A Pepper Primer: Peppers Still the Hottest Thing in Gardening -- Texas Gardener

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By Skip Richter
Contributing Editor

Grape tomatoes have taken the produce world by storm. In a few short years they have gone from non-existent in the grocery produce section to a very popular item that is pushing standard cherry tomatoes off the shelf in many areas.

Commercial growers have mixed feelings about these new fruits. On the one hand they are tedious to pick. A good harvest hand can pick about eight times as many standard tomatoes as grape type tomatoes in the same amount of time, so grape types are more expensive to get to market. Yet they command a much higher price per pound than even cherry types which are also more time consuming to pick.

However, with consumers these tasty treats are love at first bite. Their smaller size makes them ideal for mouth poppin' snacking. It also means you can munch a tomato without squirting juice down the front of your shirt. They have a firm, "meaty" texture and a unique tasty tomato flavor. Kids even love them because they are sweeter than most cherry types.

Grape tomatoes made their debut on the American scene in 1996 when a Manatee County, Florida, vegetable grower tried them out as a specialty product for ethnic Chinese markets. He began to call them "grape tomatoes" due to their small size and elongated, grape-like shape. The variety he grew was called 'Santa,' a hybrid produced by a Taiwanese seed company. At first they received only mild interest but soon as word spread they began to catch on like wildfire.

The grower trademarked the term grape tomato which prevented other growers, marketers, and seed companies from describing similar type tomatoes as grape tomatoes. In 1999 one of the United States' largest produce companies was able through a lengthy court battle to get them to relinquish the term "grape tomato" for general use.

They were also able to convince the Taiwanese company to give them the exclusive rights on the 'Santa' variety. If you have purchased grape tomatoes from a produce section in the past five years or so, they were most likely the 'Santa' variety, although some other varieties are starting to make it onto the commercial scene.

For a while you could purchase 'Santa' seeds through Thompson & Morgan Seed Company, but they are no longer allowed to carry them. Welcome to the new world of specialty vegetable production and development!

All is not lost however. Those of us who fell in love with those tasty, cherry red morsels now have other varieties to choose from.

One of the first to make it big in the gardening market was 'Juliet' which received All American honors in 1999. Juliet however is not a true grape tomato as it reaches a whopping two inches long and 1 ounce in weight. True grape type tomatoes usually are about 1" to 1-1/4" long and 3/4" wide, and weigh in at about 1/2 to 3/4 ounce.

Nevertheless I found Juliet to be a tasty variety well worth growing a couple of years ago, and a number of our Master Gardeners in Travis County tried it and agreed. With the taste of Juliet on our lips (sorry, but I couldn't resist that one) and the need for another grape tomato "fix," we set up a variety trial with 8 grape varieties, and 7 cherry types.

We planted the tomatoes at several locations including Boggy Creek Farm (a local organic producer), The Natural Gardener (local garden center), and several of our home gardens. We evaluated plants as they grew, taking notes on growth, disease or insect problems and fruit set. Then at harvest time we sampled the fruit and took notes. When we had a quantity of fruit we would put several varieties together in a taste test. Master Gardeners and other folks lucky enough to come around at the right time did the tasting and rated the varieties.

When the results were in we tabulated and evaluated the results. Testers gave each variety a numerical score in a scale of 1 to 5 and also made comments on the score sheet. These were helpful in determining why someone liked or disliked a variety.

Although we had groups of plants in various locations, I should note that this was not a scientifically replicated trial. Our notes and personal observations along with taste test results have been combined to form the overall variety evaluation. I also searched through other trials of these and similar varieties across the country to see what similarities and differences there were. Additional tests will need to be conducted to determine whether this initial information holds true. There are some additional varieties now on the market that need to be evaluated up against the better ones from this trial.

So here are the results of our trials along with some information on these varieties from other evaluations. Let's begin with some general notes.
I have done tomato trials for many years in various locations. One thing that became obvious early on and still holds true is that individuals vary in what they like in a tomato. The Porter tomato comes to mind. I have heard folks swear by it and others swear at it when it comes to flavor.

If the variety is particularly sweet or tart or juicy or firm or soft, the taste testers will likely rate it all over the chart or the results will divide like the Red Sea when Moses did his thing. Thus to report the overall score of a variety is at times misleading because one that 5 people loved and 5 people hated would average to be the same rating as one that 10 people were ambivalent about!

Additionally, as tasters move through a set of samples the results can be influenced by samples preceding or following it, and they all can kind of run together. It is sort of like smelling 10 perfumes. After trying a few you kinda lose track of what's what. Ripeness is another obvious factor. It is difficult to have a uniform sampling of fruit from one variety. Some stay firm as they ripen while others may become mealy pretty fast. This results in an additional variable to deal with when conducting a taste test.

Grape types
In our trial we included the grape varieties Juliet (a little large for a true grape type), Elfin, Chiquita, Sweet Olive, Agriset Grape, Tami-G, Green Grape, Red Grape and one called simply Grape.

Most of the grape type varieties we tried did well and produced attractive, flavorful fruit. The exceptions included Green Grape which struggled as a plant to grow at all. The weak spindly plants produced few fruits. Green tomatoes are a novelty but we never had enough fruit to include in a taste test.

Another poor performer was Chiquita. It grew and produced well, bearing 1" pink/red fruit that were oblong with slightly flattened sides. The problem was with flavor. Not one of the taste testers liked them and comments ranged from "somewhat bland" to "yuck"! We did not have problems with fruit splitting in our trials, but in two other trials across the country Chiquita was singled out as being prone to splitting.

