There seems to be no escaping it. At backyard barbecues, family dinner tables and around the office water cooler, people are talking tomatoes.
There are books, poems, newsletters and Internet sites dedicated to the tomato. There’s even a song that announces, “There’s only two things that money can’t buy: true love and home-grown tomatoes.”
The simple backyard tomato--that lusciously juicy, bursting with flavor, sun-ripened, red fruit of summer--is the talk of the town and its popularity is on the upswing. From mid-April to June, the height of the Southern California planting season, it dominates the conversations of gardeners.
“Americans love tomatoes. It’s the No. 1 vegetable to grow in backyard gardens,” said Jim Waltrip, director of wholesale sales for Petoseed Co., a seed developer that supplies major retail and wholesale seed companies.
“Over a five-year period . . . home garden sales have almost tripled,” he said.
Frank Burkard, owner of Burkard’s Nursery in Pasadena, has seen the phenomenon firsthand.
“I would say it’s been almost a frenzy level for the last three or four years. We’ve noticed people have really started saying ‘God, I hate store-bought tomatoes.’ A lot of people really get into ‘tomato-mania,’ ” Burkard said.
He added that his nursery, which stocks more than 50 varieties, can sell more than 1,000 plants in a weekend.
There is almost universal agreement that home-grown tomatoes far outclass in flavor those bought in the store.
“You might as well go in and eat cardboard in the supermarket,” said Jim Brogan, a salesperson at Bloomer’s, a garden center in West Los Angeles. He estimated that sales of tomato plants at the store have doubled in the last five years.
The difference in taste, as they say, is in the breeding. The No. 1 goal for tomatoes developed for the home market is flavor, according to Petoseed’s Waltrip.
The home market varieties are soft and juicy, unlike those bred for the commercial market, which need to be firm for shipping and are picked green.
“Nothing compares with the softer, more juicy, high-sugar tomatoes that we breed for home gardening,” Waltrip said.
Once tomatoes are plucked from the vine, the sugars stop developing. “That’s why a green-picked tomato does not taste as good as a red-picked tomato,” he said.
The popularity of home-grown tomatoes seems to have an effect on commercial sales, too.
“We see a trend of slower sales in the summer, we attribute that to backyard gardening. . . . Anything you grow with your own hands tastes better,” said Beth Weibert, of the California Tomato Commission, a Fresno-based industry group.
(A tip from the tomato pros: Don’t refrigerate tomatoes, the taste will deteriorate.)
Although home-grown flavor is crucial, other factors also lead people to start their own plants.
“Gardening has increased over the last five years, and tomatoes are the most popular vegetable to grow,” said Michael MacCaskey, editor of National Gardening magazine.
In the Pacific states, one out of every four households has a vegetable garden, according to the magazine’s 1995 annual survey. And aging baby boomers are contributing their fair share.
“By the time your hair has gone gray, you’re kind of settled down, maybe have a house and more time . . . more money, so you’re a little bit more interested in gardening. It’s a phenomenon of demographics,” MacCaskey said.
"[Our research director] coined the phrase, ‘a green thumb equals gray hair,’ ” he said.
Nutrition is another reason to turn to the backyard garden. Tomatoes are the main source of many vitamins in the American diet because “we eat so much"--in pizza, pasta sauce, salsa and other foods, MacCaskey said.
A recent Harvard Medical School study reveals that tomatoes may be a good weapon in the war against cancer. It showed that lycopene, the substance that gives the tomato its red color, may have a role in reducing the risk of some common cancers, such as prostate, colon and rectal cancer. Red sun-ripened tomatoes contain the greatest amounts of lycopene.
Although tomatoes are easy to grow, another factor in their popularity, for the novice gardener the choices can be overwhelming. Waltrip notes that Petoseed has more than 1,300 varieties in its catalog. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture may have as many as 3,000 unique varieties in its collections, according to MacCaskey.
There are determinate and indeterminate, early-, mid- and late-season tomatoes. Big tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. Hollow tomatoes for stuffing. Tomatoes that can be grown in pots or hanging containers. Heirloom tomatoes. Exotic types that are white or striped. Just to confuse matters, there are even tomatoes that are green when ripe.
Ask the experts and they will invariably say home gardeners are well-advised to stick to the tried-and-true plants that have worked well in their area and match their personal tastes. A quick check with your local nursery is a good starting point.
But more important than the variety of tomato you choose are the growing conditions. Tomatoes grow best in full sun and rich, well-drained soil. Deep watering is best, allowing the soil to dry out somewhat between waterings. Don’t over-water, gardeners warn, with the frequency depending on local soil and weather conditions. Soggy roots can become susceptible to diseases, and even hybrids are only disease resistant.
Another source of confusion for the novice grower is the letters that appear, like a list of educational degrees, after the plant name in a seed catalog.
Indeterminate (I) plants are large plants that will grow until cold weather comes. They continuously produce fruit, supplying you with a steady harvest. Determinate (D) plants are smaller and produce one crop, then stop.
The notations V, F and N, often following the plant name, refer to resistance to the diseases verticillium and fusarium and to nematodes.
Planting a mix of early-, mid- and late-season plants will give you, your family and friends tomatoes all through the season. Plants can ripen to maturity from 52 days (Early Girl) to 80 days (Brandywine) or more.
A few plants can meet the needs of an average family. Burkard points out that one cherry tomato plant “produces enough for the whole neighborhood.”
Most in the business agree that in any room of 12 gardeners there will be 12 “best” kinds of tomatoes. Some of the more popular locally are Early Girl, Ace, Celebrity, Big Beef and Big Boy.
Sweet 100s are invariably mentioned as a good cherry tomato. Even apartment and condo dwellers can grow tomatoes on their balconies or patios with tomatoes that grow well in containers, such as the Patio tomato.
The heirloom market has seen an upsurge in recent years, mostly because of the desire for “real” old-fashioned flavor.
“Heirlooms are getting more and more popular because they can offer the flavor, size, freshness and colors that used to be available everywhere,” said Yvonne Savio, garden education coordinator for the University of California Cooperative Extension for Los Angeles County.
An increased environmental awareness and desire to retain diminishing gene pools also are factors, said LiliSinger, a horticultural consultant and editor of the Southern California Gardener.
"[Heirlooms] have the flavor, variety and texture that people are just delighting in,” Singer said.
Brandywine, an 1885 Amish heirloom, and Cherokee Purple, a Tennessee heirloom, are often mentioned by Southland growers.
Heirlooms, though, are less resistant to disease, the fruits have a shorter shelf life and can be difficult to grow.
Whether hybrid or heirloom, the home-grown tomato is certainly here to stay.
Once dismissed as “weedy and scraggly,” unjustly maligned for years as poisonous (it is a member of the nightshade family) and incorrectly labeled a vegetable (botanically, it’s a fruit) by no less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court--the lowly tomato has indeed come a long way.