Although it is doubtful that by the year 2000 the tomato will change drastically in appearance, its other characteristics may be quite different.
It could quite possibly be seedless and taste better, the fruit may be able to keep on the vine when ripe for several weeks without spoiling, the plants may be more ornamental, productive and manageable, and there is a good chance the plants won't be bothered much by diseases.
To get a perspective on what's new in tomato technology and how it will affect the home gardener, we visited with Jim Waltrip, wholesale manager for Petoseed Inc. in Saticoy, the world's largest producer of tomato seeds.
Waltrip, who has been in the seed business more than 30 years, said there are exciting developments in tomato breeding. According to Waltrip, plant breeders at Petoseed, with the home gardener in mind, are working toward these goals:
--A tomato that is seedless, with improved flavor.
--A tomato that can be left on the vine for several weeks when fully ripe, or what Waltrip calls "a vacation tomato." That is, the gardener can go on vacation, return and not be greeted with spoiled fruit. This will also allow long storage in the kitchen without refrigeration.
--A tomato plant that is highly ornamental, compact and manageable, and yet produces over a long period of time.
--Plants that have a wide range of disease resistance.
Have any of these goals been achieved yet? Waltrip said the goal of ornamental, compact plants with a long production period has been achieved with a new tomato series from his company. The initial plant in this series is available to home gardeners for the first time this year. In addition, great progress has been made in disease resistance with two other new tomatoes.
Waltrip calls the new series of plants a dwarf indeterminate series. The characteristics of these plants include a compact, manageable plant habit, great plant beauty and a long production period.
These characteristics have been difficult to achieve. In the past, tomato plants that were compact and manageable, such as Patio and Pixie, would not produce over a long period of time. They will bear a flush of fruit over several weeks and then the plants will die; these plants are referred to as determinate plants.
Plants that tend to bear over a long period of time, like Better Boy, tend to have large, sprawling plants that are difficult to manage and aren't particularly attractive.
In Petoseed's new Husky Series, the plants feature very thick, sturdy main stems that keep the plants upright. The plants are compact and can be easily controlled with only short stakes. Although called indeterminate dwarfs, the plants grow to five feet or so. And if grown in a container, a large container is required. The plants produce usually from early summer until late fall.
According to Waltrip, the first plant in the series is called Husky Pink, and it is available to gardeners this spring. He says three others in the Husky Series will be available next spring.
Waltrip says the compact plants are handsome--a delight in any landscape situation. The fruit is delicious and beautiful. The foliage is an intense dark green and has a unique rugose (crinkled) nature. "Don't hide these plants in the back 40," Waltrip said. "They should be seen, not hidden."
He describes the fruit as having a pretty, soft pink skin with red flesh. The fruit has what Waltrip describes as "an intense tomato flavor." The tomatoes average six or seven ounces, with some reaching 12 ounces.
As to new tomato varieties with wide disease resistance, Waltrip named two: Enchantment and Viva Italia. He said that besides resistance to common tomato diseases, these two varieties have resistance to more exotic diseases such as bacterial speck that is a serious problem in California's coastal valleys.
Waltrip describes Enchantment as an egg-shaped tomato with uncommonly good flavor that produces heavily over a long period. Viva Italia is a pear-shaped Italian Roma tomato. While most Roma-type tomatoes are used for tomato paste, he says, Viva Italia makes a tasty tomato paste, yet is also delicious when eaten fresh.
As to other tomato improvement goals, Waltrip feels strongly that by the year 2000 there will be a seedless tomato and one that will keep for long periods on the vine when ripe. As to flavor, he said Petoseed gears much of its research to improving plants for the home gardener, and the quest for improved flavor is an ongoing process that will reach far into the future.
Petoseed is a wholesale seed producer that sells to various mail-order companies and other retail outlets. If you want to grow one of their new varieties, seeds for Husky Pink are available from Nichols Garden Nursery, 119 N. Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 97321; phone (503) 928-9280. Seeds for Viva Italia can be ordered from Burpee Seed Co., 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18991; phone (800) 283-5159.
Both Nichols and Burpee offer a free catalogue. Seeds for Enchantment are available from Shepherd's Garden Seeds, 6116 Highway 9, Felton, Calif. 95018; phone (408) 335-5400. Enchantment is such a new variety it is not listed in Shepherd's catalogue. Seeds may be ordered by sending a request along with $1.75 per packet and a self-addressed stamped envelope.