the unnamed variety are all very good tomatoes, but why eat a very good tomato when you can eat the best tomato?

Filbert Plague, How Bad?

    Moving out into the field, literally, to my filbert (hazel) nut bushes . . . East of the Rocky Mountains, most people who plant filberts, and especially permaculturalists, plant American filberts (Corylus americana). This species is resistant to eastern filbert blight, a fungal disease endemic in these parts. I once grew American filberts, and they are beautiful in fall when their leaves turn blazing shades of red. Unfortunately, their nuts are small, with bad flavor — a good wildlife food, a poor human food.

Pustules of filbert blight

Pustules of filbert blight

   European filberts (C. avellana), and various hybrids, are what yield the large and tasty nuts of commerce. Orchards of these filberts are mostly in the Pacific Northwest. About 50 years ago, Eastern filbert blight made inroads to those orchards, which prompted breeding programs for blight-resistant varieties.
    I’ve planted a number of blight resistant filbert varieties, including some older varieties bred decades ago in the East. As  it turns out, though, the the blight fungus exists in more than one regional strain; like some other fungi, the blight fungus might also morph over time.
    Join me as I walk my row of filberts and note the performance of the various varieties. Four of the plants are only in their second year and are from the New Jersey breeding program of Tom Molnar, at Rutgers. The hope is that they’ll be more blight resistant than the western-bred varieties.
    The worst of the older plants include the varieties Clark, Eta, and Hall’s Giant. Clark and Eta are western-bred, while Hall’s Giant is an older, easter-bred variety that is bearing a moderate number of good-sized nuts in spite of the blight.
    Santiam, from the west, is afflicted with a moderate amount of blight. The nuts it bears are small but still much larger and tastier than native American filberts.

Ripe filbert nuts

Ripe filbert nuts

    Least blight-infected are the western varieties Lewis and Yamhill, the Italian variety Tonda di Giffoni, and Graham, an older, eastern variety. Thus far, my favorite is probably Graham, a hybrid of American and European filberts bred by Samuel H. Graham of Ithaca, New York, and introduced in 1950. It yields the largest nuts of the lot and shows its American parentage in its wide suckering growth habit and the fiery red of its leaves in autumn.

Results May Vary

    As they say in ads: “Your results may vary.” The above are my experiences. Filbert blight, like any disease, only thrives with suitable environment, a susceptible host, AND presence of pathogen. My farmden fulfills all three conditions, with varying host plant susceptibility. But I only am growing one plant of each variety; slightly different conditions might affect susceptibility of individual plants.
    Now, about my cherry tomato experiences: Tomato flavor varies little with climate or growing conditions, so your results probably would NOT vary from mine. Except of course, that it’s surely a matter of taste when it comes to taste.


My Green Thumb, or Not?

I wish I could say that my ever-greener thumb is responsible for the baskets overflowing with tomatoes and ripe red peppers in the kitchen, and strings of fat, sweet onions hanging from garage rafters.  Ripe figs hang lax from branches, a drop of honeydew in each of their “eyes” telling me they want picking. The season has been bountiful. 

I can’t recall anything special that I did this season that would have boosted the harvest of so many different fruits and vegetables. The soil, as usual, got lathered with an inch deep layer of compost. Transplants and seeds got started with hand watering, then drip irrigation automatically quenched plants’ thirst from then on. I kept my usual eye out for insect or disease pests.

Sweet Italia peppers, like everything else, bore in abundance this season.

Sweet Italia peppers, like everything else, bore in abundance this season.

Further deflating my own gardening prowess is the fact that a lot of you readers also have experienced a season of bumper crops, right? (Not to wish ill upon your garden, but please tell me “no.”)

So let’s credit this season’s abundance on the weather. Rainfall was regular and sufficient up until August. Those periods of rain punctuated longer periods of intense sunlight in which plants no doubt reveled.

Temperatures also get credit. Very hot weather interfered with corn and pepper pollination last year; not so this year. Temperatures were neither too hot nor too cool all season long. Okra was the only vegetable complaining this year. Torrid weather is needed to keep those pods coming on. This summer, pods appeared on okra plants whenever the mercury soared, then the plants just sat, doing nothing, waiting out periods of cooler temperatures.

Good Show, Mustard

It’s time to render praise to a vegetable that has tasted and looked fresh and good all season long, every season, irrespective of the weather. That vegetable is mizuna, sometimes known as mustard cabbage or kaai ts’oi, or botanically as Brassica juncea or Brassica rapa nipponosica.

I sowed mizuna seeds along with lettuce and arugula seeds in the garden in April in a bed slated for corn planting later in June. Mizuna, lettuce, and arugula all provide greenery for early salads, enjoy cool spring weather, and are in and out of the garden quickly enough to be out of the way for a later crop such as corn. I pulled out these plants just before sowing corn — most of them. Arugula was anyway going to seed and the lettuce was soon to take a step in that direction.Mizuna kept bearing all season long.

Mizuna, though, was still looking fresh and green so I left it in place.

As corn stalks reached skyward, mizuna kept its fresh appearance and tenderness of spring. That corn bed is now ready for harvest and mizuna is still tender and tasty. Most kinds of mustard greens would have tough leaves and have gone to seed months ago. After the ears of corn are harvested, my plan is to dig out the corn plants, carry them off to the compost, and leave mizuna to carry on until really frigid weather turns its leaves to mush.

Mizuna flavor is mustardy, but only mildly so. Taste it and it seems to ooze vitamins and minerals, borne out by analyses showing it to be especially rich in pro-vitamin A and calcium.

Gardener’s Delight Unraveled

Did this season’s weather make for better-tasting tomatoes? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The main influences on tomato flavor are the amount of sunlight, the amount of water plants take up, probably plant nutrition, especially with respect to potassium and phosphorus, and — most importantly — the variety.

I’m happy with the taste of this season’s tomatoes but was eagerly awaiting ripening of the variety Gardener’s Delight. I grew Gardener’s Delight about 40 years ago and thought it was the best-tasting cherry tomato in the world. After not growing it for decades (other varieties got my attention), I grew it again last year, only to be disappointed in the flavor. That led me to wonder whether the apparent change in flavor was due to Fedco Seeds, the company from which I purchased the seeds, getting sloppy with their seed-saving, differing growing conditions (Wisconsin vs. New York), or whether I had become more discriminating in tasting my tomatoes.

As a test, this year I planted seeds of Gardener’s Delight from three sources: Fedco Seeds (, Botanical Interests (, a

Sungold, hands down the best tasting cherry tomato

Sungold, hands down the best tasting cherry tomato

nd Thompson & Morgan ( The latter is a British seed company, the source  of the seeds I planted 40 years ago. Last week, to a drum roll (in my head), I tasted Gardener’s Delight tomatoes from each of the three sources. They all tasted the same — and not very good. Fedco Seeds was exonerated.

Ruling out growing conditions since all my other tomato varieties taste as good as in seasons past, the verdict lies in my taste buds. Not that my taste buds themselves have become more discriminating. Instead, cherry tomato varieties have greatly improve over the past 40 years.

More specifically, the variety Sun Gold came on the scene more than 20 years ago (also introduced by Thompson & Morgan and now widely available). I think I speak for everyone in stating that Sun Gold is the best tasting cherry tomato ever. Gardener’s Delight may have been good in its day but it has been easily eclipsed by Sun Gold.

Whether the growing season is cloudy or sunny, or warm or cool (within reason), Sun Gold always offers a bounty of persimmon orange, delectable, sweet-tart tomatoes with bold flavor.