Top Tomatoes : Modern Hybrids Beat the Old-Fashioned Types in Every Way

Bill Sidnam has grown more than 240 tomato varieties in Southern California.

HOME-GROWN tomatoes aren't what they used to be; they're much better. With the modern hybrids that are specially bred for home-garden use, you can get the same production from two tomato plants that you used to get from six. That old disappointment of growing tomatoes to full maturity only to watch them drop over from disease has been considerably reduced; most modern hybrids are highly disease-resistant. And in a tomato taste-test conducted by The Times two years ago that pitted modern hybrids against old, established varieties, the new varieties won in every category. According to Sang Joo Han, a tomato-plant researcher and breeder for Burpee, it will be difficult to improve on the new tomatoes in terms of productivity, disease-resistance, flavor and texture. Instead, tomato breeders are concentrating their efforts on increasing the storage life of the fruit.

An incredible selection of tomato varieties is currently available; one seed catalogue lists 112 varieties, and in other catalogues at least another 200 are offered. There are red, yellow, pink, orange and even white types. The shapes are as varied as the colors--round, flat, pear- and plum-shaped. Fruit sizes range from less than an ounce to more than two pounds. And the plants themselves range from very large, suitable for only the largest gardens, to minute, to be planted in hanging baskets or in a window box.

The top 10 superstars of the tomato kingdom listed here were selected for their adaptability to the Southern California climatic zones. The standard- and large-size tomato types produce from 50 to 150 or more fruit per plant, and the cherry types as many as 1,000 fruit per plant.

'Celebrity,' a recent All-America Selections winner, has exceptional flavor, productivity and disease-resistance. Its deep-red fruit is medium-size.

'Better Boy' is not really new but is simply one of the very best tomatoes for Southern California gardens. Large, flavorful fruit are produced in large quantities. This is an almost foolproof tomato.

'Supersteak' is by far and wide the best of the so-called beefsteak tomatoes. It has huge fruit, weighing up to two pounds, with wonderful flavor and texture; the plants are very large, vigorous and disease-resistant.

'Champion,' a medium-size plant, does extremely well in this area. It produces delectable fruit in abundance over a long period.

'Lemon Boy' has unique lemon-yellow fruit that are meaty with superb flavor. Expect 100 or more medium-size fruit per plant.

'President' was the flavor winner for standard-size fruit in The Times' tomato taste test.

'Better Bush' was developed by the Park Seed Co. The plants are attractive and fit well in a flower bed, small garden or large container; it grows three feet tall, spreads three feet and produces medium-size fruit. Unlike other small-plant-type tomatoes, it produces over a long season.

'Early Girl' (pictured at left), is the earliest-maturing standard-size tomato. Although it is not as disease-resistant as the others, it has very fine flavor. Plant nursery-bought seedlings now, and pick the fruit in 55 to 60 days.

'Sweet 100' is an immensely productive cherry-type tomato with a unique, sweet flavor; it took first place in the small-fruited category in The Times' tomato taste-test. Expect up to 1,000 fruit per large plant.

'Cherry Grande' (pictured at right), is a special treat for cherry-tomato aficionados. Its beautiful plants produce grape-like clusters of large, flavorful cherry tomatoes.

You will save about six weeks of growing time if you use seedlings. Although a good many of the varieties listed here are available as seedlings at local nurseries and garden centers, some varieties are not and will have to be grown from seeds. Seeds for 'Lemon Boy' and 'Better Bush' are available from the Park Seed Co., Highway 254 North, Greenwood, S.C. 29647. Seeds for 'Supersteak' can be ordered from the W. Atlee Burpee Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18974. Seeds for 'Cherry Grande' are offered by Twilly Seeds, P.O. Box 65, Trevose, Pa. 19047; seeds for 'President' by Tomato Growers Supply Co., P.O. Box 2237, Fort Myers, Fla. 33902. These companies offer free seed catalogues.

All tomato plants require a warm, sunny location. The soil should be rich in organic materials, and a vegetable fertilizer should be added to it. Space the larger varieties at least three feet apart; the others can be planted closer together.

Seedlings should be planted deeper than they were grown in the starting container--within two or three inches of the top foliage. The buried portion of the stem will form additional roots, thereby strengthening the plants. Plan on watering at the time of transplanting; then sprinkle the new plants lightly for a few days.

Establish a weekly watering schedule. Water the plants thoroughly, making sure not to get the foliage wet. Tomato plants grown in containers require much more frequent watering and feeding; never let the soil dry out completely.

When the plants are in full bloom, they will benefit from a side dressing of a vegetable fertilizer. Always water immediately after feeding.

Tomato worms can be controlled by using Dipel or Thuricide, both of which contain the same biological control, one that won't harm the beneficial insects. Spray every 10 days, and follow the label instructions.

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