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Hundreds of Members on Tomatoes' Family Vine

April 24, 1999|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every spring, when the weather warms up, mouths start watering for juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine.

One of the most popular crops, tomatoes outsell most other produce plants in the nursery. Though typically thought of as a vegetable, tomatoes are a fruit.

Another little-known tomato fact is that many varieties exist, says Linda Sapp, co-owner of Tomato Growers Supply Co. in Fort Myers, Fla.

"Many people are surprised to find that there are hundreds of tomato varieties available for growing in the home garden," she says. "We carry about 300."

Dennis Glowniak, growing chairman for the California Organic Gardening Club, will be selling more than 75 types at the Green Scene Garden Show in Fullerton today and Sunday.

"You can find everything from beefsteak-type tomatoes to paste and cherry tomatoes," he says. "Some are really sweet, while others are tangy. There's a wide array of colors--deep red, green, pink, purple, orange, yellow and even black."

Growing unusual tomatoes can be an adventure.

"Last year I tried the 'Pink Ping Pong' tomato because it sounded like fun," Glowniak says. "It's a pink tomato the size of a pingpong ball. The taste is great, with a little zing when you first bite into it."

Joyce Smith grows tomatoes for the Fullerton Arboretum and will be selling about 100 varieties at the Green Scene.

"Some people come to plant sales looking for more mainstream tomatoes, but when we get them to try a new variety, they come back for more," Smith says.

Some of the more unusual tomatoes are heirlooms--tomatoes that are non-hybrids and whose seeds haven't been crossed with other seeds.

Some experts believe heirlooms are less disease-resistant than other types, but Smith disagrees.

"The heirlooms wouldn't have come down all these generations if they weren't disease-resistant," says Smith, who grew 60 tomato varieties in her Fullerton yard last year. "I've seen many heirlooms live through early blight and nematode [worm] damage and produce well."

Whatever varieties you choose, Smith recommends that you experiment and keep good records on growth, production and taste.

"Make a map of where you plant each type so you'll be able to decide your favorites at the end of the season," she says. A map usually lasts longer than plant tags, which tend to get lost by midsummer.

Keep the following tomato growing tips in mind:

* Buy small tomato plants that are not in flower. If they're blooming, pinch off the flowers before planting to encourage strong root growth.

* Prevent transplant shock by letting new plants acclimate to your yard for at least three days before planting.

* Choose a location that gets eight hours of sun a day.

* Tomatoes like a rich, well-drained soil. Amend with bagged or homemade compost at a rate of 30%.

* Avoid planting tomatoes in the same location every year. Give a space three years to rest between tomato crops. This helps prevent soil-borne diseases and pests, such as nematodes.

* Tomatoes can be planted by seed until mid-May. When seeding, plant one-quarter of an inch deep and keep the soil moist but not soggy. Although the plants don't need light to sprout, once they do come up, gradually move them into sunlight. Plant out in the garden when they are 3 to 4 inches high.

* Plant tomatoes within 2 to 3 inches of the bottom leaves. The tomato will develop roots up to that point, and become more vigorous as a result.

* Try containers when space and time is limited. Choose a determinate or cherry tomato type. Use a 5-gallon or larger pot and a high-quality potting soil. Determinate plants stop producing after two months or so. Extend your harvest by planting another determinate tomato a month after the first one.

* Don't feed tomatoes too much nitrogen, because it helps create a lot of foliage and little, if any, fruit. Many experts suggest feeding with a fertilizer low in nitrogen and higher in phosphorus--such as a 4-5-3 or 4-6-2--just once at the beginning of the growing season. Indeterminate tomatoes don't stop growing, unless killed by cold weather, so they can be fed again in August.

* Water young tomato plants when they approach dryness, until they get established. Once they're actively growing, don't over-water. Give the plant average water until fruit sets.

Then hold back a little on watering, which will hasten the growth and ripening of the tomatoes. (Restricting water causes the plant to put more energy into fruiting, rather than foliage growth, and it also prevents watery tomatoes.) In general, water established fruiting tomato plants deeply once a week.

* Determining when tomatoes are ripe can be tricky when they're a color other than red. Look for them to reach the appropriate size and squeeze. If they give slightly, they're probably ready. Try one and see.

* Save space, keep tomatoes out of pests' reach and boost your harvest by encircling the plants with a large tomato cage made of concrete reinforcing wire, which can be found at home supply stores.

Use the wire to create a cylinder that is 3 to 4 feet in diameter and 4 to 6 feet high, which will provide good support for most tomato plants. Make sure to secure the cage with a 6- or 7-foot stake driven into the ground at least 2 feet.

The 26th annual Green Scene Garden Show is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Fullerton Arboretum, 1900 Associated Road at Yorba Linda Boulevard, one block west of the 57 Freeway. Admission is $6; children under 17 are free. (714) 278-3404.

Tomato Growers Supply Co. has a wide variety of tomato seeds and offers a free catalog. (888) 478-7333.

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