Johnny's Research & Farm

3 Improved Tomatoes from Our Open-Pollinated Project: Blue Beech, San Marzano, and Wisconsin 55

Johnny's Open-Pollinated Revival Project: 3 Resurrected Heirloom & Heritage Tomato Varieties

Counterclockwise from center:  1. 'San Marzano II' OP.  2.'Blue Beech' OP.  3.'Wisconsin 55' OP.
by Emily Rose Haga, former Plant Breeder, Tomatoes & Peppers, Johnny's Selected Seeds

Breathing New Life into Time-Worn Gifts from the Past

As a plant breeder at Johnny's, my job was to help imagine the future of our food system and feed this vision with new varieties. But the work of a plant breeder is less like scrying into a crystal ball than solving a riddle for the ages that has been passed down through generations. We inherit the puzzle, and the work, of those who came before us. Then we stand on the shoulders of these giants, weaving their legacy into a new history of our own design.

Though plant breeders have no shortage of grower problems to solve or new directions to explore, one thing is certain: we are already heirs to a collective fortune. One cannot naïvely dismiss heirlooms and other "old-fashioned" open-pollinated (OP) varieties as relics of the past. These "relics" are our heritage as well as the vital building blocks of breeding programs. They reflect our past and help lay the foundation for a better future. In this way, they are really more like gifts of the past than relics.

One of the best parts of this job is unearthing these gifts. Each year in the breeding nursery, Johnny's grows just some of the cornucopia of older varieties that remain, in search of different traits that could prove valuable if incorporated into our germplasm. Sometimes varieties or unique strains are discovered that are already quite special in their own right: gifts that are worth saving and sharing with future generations — despite the flaws which leave the next generation of plant breeders room for improvement — because of the exceptional qualities they do preserve.

3 Revived Open-Pollinated Strains Selected by Us for You

It is our pleasure to offer three of these gifts to you in our catalog:   'San Marzano II,'   'Blue Beech,'  and  'Wisconsin 55'.  Each of these open-pollinated varieties was selected because of its unique history, outstanding quality, and adaptability to short seasons or low-input environments.

Let's take a closer look at these three gems.

1 • San Marzano II

San Marzano II
'San Marzano' is regarded as one of the best paste tomatoes of all time.

'San Marzano' is considered one of the best, most flavorful paste tomatoes of all time. Whole tomatoes peel easily, and cook down to sauce quickly.

Various strains of 'San Marzano' exist; this particular strain came from the USDA gene bank, an institution established in 1958 to preserve genetic diversity and increase food security. The strain originates, however, from Parma, Italy, where it was developed for the 1950's canning industry.

Compared to other 'San Marzano' strains we've tested, the fruits borne on this strain have outstanding flavor and a very traditional 'San Marzano' shape, as well as a more vibrant red color.

(Indeterminate, 78 days.)

2 • Blue Beech

Blue Beech is a sausage-type heirloom paste tomato that fairly brims with flavor.
'Blue Beech' is a sausage-type heirloom paste tomato that fairly brims with flavor.

'Blue Beech' is an heirloom variety known as a "sausage-" or "pepper-type" paste tomato — producing large, elongated fruits that are easy to process into sauce. While it makes for an excellent canning tomato, it also has very good fresh eating quality.

This variety was originally brought from Italy during WWII; its name is said to derive from the Vermont farm where it was first introduced to the U.S.

'Blue Beech' is well-adapted to cooler, northern climates and resists disease and blossom end rot better than most heirloom sausage types we tested.

(Indeterminate, 82 days.)

3 • Wisconsin 55

Wisconsin 55 is a resurrected strain of a classic, flavorful slicer.
'Wisconsin 55' is a resurrected strain of a classic, flavorful slicer.

'Wisconsin 55' is a popular OP variety developed at the University of Wisconsin, Madison that has been a workhorse with farmers' market growers for over 60 years. A great slicer for fresh eating, but also well-suited to canning, especially stewed tomatoes.

