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Breed the best tomatoes: mother nature will do most of the work for you.

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When I finally moved to the country about 10 years ago, I had only one thing in mind: I wanted to grow a gigantic garden. After years of city living, where I was forced to cram fields of corn and squash into small backyard beds and limited (mournfully) to only a handful of tomato plants, I was eager to expand.

Like many people who grow vegetables, I was lured into the garden by the desire for homegrown tomatoes. I was raised in a hot little Southwestern town where my morn cultivated tomatoes in raised beds. One of my favorite childhood memories is heading out to the backyard on a summer afternoon, plopping down on the ground and eating just-picked tomatoes--still warm from the August sun.

As I started my vegetable garden that first year in the country, I dreamt of recreating that experience. We are located high in the Rocky Mountains with rich soil, plenty of water and room enough for a huge garden. I decided to start my own tomato plants from seeds. I didn't just want your basic Big Boy from a Big Nursery. I wanted heirloom tomatoes. I wanted 50 of them. A hundred, maybe.

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I had a little sunroom attached to the house, the perfect place to start tomatoes. I spent all of March and April tending the seedlings, gently potting them up to bigger sizes, religiously feeding them kelp, even singing them little botanical hymns. By the time late May rolled around, I had several dozen Brandywines, Cherokee Purples and Boxcar Willies. I was thrilled.

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I was eager to get them out into the ground, but in our high-country climate, we worry about late spring frosts. I waited patiently. Finally, on May 21, with some fanfare, I planted them in the garden--rows and rows of fancy tomatoes, with a couple handfuls of organic fertilizer carefully tossed in each hole.

And, on June 14, a freak frost came along. My sweet little tomato plants froze and died. Every last one of them.

But I am a persistent person, and so, after a period of mourning, I took some remaining tomato plants that I had planned to give to a friend, and I planted them on June 16. These plants survived, and even grew to be rather large, but when the first frost came in September, here's what I had:

Zero tomatoes. Not a single fruit.

Not even a green one.

Thus began my education in the art--not science--of growing tomatoes. And thus began my effort to find a tomato that would not just grow, but set fruit and ripen, at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.

Why bother?

Here's a hint: The tomatoes that you find in the grocery store are really yucky. Oh, sure, in deep February, even I, a confirmed tomato snob, will go to the supermarket and buy tomatoes for salsa or salad. But these are not really tomatoes. These are ... well, tomato-like fruits.

They bear no comparison to a fresh, ripe-on-the-vine, homegrown tomato--especially if you eat it when it's still warm from the sun.

The kind you get in the grocery store are hybrid tomatoes bred to look ripe even when they aren't--because it might take a week or more from farm to table, growers need a tomato that looks red but remains firm like a green tomato. They've been bred so they are all precisely the same size to fit in plastic packaging. Producers have even bred a square tomato so it will fit more neatly in boxes. In other words, the fruit often have had the good tomato flavor bred right out of them. So no matter the hard road to get there, it's worth it to grow your own tomatoes.

The year after my first Brandywine fiasco, I started searching seed catalogues, nurseries and the Internet for cold-hardy, short-season tomatoes.

It's all about biology

To find the right tomato for your garden--whether you have a cool climate like me, or whether your tomatoes wilt and fizzle under the glare of the Phoenix sun--you have to understand the basics of tomato biology.

Most tomatoes are perfect for growing in places like, say, Missouri. The nights in midsummer in Missouri are warm--above 60 degrees--but days don't go much over 90. Most tomatoes in the seed catalogues and nurseries want a fairly long season--you'll need more than 100 frost-free days--and they want nights above 60 degrees. Cold nights cause the tomato blossoms to fritz out and fail to set fruit. That's why I didn't get a single Brandywine. Hot nights can do the same; days over 100 degrees often scald tomato plants and cause the fruit to crack.

That means, if you live in a place where your nighttime temperatures are chilly in the summer, you need a cold-hardy tomato. If, on the other hand, you live in Phoenix, where summer temperatures fry all plants that don't have sharp spines, you need a tomato that can handle the heat. Luckily, about 25,000 varieties of tomatoes are grown worldwide. That means that somewhere out there, there's a tomato that is just right for you.