Elfin rated a little higher than Chiquita. Taster comments referred to its hard, somewhat tough texture, and lack of sweetness. Thus in retrospect I questioned if the fruits were fully ripe although when harvested their appearance seemed fine. On a positive note the plants were compact (determinate growth habit) with good foliage color. Elfin deserves another year of testing before reaching a final conclusion.

Juliet was our standard of flavor and production as we had grown it before and it was an All American selection. Even though it is not the bite sized grape type (maybe two bites is a better description) it rated very well, scoring the highest of any of the grapes. A primary reason is that it includes a lot of tomato flavor that is not overpowered with sweetness. Grape enthusiasts may prefer the smaller sweeter grapes, but Juliet deserves a place in most gardens.

There are several varieties offered in seed catalogues with only the name Grape or Red Grape. We tried some of these and found them to be fairly similar. Red Grape from Johnny's was an example type that did well. Taste ratings ranged from low to high as was common for a sweet grape tomato. Like other grapes it was a good small size for snacking and meaty.

We tried two other grapes that later turned out to be considered one and the same. Tami-G from Stokes Seeds and Agriset Grape from Harris Seeds performed similarly in our trials. Now Harris lists them as one and the same. They were in the middle of the group with respect to taste ratings.

Sweet Olive was among the top performers in our trials. It produced very well and rated near the top although it was not at the bottom or top of many tasters' lists. Part of the reason for this is that it is not too sweet. Trials in other parts of the country including Indiana and North Carolina have rated it as among the more flavorful varieties. Fruit is oblong with slightly flattened sides.

Sweet Olive is a determinate type that bears its harvest early. It is a great choice but you may want to also include an indeterminate type in your garden to extend the harvest season a bit.

Additional trials are needed to evaluate several new varieties now on the market. As seed companies strive to develop some superior choices to equal or exceed the 'Santa' variety, now unavailable to home gardeners, we will no doubt have some great new grape tomatoes to choose from.

On a general note, grape types set well in the heat as do cherry tomatoes. Yet like cherries, the skin can be tough especially in hot weather. I had some in less than full sun and in fact some in quite a bit of shade. They grew more spindly as would be expected yet still produced a decent set of fruit.

Grape tomatoes seem to produce a lot of fruit because when it comes to numbers they load up like grapevines. Total volume or weight of production is lower however, and even cherry types can be more productive that most grape tomatoes. So plan on putting out an extra plant or two if production is important.

With the exception of Sweet Olive and Elfin, most grape types are indeterminate and can really sprawl. A standard tomato cage is fine if you can make it tall enough. I prefer to put them on a trellis. A section of livestock panel tied to posts to lean at a slight angle works well. The plants grow up through the panel and lanky shoots can be easily lifted up and placed back through panel openings, eliminating the need for tying.

Grape tomatoes prefer the same growing conditions as any other tomato. For optimum results plant them in a location with full sun exposure, in well drained soil, and maintain a moderate moisture content. Feed them periodically to maintain adequate nutrition and vigor.

They can be grown in large containers if you water as needed to keep the soil evenly moist. Cracking occurs when a lot of rain or irrigation follows a period of dry conditions. So keep the soil moisture as even as you can. If you want to grow some in containers try the variety Sweet Olive or perhaps Elfin as they have a more compact growth habit.

Some Cherry Types
We also included some cherry types in our trial. Two that deserve special mention are 'Sweet Baby Girl' and 'Sweet Million.'

The breeders at Seminis seeds in California set out to find the best cherry tomato in the world. They evaluated varieties and selections from around the world with an eye for superior sweetness and flavor and moderate plant size. The winner was the variety 'Sweet Baby Girl.' It was also a superior performer in our trials. Long clusters of about a dozen 1 ounce fruits adorn the plants. Growth habit is indeterminate, but somewhat compact as opposed to the lanky growth common in most cherry types.

The company's hype states that this variety "is the sweetest, best-tasting red cherry tomato, period . . . will more than satisfy the tomato enthusiast as well as those who are inclined to prefer candy over tomatoes." This may be true because in our taste tests many raved over it while a few put it at the very bottom as being just too sweet and juicy.

Many gardeners have grown the old standard 'Sweet 100' and enjoyed its productivity and flavor. Sweet Million sets even longer clusters of small round fruit that are so pretty you hate to pick them but are too sweet and tasty not to! It rated the highest average score in our taste tests with almost everyone agreeing on its quality. So evidently it is not too sweet so as to lack some good tomato flavor.

Another trial variety, 'Sugar Cherry' (a large current type) was just that, very sweet but lacking in some tomato flavor. This may be one however that the kids would really take to. Like 'Sweet Million' it was as small as a grape type but rounded like a cherry type.

Try Some This Spring
Give grapes a try in your garden this year. They are a tasty addition to those delicious slicers in the tomato patch. Experiment with a new variety or two. The best is no doubt yet to come.

I must add however that grape tomatoes like sugar snap peas are "gardener food." They are too tasty to resist when working out in the garden. So if you hope to make it back to the kitchen with some, you better grow several plants.

Small Tomato Variety Sources

Grape Cherry Source
Sweet Olive
Juliet
Red Grape
Johnny's Selected Seeds
(800) 879-2258
http://www.johnnyseeds.com/

Agriset Grape* Harris (800) 514-4441

Tami-G*
Juliet
Sweet Million   Stokes (800) 396-9238
http://www.stokeseeds.com/

Juliet
Elfin
Grape
Sweet Baby Girl  
Sweet Million  
Tomato Growers Supply
Orders (888) 478-7333
Customer Service (239) 768-1119

Juliet Sweet Baby Girl   W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
Customer Service (800) 333-5808
Orders (800) 888-1447
http://www.burpee.com/

Sugar Cherry Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
(540) 894-9480
http://www.southernexposure.com/

*listed as same variety by Harris



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