Along with its classic tomato flavor, 'Wisconsin 55' offers some tolerance to early blight and Septoria leaf spot.

There are several strains available, many of which have drifted away from the original and changed over time. The strain we offer is a rare, older source that we acquired from the University of Wisconsin, Madison plant geneticist, Ted Bingham, who had frozen seed that was purchased in the 1960's. This strain produces healthier plants and more consistently sized fruits with fewer plant defects than other commercially available strains.

(Indeterminate, 80 days.)

View this post on Instagram

Tomato basil toast brunch remnants. Really loving the @johnnys_seeds Wisconsin 55 slicer I’ve been testing out in my little plot. This is a classic red perfectly round medium-sized slicer packed with juicy sweetness produced from seed Johnny’s acquired from a University of Wisconsin plant geneticist who froze seed purchased in the 1960s! Without people like that who preserve these quality strains and companies like Johnny’s that bring them to market we would be gardeners bereft of beautiful, flavor-packed heirlooms. So I toast with my tomato toast all the devoted plant breeders out there! Thank you! @roseygreen #growwithjohnnys #wisconsin55 #organicgardening #growyourown #heirloomtomatoes

A post shared by Stacey Cramp (@scramp) on

Don't Just Take Our Word for It — Tell It Like It Is!

We trust in the results of Johnny's trialing and breeding programs, but are always able to learn from growers like yourself. We encourage you to try these resurrected heirloom and heritage tomatoes for yourself, and let us know what you discover. We developed a Survey Form for Johnny's Open-Pollinated Tomato Project, so you can track your observations as you grow and harvest these varieties, then send your feedback our way so we can continue to improve our offerings.

(There is also a feedback survey form for this article below, if you would like to share your thoughts.)

Meanwhile, we'd like to share some of the love we've already received from our grower-partners about these three gems. Come next season, we hope you'll join us in hash-tagging #GrowWithJohnnys on shots of your own plants and fruits from these OP varieties. Most of all, we hope you'll enjoy sharing and savoring the abundantly rich, flavorful eating experiences — the fresh and sun-dried slices, slivers, and salsas, the gently simmered sauces, pastes, and jams — that come of them.

View this post on Instagram

Talkin’ tomatoes. As the season beings to wind down, I’m starting to jot down some notes in my garden journal about which plants are definite keepers and which were fun for a one and done season. In regard to tomatoes, I fell immediately smitten with growing Pink Berkeley Pink Tie-Dye (that’s the one I’m holding) and Costoluto Fiorentino for the first time. Usually I struggle a bit to grow larger tomatoes like these and have them ripen in time, but these both were actually some of the first tomatoes of the season, so for all my Northern gardener pals, I highly recommend them. I’m test growing Blue Beech, Wisconsin 55 and San Marzano for @johnnys_seeds and have loved all three! The Wisconsin 55 made for a picture perfect tasty slicer and the Blue Beech…wow o’ wow! They’re absolutely huge and meaty, hardly any seeds and is so good both for eating fresh and making sauces. My San Marzanos are huge and by far the most prolific producer, but they’ve been the last to ripen with most still bright green. In the nice to grow, but probably won’t make next year’s cut, are Brad’s Atomic Grape and Indigo Rose. Brad’s Atomic were super sweet, but not only did their size vary fairly dramatically, they were also a bit hard to tell when ripe and often ended up splitting The Indigo Rose were beautiful, but the taste was just okay. And of course, there are my perennial favorites that will always have a place in my garden life Juliet (you know I LOVE this one!!), Romas and the Bumblebee series. I truly missed having Sun Gold and Tiger Stripes, so they’re a must have for next summer. What’s been your favorite tomato this season? . . . #heirloomtomatoes #mainegarden #gardentotable #gardenharvest #organicallygrown #organicgarden #ediblegarden #kitchengarden #homegarden #gardenlife #gardenlovers #gyo #gardengrown #grownfromseed #zone5 #fromthegrange #gardeninspiration #greenthumb #homegardening #inmygarden #vegetablegardening #gardenveggies #gardeninglife #gardenchat #thehappygardeninglife #growwithjohnnys