Because even within a climate zone, every garden has its own environment--its own soil, its own wind, its own nearby maple tree that shades half the afternoon. Sometimes, what works for your neighbor won't work for you. My neighbor highly recommended a tomato called 'Glacier,' which she grew in her similarly chilly garden--it grew, it produced delicious fruit. She swore it was the hardiest tomato in history. Presumably it would set fruit growing next to Alaskan glaciers. But it wouldn't grow in my field. I tried it three years in a row and didn't get much besides some mealy, misshapen lumps of something like tomatoes on yellowish, sickly plants.

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After giving up on Glacier (and several others), I found a seed company that was growing tomatoes in the high country of Idaho--Seeds Trust High Altitude Seeds (www.SeedsTrust.com). The founders of Seeds Trust had been to Siberia--about as cold as you can get--and had brought back dozens of tomato varieties from Siberia and mountainous areas of the Ukraine.

I started trying the tomatoes from Seeds Trust, five or six at a time. "Gregori's Altai'? Nothing--no tomatoes. 'Sasha's Altai'? The plants were ugly--but covered in ripe red fruit. Other varieties that have worked for me, over the ),ears, include 'Aurora,' 'Stupice,' 'Oregon Spring,' 'Nepal,' 'Ida Gold' and 'Principe Borghese.' Some of these varieties--in particular those from Siberia--have survived mild frosts that killed more tender varieties.

Mother Nature's selection

Beyond the variety names, after a few years, 1 discovered the real secret to growing good tomatoes at my altitude: Saving my own seed.

When you save your own seed--easy to do with tomatoes--what you're doing, in essence, is breeding your own tomato varieties. Technically, it's called "selection"--you are selecting the tomatoes that please you most, which taste the best, from plants that grow the fastest. This is the way humans have developed vegetable and fruit varieties for nearly 10,000 years--by saving seed from the plants that performed the best.

Here's an example. Most of the tomatoes I've been able to grow have so far been rather small and red. I wanted to grow a tomato that was both cold-hardy and big.

One year, from Seeds Trust, I ordered seed for a variety called 'Orenberg Giant.' It reportedly compared to 'Brandywine' in both size and taste. I planted about 10 Orenberg plants. Of those, for whatever reason, nine produced no fruit--just like Brandywine. But one plant--one glorious, beautiful plant--churned out a dozen fat, red, absolutely delicious tomatoes.

I saved seed from several of the first tomatoes that ripened on that vine and planted them the next year. That year, about 25 percent of my Orenberg Giant plants made fruit. Hopefully, in a few years, 111 have a fairly consistent strain of a big tomato that sets fruit at 8,000 feet. Miracle? In my mind, yes. But it's also con]n]on sense.

Tomato seeds are easy to save (see "Saving Tomato Seed" on Page 43) and, over time, you're creating a plant that contains genes well-adapted to your particular garden.

You can do the same thing with flavor, with color, with size, with disease resistance--or all of these. Some tomatoes are more resistant to common diseases, such as fusarium and verticillum. And, of course, you want to save seed from tomatoes that taste the best.

Plant a few varieties you like, either from seed or from the nursery--but make sure they are open-pollinated, not hybrid, varieties. Read up a bit on tomato varieties in seed catalogues or online. Find some that appeal to you, either for their shape or color or taste or speed. Then, as you grow them, keep an eye out for the healthiest plants, and the best fruit. Select the plants that do best m your garden--the most vigorous, the earliest to flower or fruit, the tastiest.

Whatever survives in your garden and tastes great, save seeds from that tomato, and plant the seeds again next year.

That is, if you can resist eating them, every last one, straight off the vine.

SAVING TOMATO SEED

Saving tomato seed is easy because, unlike many vegetables and fruits, the flowers are usually perfect and self-fertile, which means that each flower contains male and female components and pollinates itself.

So, with some exceptions, if you save seed from one tomato, the next generation of plants--the tomato plants that grow from those seeds--are likely to be similar to the parent plants. These seeds are said to be true to form. That is, they produce plants characteristic of the variety. Sometimes they are said to be true breeding.

