Breed the Best Tomatoes

Mother Nature will do most of the work for you.

Tomato Garden

A garden full of tomatoes can be beautiful.

iStockphoto.com/Jerry Horbert

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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 mom 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 re-creating 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.

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.

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.

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 years, 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, I 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, I’ll 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 common 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 in 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.

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.