For 2012, a mission to find a better tomato

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist January 4, 2012

For the gardener, the new year is the perfect annual moment to resolve to do better. The next six to eight weeks give us a luxury unknown in the growing season: time. From your armchair, you can theoretically correct all the mistakes of the past year and dream about the growing season ahead, plan for it, buy some seeds — in short have all the fun of gardening with none of the toil or urgency.

Inevitably, the mind wanders toward the tomato because this is the one vegetable everyone grows, and it’s the one that we all know is a different animal from the indestructible, flavorless orb offered for sale in supermarkets. A little secret: It’s not just tomatoes that taste better from your own garden; the same goes for broccoli, beans, turnips, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, collards and asparagus, to name a few.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

It’s the tomato, though, where the contrast seems so stark. If you read Barry Estabrook’s account of the industrial tomato, “Tomatoland” (Andrews McMeel, 2011), you get a sense of just why the grocery store article is so unsatisfying. Winter tomatoes are grown as a chemically dependent monoculture in Florida, picked green and then gassed into a state of ripeness. Part of the difficulty is that not all green tomatoes are the same: One picked close to redness will gas-ripen into something palatable. One that is younger won’t.

Pickers might be instructed to take tomatoes below a certain level on the vine, which “increases the odds that most of the tomatoes picked are mature greens but provides no guarantee,” writes Estabrook, “which is one reason so many industrial tomatoes taste like nothing.”

In the case of the apple, the industry realized that even the least savvy consumers were becoming discerning enough to reject the blandest varieties, no matter how pretty they looked. You can now get half a dozen varieties or more, some quite tasty.

As for that other perfect red globe, supermarkets are using more greenhouse-grown, vine-ripened tomatoes, and the tomato industry is seeking to improve the flavor and reputation of its product by turning to improved mass-produced varieties. Estabrook writes of first sampling Tasti-Lee. “It was by no means a great tomato . . . but it was nonetheless unmistakably a tomato.”

Still, for the faithful, the only true tomato is the plump article that has ripened in your summer garden.

The difficulty is that the reality of tomato-growing tends not to match its promise. There is never quite an optimum growing season. It’s either too dry, too hot or too wet, or like last year, all three.

I grew two rare Amish heirloom beefsteak varieties that were guaranteed to knock my socks off. By late August, my socks were still on. The large, ugly, ribbed beauties weren’t bad, but they weren’t transcendent, as billed. They were flavorful, and the fruits weighed more than a pound apiece.

Raising such giants takes it out of the plant, however, so the yield might be down to just three or four fruits. With so much invested in so few, you know something’s going to go wrong, such as finding teeth marks on the day of harvest. This was my experience last year. “Chipmunks,” sniffed my neighbor. This somehow seemed more comforting than rats. Also, the longer a vine takes to do its thing, the greater the chance of it succumbing to blights.

So I think at this time of resolve and reflection that I will forgo the beefsteaks next year and try a smaller slicing tomato that will ripen sooner, fruit more and have built-in disease resistance. I don’t have a definitive pick; that’s what the whole month of January is for. (Tomatoes shouldn’t be started indoors until the end of February at the earliest.) But some are on the short list.

Celebrity is a hybrid from Burpee that seems to fit my criteria: seven-ounce fruit, disease resistant, 70 days to harvest. Johnny’s, which sells to consumers as well as market gardeners, is offering Defiant as a particularly blight-resistant slicer. Its Pink Beauty is worth a look, too. Over at Territorial, I am drawn to Fantastic, a high-yielding slicing tomato and determinate variety (the fruit ripen all at once) named Quali T 23. Not a name that conjures poetic associations with homesteaders, but it is robust and bred for health. Juliet is a classic grape tomato valued for vigor and yield, and will undoubtedly make an appearance in my 2012 garden. The one abiding winner, year to year, is Sun Gold. If you have a sunny trellis or fence for this sprawling vine, grow it.

Something else will change this year. I have always been late with tomatoes, in seeding and setting out, believing that the cold soil of the early season does them no favor. That’s true, but I plan to start the seeds earlier and get them in on time, in early May, so that I can finish with the harvest by Labor Day or sooner.

Forget about the fried green tomatoes of October. Instead, rip out those tatty vines by the end of August, rework your beds and sow lettuce, mesclun, kale and other goodies for the fall garden. Trust me, you will be harvesting salads until Thanksgiving and beyond. If only you could find a tomato then to go with them.



Tip of the week

Most houseplants are in their winter rest period and should not be fertilized or excessively watered. Keep plants from drafts and heat registers, and raise humidity by placing pots on, but not in, a tray of water. Set them on pebbles. Wait until late winter to repot plants.

Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter for updates on gardening and other cosmic events.

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