Over the Garden Fence | Garden tomatoes have storied history

July 28, 2013 

I recently had the opportunity to visit with John and Dotty Ford and see their wonderful vegetable garden and chat about the enjoyment they have in growing and having fresh vegetables available for cooking. John is a retired schoolteacher who taught Physical Science in the State College School District and is also heavily involved in activities centered on fly-fishing. Both John and Dotty fully appreciate the health benefits derived from eating fresh vegetables and enjoy cooking and also putting up some vegetables for later consumption during the winter months. I thought that it would be nice to tour the garden and see what John has growing in the garden.

The garden is approximately 25 feet wide and 100 feet in length, which is 2,500 square feet for those interested in comparing it to an acre, which is 43,560 square feet. I suspect that many of you have gardens comparable in size to John and Dotty’s. The variety of vegetables they have growing in the garden is pretty extensive. They have planted vegetables and herbs that they can use in their cooking and enjoy both cooked and fresh. They like to eat fresh salads and the garden reflects this fact.

The vegetables I observed were cabbage, romaine lettuce, spinach, potatoes (Yukon Gold), turnips, radishes, green and yellow snap beans, sweet bell peppers, hot peppers, pickling cucumbers, garlic, chives, dill, parsley, basil, Cilantro, nasturtium (edible flowers), pumpkins and sunflowers. The crop that John is most proud of is his tomato, which I suspect is a favorite of many gardeners across the region.

A little background on tomatoes is in order. Tomatoes originated in the South American Andes in a region that now makes up parts of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. This is similar to the potato. Eventually tomatoes were planted throughout Central America and into Mexico where Spanish explorers found them growing in Montezuma’s garden in the sixteenth century. The Spanish introduced tomatoes to the world. Recently scientists learned the lycopene content of tomatoes was especially good for maintaining a healthy heart. This extremely nutritious vegetable is now considered America’s favorite vegetable.

The tomatoes found in the Fords’ garden are the following varieties: Stupice, Brandywine, Sweet 100, Better Boy, Better Bush and Homestead.

•  Stupice is a very early variety that matures in 50-65 days. This cold-tolerant tomato ripens sweet, red, slightly oval, 2-inch fruit that make an excellent choice for first-of-the-summer salads, lunch boxes, and juicing. Stupice consistently gets high marks from John for taste throughout the summer and continues to put out fruit over the entire season. This tomato was introduced from the former Czechoslovakia in 1976 and is an indeterminate potato leaf variety. It is pronounced “stu-peek-a.”

•  Brandywine is an heirloom tomato and was probably the first heirloom to achieve “cult status” within the growing popularity of heirloom tomatoes. It is a pink, potato-leaf, and Amish variety dating back to the 1880’s. Back then, seed saving was done by individuals who understood that the greatest thing they could pass on to the next generation was some of the treasured food plants that had sustained life and had proven their value. One such pioneer was a man named Ben Quinsenbury, who lived in Vermont. Ben died at the age of 95, passing on his legacy. The Brandywine was Ben’s favorite tomato and I suspect from talking with John that it is also his favorite tomato. John is certainly not alone in his opinion as others both chefs and tomato lovers have told me and I agree that for tomato taste Brandywine has always placed as one of the top three favorites. It is legendary for it’s exceptionally rich, succulent tomato flavor. Fruits are reddish-pink, with light, creamy flesh that average 12 ounces but can grow to 2 pounds.

•  Sweet 100 is bursting with sugary flavor and produces scarlet, cherry-sized fruits in long clusters right up to frost. These are climbing tomatoes that you will definitely want to stake or cage to keep the fruit off the ground and avoid pests and diseases. These tomatoes as other tomatoes will need at least one to 1.25 inches of water per week and prefer six hours or more of direct sun each day, which is also a good rule of thumb for the entire garden.

•  Better Boy tomato is a high yielder and holds the Guinness World Record. John may not have a record holder in his garden but he plans on growing plenty of bright red, 16-oz. fruits perfect for slicing, canning and making into sauces.

•  Better Bush bears sizeable fruits on a very compact plant that works well in containers and small gardens. It is an especially strong, bushy plant that bears tasty, medium-sized tomatoes great for sandwiches and slicing. The heavy foliage of this hybrid helps protect tomatoes from sunburn. The plants are strong and upright, but will still do best in a small cage or on a stake for support. It is recommended to space the plants 24 to 36 inches apart. Better Bush is also resistant to verticillium wilt (V), fusarium wilt (F), and nematodes (N).

•  Another old time favorite is the Homestead tomato, dating from 1954 when is was developed by the University of Florida especially for hot climates and known for its reliability to set fruit at high temperatures. It is a firm and meaty tomato with large vines that help shade fruit to protect them from sunburn. Plants when the growing conditions are ideal can bear an average of 50 pounds of fruit over a 6 to 7 week period. Space plants 24 to 36 inches apart, which is a good recommendation for tomatoes.

As you can see, the Fords have planted some excellent tomato varieties, and in a recent phone conversation, he even asked me when I was going to come over and help pick tomatoes.

I hope that your gardens are doing well and that you are enjoying having fresh veggies to eat.

Bill Lamont is a professor and extension vegetable specialist in the department of plant science at Penn State. He can be reached at wlamont@psu.edu.

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