For the above to be true, you have to start with open-pollinated tomatoes, as opposed to hybrids where pollen from one variety is collected and used to pollinate emasculated flowers of another variety. Seeds from hybrid tomatoes are highly variable in their genetic makeup and will produce a mixed bag of plants with a full range of characteristics. So look for plants or seeds that are labeled "open pollinated" or "heirloom" rather than hybrid or [F.sub.1].

The key to saving tomato seeds is to "ferment" the seeds, a process that eliminates certain seed-borne diseases and helps with pulp removal. The process is simple. Take the tomato from which you want to save seeds. Cut it in half. Squish the inside juice, pulp and seed into a container of some kind, a cup, for instance. You can put several tomatoes in the same cup; just be sure to keep separate varieties separate and label them so you don't get your Brandywine mixed up with your yellow cherry. Add a dash of water.

Let the cup sit in a warm spot (about 70 degrees) but not in direct sunlight. Stir once a day. On the third day (give or take), a layer of scum will begin to form on the surface of the liquid. Let this scum--a fungus--work its magic for three more days. The fungal action makes the seed quicker to germinate and destroys some disease agents as well.

Good seed will sink to the bottom; bad seed floats on the top. At least three days after the fungus appears, pour off the top-floating layer and rinse the remaining tomato seeds. Pour out onto newspaper or a paper towel and let them dry for several days. Store in a cool, dry place until next spring.

Pick Your tomato

Don't be fooled, tomatoes come in more shapes and colors than round and red. Check out these specialty varieties.

Aladdin's Lamp

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Girafee Apricot

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Delicious

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Russian Persimmon

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Lemon Lean

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Green Zebra

White Beefsteak

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Growing tomatoes from seed

Growing tomatoes from seed is much easier than it might seem.

And, after a winter spent perusing the seed catalogues--recommended catalogues include Totally Tomatoes, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Territorial Seed Company for open-pollinated tomatoes--it's more fun to plant the crazy varieties you'll find there instead of the same old stuff you'll find at the big run-of-the-mill nursery.

Starting your own plants from seed, you can grow tomatoes that are orange, yellow, striped, green, white, pink, purple, nearly black and--yes--even red.

Start them indoors about six to eight weeks before your last frost. Baby tomato seedlings are very susceptible to a fungus called "damping off," which kills seedlings, so use a sterile seed-starting potting soil. The seeds require a good deal of heat to germinate--ideal temperature is 70 to 80 degrees. A sunny window might do fine, but to germinate very quickly, put your seed tray or pots on a heating mat (yes, the kind you can buy at the drug store) turned onto its low setting. This will hold your soil at a consistent temperature.

Be sure to keep the soil moist. Some tomato seeds will sprout in just two or three days, and they will keep sprouting up to 10 days. Don't let the soil temperatures go much over 90 degrees or you'll cook the seed instead of sprout it.

Once the tomatoes sprout, watch the plants for their first set of "true leaves"--leaves other than the matching pair (called seed leaves or more correctly cotyledons) that come out as they sprout. You can now transplant them into bigger pots. Because you transplant so quickly, you can plant tomato seeds very close together in their initial container.

Once transplanted, spritz the plants with dilute fertilizer. Liquid kelp, in particular, is nice for young tomato plants.

Make sure your tomato seedlings get plenty of light--tomatoes that get too little light get very long stems (they get "leggy"), which is not good for the plants. Putting them outside on warm days can be a good idea, as this also exposes them to a bit of wind and makes their stems stronger. Just be sure to bring them back inside to a warm place at night.

As the plants grow, repot them in larger containers to make sure their roots have room to expand.

Once the last frost date has passed for your area, plant your tomatoes in the garden. Here's a fun tomato tip: Tomato plants will grow roots along their stem if you plant them deep. This helps anchor the plant and keep it from toppling over when it gets heavy with fruit.

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Kristen Davenport raises tomatoes, garlic, goats, geese, chickens, vegetables, cut flowers and several human kids (not necessarily in that order) on a 32-acre farm in the mountains of northern New Mexico.
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Author:Davenport, Kristen
Publication:Grit
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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