A post shared by Allison (@finchandfolly) on

View this post on Instagram

Set adrift on tomato bliss. The inaugural pot of tomato sauce bubbled away on the stove last night, courtesy of this bounty of yummies. Years and years ago, I used to be a sauce purist and only use paste tomatoes. Around 10 years ago, I celebrated with a 125# harvest, back then my best ever. Then, the following season, I lost my entire tomato crop to late blight. Over the following several years, it was a struggle to grow any tomato well (except for my beautiful Juliet whom you hear me constantly sing the praise of❤️). Because of this, I couldn’t be picky anymore with what tomatoes I used to make sauce, I was just thankful to have tomatoes to make sauce with. So today, I just take whatever bounty I have on hand…cherries, heirlooms, paste and slicers…and toss them all in to meld away into the tastiest garden sauce ever. This group here includes some old favorites like Juliet and Pink Bumblebee, along with newbies like Costoluto Fiorentino, Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, Olive, Indigo Rose and Brad’s Atomic Grape. Loving each of these new varieties so far! My Romas (a perennial favorite of mine) are almost ready, as are the Tiger Stripe. The test tomatoes I’m growing for @johnnys_seeds Wisconsin, Blue Beech and San Marzano, all went into the garden a few weeks later than these, but are just starting to blush. The size of the Blue Beech pastes are huge! And the San Marzanos are chock full of bunches everywhere (especially excited to make sauce with these). And the Wisconsin (a slicer variety)…well, this variety has me smitten. I’m growing it both in the ground, as well as in fabric bags and it loves both, but is doing exceptionally well in the bag as it’s laden with picture-perfect orbs. Care to share your favorite tomato to grow? My seed wishlist for next year isn’t long enough yet. . #heirloomtomatoes #growwhatyoureat #mainegarden #gardenharvest #organicallygrown #organicgarden #ediblegarden #kitchengarden #homegarden #gardenlife #gardenlovers #gyo #gardengrown #grownfromseed #summergarden #zone5 #fromthegrange #gardentotable #gardeninspiration #greenthumb #homegardening #inmygarden #frommygarden #growfoodnotlawns #potager #veggiegarden #growwithjohnnys

A post shared by Allison (@finchandfolly) on

Box of 4 OP tomato heritage varieties from Johnny's.
Box of 4 open-pollinated, heirloom and heritage-type tomato varieties.

Learn More

Learn more about Johnny's classical plant breeding program, our certified-organic research and trialing farm, and the different types of seeds we produce and offer.

About the Author
Author & Plant Breeder Emily Rose Haga
Emily Rose Haga, Author
& Former Johnny's Plant Breeder

Emily Rose Haga served at Johnny's as the next-generation tomato and pepper breeder from 2012–2019, carrying on the great work of retired plant breeders Rob Johnston, Jr. and Janika Eckert.

Haga's interest in plants germinated at a young age while listening to stories about her Grandma Rose's early life in rural Appalachia, raising and preserving her family's own food off the land.

She shared many inspiring years gardening and cooking with her grandma, developing her own love of food traditions and growing things. This in turn inspired her to pursue work at food co-ops and organics farms in Southern Wisconsin, before deciding to pursue degrees in Horticulture and Plant Breeding & Genetics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

At university she discovered a like-minded community of public plant breeders and other researchers, right in her own backyard, dedicated to solving problems and improving varieties for growers. After getting her hands dirty and working with a wide range of specialty crops, Haga knew she had found her life's passion: helping to improve the viability of diversified farming systems and revitalize local food and farming communities through the role of seeds and breeds.

While at Johnny's, Haga specialized in developing unique and flavorful new tomato and peppers, with adaptations needed by growers in short-season and low-input/organic environments. As Executive Director at Seed Savers Exchange, she continues to nurture an immense respect for the rich diversity of food crops domesticated by our human ancestors, and the heritage they have preserved and passed on for future generations.

Images used with permission. All rights reserved.