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The Big, Small of Tomato World

March 28, 1993|BILL SIDNAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Sidnam has written garden columns and features for The Times since 1975

Gardeners have always been fascinated by the giants of the tomato world. Ones whose single slice smothers a hefty hamburger, and a single fruit weighs two pounds or more.

As a group, giant tomatoes are loosely called "beefsteak" tomatoes, although there is no one true beefsteak variety (plants sold by that name can be one of several different varieties).

Indeed, you can try your hand at growing the Delicious variety, which currently holds the world's record--a whopping 7-pound, 12-ounce monster.

While some gardeners think big, others think small when it comes to tomatoes. Many gardeners consider tiny tomatoes to be the most flavorful--ideal for snacking and salads.

Tiny tomato varieties are almost always referred to as "cherry" tomatoes. And like beefsteak, there are lots of cherry-type miniature tomato varieties. Many produce fruit much smaller than the typical cherry tomato found in the supermarket.

The Giants

The key to growing giant tomatoes is variety--period. No matter how much fertilizer or tender-loving-care you pour on an ordinary tomato plant, the fruit will not grow any larger than the tomato was bred to become.

Most giant varieties produce fruit in the one- to two-pound class. Some of the older, large-fruited varieties produce big tomatoes--but not many of them. However, some of the modern hybrids are prolific producers.

Burpee's Supersteak Hybrid: This is the best of the giant types because it produces an astonishingly large harvest of giant fruit (one to two pounds and even larger). The fruit are meaty with an intense tomato flavor and are a rounded-flat shape. Plants are usually available at local nurseries under the label Supersteak VFN Hybrid.

Beefmaster Hybrid: Similar in appearance to Burpee's Supersteak, with hearty, flavorful fruit that often weigh two pounds. A good solid variety, but in my opinion, Beefmaster is not as productive as Burpee's Supersteak. Beefmaster is the most commonly found of the giant tomato plants in Southern nurseries.

Delicious: This is the variety that an Oklahoma gardener grew to produce the Guiness Book of World Records giant tomato--weighing an incredible 7 pounds, 12 ounces. However, unless you use special growing methods, have fantastic soil and are extremely lucky, don't expect any seven-pounders. Delicious regularly produces fruit in the one- to two-pound range. The fruit are rounder than the typical giants.

Giant Belgium: According to Linda Sapp at Tomato Growers Supply, a popular tomato seed mail-order company, Giant Belgium is one of their two top selling tomato varieties. It is an heirloom variety that originated in Ohio (not Belgium) and produces enormous fruit that averages 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, but may reach up to 5 pounds. According to Sapp, this is not a pretty tomato. It is flat, rough with ridges and often misshapen--but it is delicious. The skin color is dark pink.

Super Beefsteak: Not as large fruit as the others (17-ounce average), but very productive. Fruit have a rich flavor.

According to Jim Waltrip, wholesale manager for Petoseed Inc. In Saticoy, the world's largest producer of tomato seeds, if you want to try for a prize-winning tomato from the giant varieties, you're going to have to sacrifice a lot of fruit to obtain a few truly huge fruit.

If you don't mind limiting the fruit production and trying for the prize winner, Waltrip says that you need to continually prune the plant back to its single main stem and branches so that the plant's energies are concentrated in producing a few extra large fruit.

In addition, when trying for a prize winner, Waltrip recommends supplemental feedings. Beside the initial fertilizer application during soil preparation, Waltrip says to feed the plants after the first fruit set and again half-way through the growing season; use a fertilizer designed for tomato plants.

Miniature-Fruited

For gardeners who think small is best, there are unique, miniature-fruited varieties that, flavor-wise, will far surpass the typical cherry tomato. Here are a few of the best.

Currant tomato: This is an heirloom plant that produces tiny, currant-sized tomatoes with a delicious, intense tomato flavor. The plants are large and sprawling, and bear huge clusters of these tiny gems. My youngest daughter is not particularly fond of tomatoes, but she absolutely loves Currant tomatoes and insists that I plant at least one plant for each year.

Golden Pearl: Bears thumbnail-sized, yellow-golden fruit with a unique, sweet flavor. The flavor is so good that Golden Pearls have been almost a staple at several fine restaurants in the NAPA and Sonoma Valleys. The large plants are highly productive and each plant produces baskets of luscious fruit over a long season.

Ruby Pearl: This nifty little tomato comes from China. The plants produce huge clusters of grape-sized, ruby-red tidbits with a delightful, sweet-tart flavor.

Both Golden Pearl and Ruby Pearl come from Shepherd's Garden Seeds in Felton, Calif. Wendy Krupnick, the test garden manager says that both varieties are easier to harvest than other Cherry-type tomatoes. To harvest, you cut off large sprays of fruit that contain up to 15 tomatoes--just like you would harvest clusters of grapes.

Sweet 100: Of the small-fruited tomatoes listed here, this is probably the only variety you will be able to find plants for at local nurseries. And it is a fine variety. Sweet 100 plants are large and overflow with clusters of fruit that are smaller than the typical cherry tomato. However, the real plus for Sweet 100 is its flavor. Like its name implies, Sweet 100 tomatoes have a marvelously sweet flavor.

Both the giants and the tiny tomatoes have basically the same cultural requirements as other tomatoes.

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