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PHOOEY! WAS MY REACTION To I the first tomato I grew in California. It was misshapen, mealy and tasteless! After all, I was in the Golden State -- home of legendary produce -- and my tomatoes should have been perfect and luscious.
Looking back, my mistake was in trying to grow beefsteaks, the large slicing tomatoes I had enjoyed growing in Boston but which are unsuited to the San Francisco Bay area's cool summers. Years later, through trial and error, I have learned that, while growing tomatoes is actually quite easy, a generous harvest of great-tasting tomatoes requires careful choice of the right variety for your growing conditions.
The enthusiastic descriptions in seed catalogs seem to suggest that almost any tomato variety will grow in your garden. While there are a few varieties such as `Early Girl' and most cherry tomatoes that actually will do well in most areas, they are the exceptions. A closer look at how tomatoes grow will show you why.
Assuming you give your tomatoes full sun, well-drained soil with sufficient organic matter, and moderate amounts of fertilizer and water, the first stumbling block to perfect tomatoes is disease. Numerous diseases afflict tomatoes, damaging the leaves and roots or even killing the plants. The result is a reduced harvest and fruits with little sugar. The most prevalent tomato diseases are veracillium wilt, fusarium, wilt, tobacco mosaic virus and afternaria. Nematodes, minute worms that attack plant roots, are also grouped with these diseases.
Many modern tomato varieties have been bred to resist these diseases. The capital letters after a variety name (`Cavalier' VFNTA, for example) indicate its disease resistance (see "Breaking the Tomato Code"). If you are unsure what diseases prevail in your area ask your cooperative extension agent; then look for varieties with the needed resistance.
Your climate is the next factor to consider when choosing varieties. To produce fruit, most tomato varieties need fairly complete pollination. Ideal temperatures for pollination are between 65 and 85 degrees. If you live where summer temperatures are often in the low 50s your plants may stay in semidormancy and produce no flowers; even if flowers or pollen are produced they may never mature. Fortunately, some varieties like `Earl Girl,' `Stupice' and `Oregon Spring' can produce fruit at fairly low temperatures.
On the other hand, if …