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Tomato Mania

The simple backyard tomato is the talk of the town and its popularity is soaring. So what are you waiting for?

June 01, 1997|NONA YATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There seems to be no escaping it. At backyard barbecues, family dinner tables and around the office water cooler, people are talking tomatoes.

There are books, poems, newsletters and Internet sites dedicated to the tomato. There's even a song that announces, "There's only two things that money can't buy: true love and home-grown tomatoes."

The simple backyard tomato--that lusciously juicy, bursting with flavor, sun-ripened, red fruit of summer--is the talk of the town and its popularity is on the upswing. From mid-April to June, the height of the Southern California planting season, it dominates the conversations of gardeners.

"Americans love tomatoes. It's the No. 1 vegetable to grow in backyard gardens," said Jim Waltrip, director of wholesale sales for Petoseed Co., a seed developer that supplies major retail and wholesale seed companies.

"Over a five-year period . . . home garden sales have almost tripled," he said.

Frank Burkard, owner of Burkard's Nursery in Pasadena, has seen the phenomenon firsthand.

"I would say it's been almost a frenzy level for the last three or four years. We've noticed people have really started saying 'God, I hate store-bought tomatoes.' A lot of people really get into 'tomato-mania,' " Burkard said.

He added that his nursery, which stocks more than 50 varieties, can sell more than 1,000 plants in a weekend.

There is almost universal agreement that home-grown tomatoes far outclass in flavor those bought in the store.

"You might as well go in and eat cardboard in the supermarket," said Jim Brogan, a salesperson at Bloomer's, a garden center in West Los Angeles. He estimated that sales of tomato plants at the store have doubled in the last five years.

The difference in taste, as they say, is in the breeding. The No. 1 goal for tomatoes developed for the home market is flavor, according to Petoseed's Waltrip.

The home market varieties are soft and juicy, unlike those bred for the commercial market, which need to be firm for shipping and are picked green.

"Nothing compares with the softer, more juicy, high-sugar tomatoes that we breed for home gardening," Waltrip said.

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Once tomatoes are plucked from the vine, the sugars stop developing. "That's why a green-picked tomato does not taste as good as a red-picked tomato," he said.

The popularity of home-grown tomatoes seems to have an effect on commercial sales, too.

"We see a trend of slower sales in the summer, we attribute that to backyard gardening. . . . Anything you grow with your own hands tastes better," said Beth Weibert, of the California Tomato Commission, a Fresno-based industry group.

(A tip from the tomato pros: Don't refrigerate tomatoes, the taste will deteriorate.)

Although home-grown flavor is crucial, other factors also lead people to start their own plants.

"Gardening has increased over the last five years, and tomatoes are the most popular vegetable to grow," said Michael MacCaskey, editor of National Gardening magazine.

In the Pacific states, one out of every four households has a vegetable garden, according to the magazine's 1995 annual survey. And aging baby boomers are contributing their fair share.

"By the time your hair has gone gray, you're kind of settled down, maybe have a house and more time . . . more money, so you're a little bit more interested in gardening. It's a phenomenon of demographics," MacCaskey said.

"[Our research director] coined the phrase, 'a green thumb equals gray hair,' " he said.

Nutrition is another reason to turn to the backyard garden. Tomatoes are the main source of many vitamins in the American diet because "we eat so much"--in pizza, pasta sauce, salsa and other foods, MacCaskey said.

A recent Harvard Medical School study reveals that tomatoes may be a good weapon in the war against cancer. It showed that lycopene, the substance that gives the tomato its red color, may have a role in reducing the risk of some common cancers, such as prostate, colon and rectal cancer. Red sun-ripened tomatoes contain the greatest amounts of lycopene.

Although tomatoes are easy to grow, another factor in their popularity, for the novice gardener the choices can be overwhelming. Waltrip notes that Petoseed has more than 1,300 varieties in its catalog. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture may have as many as 3,000 unique varieties in its collections, according to MacCaskey.

There are determinate and indeterminate, early-, mid- and late-season tomatoes. Big tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. Hollow tomatoes for stuffing. Tomatoes that can be grown in pots or hanging containers. Heirloom tomatoes. Exotic types that are white or striped. Just to confuse matters, there are even tomatoes that are green when ripe.

Ask the experts and they will invariably say home gardeners are well-advised to stick to the tried-and-true plants that have worked well in their area and match their personal tastes. A quick check with your local nursery is a good starting point.

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