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GARDENING : The Vine Art of Home-Grown Tomatoes

March 19, 1994|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gardeners of both the serious and casual variety have become adamant on the point: They want tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, and they want them now , say managers of area nurseries scrambling to respond to the demand.

Customers are coming in for tomatoes earlier than ever this year, says Larry Amling, manager of Armstrong Garden Center in Newport Beach. And--hoping to jump-start the season--they are leaving with larger plants. For the first time in his experience, says Amling, one-gallon plants are outselling four-inch pots. The order of nearly 300 plants the nursery received in mid-February--and had expected to last well into March--disappeared in just 10 days.

Cristin Fusano, assistant manager at Roger's Gardens in Newport Beach, reports the same phenomenon. "People are really hungry for tomatoes," she says. "They can't wait to get started. One-gallon plants are flying out of here."

If you've ever tasted a home-grown, vine-ripened tomato, says Amling, you'll understand his customers' eagerness. And, if you haven't, he says, you should.

"Home-grown tomatoes will be a revelation. They're sweeter, richer, meatier textured, more aromatic and keep longer (up to two weeks without refrigeration) than store-bought tomatoes. There's really no comparison."

Gardeners want diversity in their tomato crop, too, so nurseries have begun carrying more varieties.

"Buying a six-pack of one variety is becoming unusual," Amling says. "Customers are much more likely to buy one general purpose tomato, like 'Better Boy,' one cherry tomato like 'Sweet 100,' and one paste tomato, like 'Roma.' So we're carrying a lot more kinds."

Roger's Gardens will be carrying 20 different tomatoes this year, Fusano says. Along with proven-track-record classics such as 'Early Girl,' 'Ace' and 'Beefmaster,' the nursery will add some new cultivars that Fusano tested in her own garden last year.

'Magaroku,' a rose-skinned, rose-fleshed, persimmon-shaped cultivar of Japanese origin, is the one she's most excited about.

"It was my favorite tomato last year," she says. "Very meaty, very sweet, very versatile and very disease-resistant--a wonderful tomato."

Recognizing that many gardeners have minuscule yards, nurseries have also added a lot more compact cultivars suitable for growing in containers on decks or patios. 'Wadda,' an Armstrong exclusive, is one example; 'Patio,' found at Roger's, is another. Some cultivars--such as 'Tiny Treasures' at Armstrong--are small enough for window boxes. Even hanging baskets can be put to work for cultivars such as 'Golden Currant.'

If you want still more variety, start from seed. Seed companies offer an astonishing range of choices this year. Tomato Growers Supply, for instance, lists 225 varieties, including many heirloom plants.

March is the ideal time for starting tomatoes from seed, according to Ralph Barton, a Fullerton resident and Fullerton Arboretum volunteer. Barton says he has been growing tomatoes in his home garden for at least 45 years.

"You're not going to get fruit until summer no matter what size tomato plant you start with," he says. "So why not start from seed? It's cheaper; it's fun, and you get a lot more choices."

Though half the fun of growing tomatoes, Barton says, is experimenting with something new every year--he grows at least 20 varieties per year--there are a few he wouldn't be without.

They include:

* 'Brandywine' (a pinkish, beefsteak heirloom tomato), which he describes as one of Mother Nature's greatest inventions. "It's so big, a slice overlaps the bread when you're making a sandwich. And it's incredibly tasty."

* 'Arkansas Traveler,' another pink beefsteak. This Southern heirloom is noted for its ability to stand up to humidity, a definite asset the past few summers in Southern California, Barton says. ('Heatwave,' a recent Burpee introduction, also stands up to humidity well, according to other arboretum volunteers.)

* 'Gurney Girl,' (exclusive to Gurney Seed), an all-purpose tomato, is a heavy producer, very reliable and has a wonderful flavor, Barton says.

* 'Celebrity,' a 1984 All-American Selection winner.

* 'Yellow Pear,' and 'Yellow Currant' (a South American species tomato with tiny yellow fruit and a vine-like growth habit). "I plant it in eight-inch hanging baskets and snack from them every time I walk by," he says. "Kids like it, too."

Last but not least, Barton says, is 'Dona.'

"It has an unusually long growing season," he says. "If you planted it last year, you'd still be harvesting tomatoes now."

Once you've become addicted to vine-ripened, flavor-laden, home-grown tomatoes, you'll understand why that's a virtue.

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