Old and new tomatoes to grow

Judith Adam

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'Brandywine' tomatoes, looking ready to bite into. Photo from Stokes Seeds
'Brandywine' tomatoes, looking ready to bite into. Photo from Stokes Seeds
‘Brandywine’ tomatoes, looking ready to bite into.( Photo from Stokes Seeds)

With spring in sight, I’m focused on plants that love the warm season, and tomatoes are first on my list. Tomatoes to grow were a big part of my childhood gardens, and once bitten…. I like the pungent aroma of the foliage, and enjoy pruning and staking the few suckers I allow on each plant. I grow only one or two plants for myself, but this year I’m starting seeds of several varieties to make a few dozen seedlings as gifts for friends.

There are websites specializing in tomato seeds (tomatogrowers.com), as well as the generous number of pages with tomatoes in seed catalogues, and it’s interesting to follow some of their hybridizing history. My grandfather grew ‘Rutgers’, a tomato hybrid released in 1934 for commercial canning. It makes a large crop of six- to eight-ounce (170- to 225-g) fruits in 78 days on indeterminate vines. ‘Rutgers’ ripens uniformly (red inside and out with no green hearts or shoulders), has a juicy consistency and rich flavour, and though lacking disease tolerance, it resists cracking.

New hybrid tomatoes

The demand for ‘Rutgers’ led plant hybridizers to develop ‘Rutgers VFA’ in the 1950s, with the same rich flavour and high productivity, and inbred disease resistance to verticillium and fusarium wilts, as well as alternaria stem canker. The improved ‘Rutgers VFA’ is a determinate plant, producing fruit in 75 days.

More recently, plant scientists wanted to find out what genes from ‘Rutgers VFA’ could offer older heirlooms. They bred ‘Rutgers VFA’ with ‘Brandywine’, an heirloom tomato dating to about 1885. ‘Brandywine’ is one of a group of tomatoes with irregularly shaped fruit and varying degrees of red, pink, and yellow flesh. They’re large, sprawling plants with potato-shape foliage, creamy consistency, and spicy-sweet flavour in large fruits weighing two to three pounds (1 to 1.5 kg), but offer no resistance to common tomato diseases.

The result is ‘Red Rose’, a new cross between an heirloom tomato and a mid-century hybrid that inherits the disease and crack resistance from ‘Rutgers VFA’, and produces six- to 10-ounce (170- to 285-g) delicious dark raspberry-pink fruit with the creamy texture of ‘Brandywine’. ‘Red Rose’ is an indeterminate vine producing fruit in 85 days. What’s old is new again!

Tomato disease abbreviations

If you’re looking at tomato seed listings, you’ll notice some have a string of initials after their name (such as ‘Rutgers VFA’). These are code for inbred disease resistance in modern tomato cultivars, representing decades of work by hybridizers. If plants in your garden have been afflicted by blights, wilts and viruses, you can select cultivars with resistance and expect to harvest a bumper crop.

Seeds for plants with inbred disease resistance are usually more expensive due to the years of breeding work. For instance, ‘Red Bounty VFFN/TSWV/GLS’ (stokeseeds.com) costs $9.95 for 25 seeds; and the new ‘BHN-1021 TSWV/N/F2’ (johnnyseeds.com), from a Florida-based breeding program—described as a package having great flavor and disease resistance—costs $5.95 for 15 seeds. I’ve never thought of tomatoes with great taste and disease resistance as a “package,” but I guess that’s the new vernacular in the tomato breeding industry.

These are some of the tomato disease abbreviations:

A                     anthracnose

AB                  alternaria early blight

B                     bacterial wilt

F                      fusarium wilt races 1,2, and 3

FOR                fusarium crown and root rot

GLS                 grey leaf spot

LB                   late blight(phytophthora)

LM                  leaf moulds A-E

N                     nematodes

PM                  powdery mildew

PST                 bacterial leaf speck (Pseudomonas syringae)

T                     tobacco mosaic virus

TSWV             tomato spotted wilt virus

V                     verticillium wilt

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