Garden Gem is a fairly new hybrid tomato variety that was developed at the University of Florida. The research team at Florida set out to create a commercial type tomato that actually tastes good. Through extensive testing and breeding, they created what they called the perfect tomato.
But wait a sec…what does ‘commercial type tomato’ mean?
Commercial type tomatoes are bred to exhibit excellent disease resistance and be heavy producers of large, usually red, tomatoes. They should also be durable for shipping and hold for an extended period in storage.
Did you know that tomatoes from the grocery store are picked when they are very green and rock hard?
That’s so they can be shipped without bruising. During processing and packaging, the tomatoes are tossed and bounced around so much that a ripe tomato would be mush long before it made it to the grocery store.
Green tomatoes are treated with ethylene gas (a natural gas that speeds ripening of fruit) at the shipping facility before being sent out to the grocery store. These tomatoes can hold for several weeks. So tomatoes bought at the grocery store might be a couple of months old before you eat them.
Because they are bred to be heavy producers, picked very early, and then forced to ripen, grocery store tomatoes tend to be pretty tasteless. Historically, there has been less concern about flavor in the development of commercial tomatoes favoring ones that will ship and store well, and that’s where Harry Klee stepped in.
Harry Klee, our hero?
Harry Klee and the team at the University of Florida first trialed thousands of heirloom tomatoes, analyzed the chemical compounds for flavor, tested dissolved sugars, and tasted them all. And, in the end, they chose Maglia Rosa as one of the parents for its outstanding flavor.
In our opinion, a good choice!
Maglia Rosa is an open-pollinated (they call it an ‘heirloom’) variety that we put on our list of five tomatoes to grow. It’s got great flavor, but it’s not a very hardy plant compared to commercial varieties.
So Klee and his team bred it with some other tomatoes to improve disease resistance, yield, and shelf life. Developing this tomato was a labor of love, and when they released Garden Gem, they thought they had the perfect tomato. But when they went to sell it to the commercial industry, no one cared.
Why? Because commercial operations are primarily interested in $$$ and are not convinced, yet, that better flavor = more money.
Why? Because the food business is mostly customer driven, and if the customer doesn’t know that there are far superior alternatives, they will not demand they be available.
Opening up the individual to authentic flavors of homegrown produce is one of the founding principles of this website and why we named it You Should Grow.
So what happened to the tomato?
Harry Klee and the team at UF are still working on releasing it for sale, but in the meantime, they sent some seeds out to the tomato geeks of the world for a small donation to their research lab. So guess who donated and grew Garden Gem this year?
Yep. Tomato geeks, we are. And with all this hype about it being the ‘perfect’ tomato, we thought it deserved an honest review.
What we thought about Garden Gem
It set fruit early in the season in clusters of three to five, but they took a long time to ripen. Perhaps this is intentional considering it is bred for commercial growers, but it also took a long time to set subsequent trusses of fruit. So overall, the tomato yield is good, but it has not blown us away.
We have harvested several attractive red oblong tomatoes subtly striped with pointy tips. They are approximately 3 oz, suitable as a large salad tomato. You could slice and eat it on a sandwich, but it’s pretty small for that.
Good Flavor. The tomatoes have a full and complex traditional tomato flavor with a tart zing and noticeable absence of perceived sweetness. It doesn’t grab you like Maglia Rosa and give you a new flavor experience, but rather takes you back in time to what a tomato “should” taste like if you ask the old-timers.
When picked near ripe, they held reasonably well for us. We had some that were still tasty after a few days on the kitchen counter. We let most of our tomatoes turn on the vine, so we can’t speak to shelf-life if they’re picked green.
The plants continue to hold up well in our garden and are still making generous fruit despite disease pressure from septoria, hot weather, and high humidity.
Because this is a hybrid, seed saved from these tomatoes will not grow tomato plants true to the parent type. So expect subsequent generations to display considerable variation for several years. It might be an interesting experiment to see what comes out…I bet there are some yummy ones…so, of course, we saved some seed. #tomatogeeks
A new era of tomatoes?
Overall, we think this is a great tomato worthy of growing in the home garden. As a commercial variety, I don’t know. That’s not my business so I can’t say. The perfect tomato? Well…
I think ‘perfect’ is overstepping a bit, but I’m not sure such a thing exists. I think there is always room for more and better tomatoes.
But the Garden Gem is a great tomato, and I would buy the heck out of it versus a traditional store tomato for the flavor alone.
This post is a personal opinion. We are not affiliated with the University of Florida or Klee Lab Research in any way.