Growers And Breeders Are Always Looking For A Better Tomato, Says Allan Armitage

Costa Field Trials Veggie Introductions
New vegetable introductions suitable for container growing, like the ones shown here at the Costa Field Trials, appeal to consumers who want deck-friendly gardens.

Many people are surprised and perk up when they hear that I am a horticulturist. They love to talk about their turf and compost and plants. However, be it on an airplane, at a social gathering, or chatting with one of my neighbors, I find what people really want to talk about is their vegetables. This is especially true with men. Women love their veggies, too, but they love their herbs even more.

Questions about colorful eggplants, hot peppers, squash borers, and Bibb lettuce are becoming more common. However, manly conversations always return to the tomato. Men over 50 talk about rows of beets, hills of potatoes, and dozens of staked tomatoes. This is the old guard, with a separate and fenced-in vegetable garden, capable of feeding the entire county, at least with zucchini. Men under 50 want to know how their wine, barbeque, kids, grandkids, and tomatoes can all co-exist around the deck. If they live in apartments or condominiums, the question is the same, although everything is on a smaller scale. The deck, patio, veranda, and porch make up the garden area, and oh my, how they fill them.

So what do I say? As for the old guard, I invite myself to their gardens so I can learn from them. They have tried every radish, pole bean, and corn known to man plus everything in between. They know how to stake tomatoes and squash borers (literally). The vegetable varieties available to these people have changed to be sure, but ‘Better Boy’ tomato, ‘California Wonder’ pepper, and ‘Burbank’ potato are still the most prevalent in stores that cater to the large home vegetable gardener.

For the smaller, around-the-deck and on-the-deck gardener —the foodscapers — there is an incredible number of new plants available. And hallelujah, we are reaching people through the boxes and independent garden centers.

Not only are ‘Big League’ tomato, ‘Loco’ peppers, and ‘Pot Black’ eggplant now available, but unusual veggies like grafted heirloom tomatoes, ‘Field of Dream’ corn, and ‘Ketchup & Fries’ have caught the imagination of and are now being grown by people with tiny gardens. Vegetables and fruits bred for containers and for mixed combinations that include handsome eggplants, thyme, and basil with variegated foliage are in demand. There are more fancy greens of all types available, and they are both nutritious and attractive. Smaller, more compact versions of many types of vegetables are offered now, and many are gorgeous to boot.

I could not do without the compact ornamental vegetables and herbs in my tiny garden for salads. But I admit, there are times I long for a larger vegetable garden.

Gardening Is Therapy, No Matter What You Grow

There is always frustration when growing veggies, what with borers, nutritional disorders, varmints, critters, and too much or too little rain. This will not change. But there is something magical about making a tomato sandwich with your own ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes and garnishing it with your own leaf lettuce. That is part of the therapy of growing food.

I am content that the vegetable breeding for all of us would-be farmers will only be getting better. It reminds me of a question asked at the end of a talk given by a successful CEO of a major multi-billion dollar company: “What would you like to do better than what you are now doing?”

The CEO hesitated for a moment, smiled, and said, “I wish I could grow a better tomato.”

Vegetable gardening is in all our genes.

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