Comparing tomatoes

Comparing tomatoes

If you garden in Southern Oregon, odds are you grow tomatoes. But what kind should you grow?

Some people swear by modern hybrid varieties because they produce more tomatoes, fruit earlier and are more resistant to disease. But then again, one of the real treats each summer is when heirloom tomatoes start showing up at farmers markets. They always are a little later than hybrids, but the taste makes them worth the wait.

So which type should home gardeners grow?

Greenleaf Industries, a horticulture-training center and nursery in Grants Pass, set out to answer that question last summer in their test gardens.

Greenleaf planted 11 varieties that produce medium- to large-sized fruit, along with four cherry-type varieties. The medium-to-large group included six heirloom (open-pollinated) varieties and five F1 hybrid varieties.

The plants were grown side by side in full-sun exposure, and each was caged. Soil in the beds had been regularly composted, and prior to planting the beds were amended with bone meal, kelp meal and a 13-13-13 fertilizer.

Red poly mulch was used in conjunction with a drip-irrigation system. Research has shown that red poly mulches, which reflect the far-red end of the light spectrum back toward plants, can increase tomato production by up to 20 percent compared with conventional growing methods. The poly mulch also helps reduce blossom-end rot.

Deep watering was done every five to seven days, depending on plant size and prevailing weather. Healthy plants were chosen and started in 1-gallon containers. The plants had reached 24 inches tall when they were planted in late May.

Last summer started off slow, and cool-wet conditions prevailed into early June. The warm weather finally arrived in mid-June, but the overall growing season was a little below average. The highlight weatherwise was very few heat waves and a growing season that produced fruit well into late September.

When results of this one-season test were tabulated, the hybrid varieties had produced 50 percent more fruit than the open-pollinated varieties (see chart).

But, in the opinion of testers, the heirlooms tasted better than the hybrids. What does it all mean? Probably that we, as gardeners, need to balance results with taste, whatever that means.

The Fourth of July variety, a smallish salad tomato, produced the first ongoing crop of ripe fruit, giving a regular supply of salad tomatoes before other varieties ripened up.

What seemed fascinating about the cherry types was that total weight produced by each plant was within 3 pounds of each other although actual fruit production varied by hundreds. It makes one consider the labor of picking 1,500 cherry tomatoes off a small-fruited variety compared with one that bears only 900 that are still cherry-sized.

While growing conditions were identical for this "experiment," and healthy plants were chosen, the downside is that only one plant was represented per variety. Greenleaf's test may not be scientific, but it gives us something to think about as we plan our tomato purchases this year.

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