Where, Oh Where Have My Favorite Vegetable Varieties Gone?

San Antonio Express News
Sunday, February 13, 2005

By Dr. Jerry Parsons, Extension Horticulturist (Vegetables), Texas Cooperative Extension

Where can you get an unbiased, scientific appraisal of which vegetable varieties perform best in this area? From the Texas Cooperative Extension horticulturists, of course! We don’t just pull these variety recommendations out of thin air either–the Cooperative Extension horticulturists work diligently with local farmers and transplant producers to test and evaluate a wide range of new plant varieties.

Over the years major advancements have been made in the area of production reliability. Reliable production has been made possible by new hybrid varieties of vegetables which are earlier producers of larger yields. These hybrids are disease resistant as well as vigorous growers. For instance, thirty years ago the tomato variety, Homestead, was the most widely planted variety in this area. It would do okay in the spring, but in the fall it was rare to harvest a ripe tomato before frost destroyed the plants loaded with green tomatoes. The Texas Cooperative Extension horticulturists introduced the hybrid Spring Giant, and growers could then depend on a harvest of tomatoes every fall.

Hybrids such as the Spring Giant and Surefire tomato were being harvested before the first fruit was being set on the Homestead plants. Spring Giant was superseded by the more adapted varieties such as Surefire, Heatwave and SunMaster. In the 30 years which I have been in San Antonio as a horticulturist for Texas Cooperative Extension, this system of cooperative testing and local marketing has introduced productive hybrid tomatoes (Spring Giant, Big Set, Celebrity, Jack Pot, Bingo, Carnival, Whirlaway, Heatwave, SunMaster, Surefire and Merced); peppers (Summer Sweet 860 Bell Pepper, Bell Tower Bell Pepper, Capistrano Bell Pepper, Hidalgo Serrano, TAM Mild Jalapeño, Grande Jalapeño and Rio Grande Gold Sweet Jalapeño); and broccoli (Green Comet, Baccus). Now, most of these tried-and-proven superior varieties are no longer available for home gardeners to enjoy. How and why could something like this happen?!?!

The short story is: There are only a few vegetable seed companies left in the world and they are eliminating the older, Texas-proven varieties in favor of new, “improved’ hybrids. This elimination includes Merced, Heatwave, Surefire, SunMaster tomatoes and Green Comet broccoli. Remaining supplies will soon be depleted. Dr. Larry Stein and I reworked the Extension Vegetable Recommendation list and sources after a long period of denial about the non-existence of Porter & Sons Seedmen in Stephenville, Texas, which used to be a major seed supplier for Texas gardeners. The Cooperative Extension Vegetable Recommendation list and sources can be found at: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/PLANTanswers/ vegvar.html

Seed of the Texas SuperStar tomato varieties (Merced and Surefire) have been discontinued so those seed will soon be eliminated from the market. SunMaster and Heatwave have also met similar fates. However, the most recent SuperStar tomatoes are “Tomato444″(in the list as BHN444) and Sun Leaper (available from Stoke’s Seeds Ltd.). Visit the Stoke’s website at: http://www.stokeseeds.com/cgi-bin/StokesSeeds.storefront). They are showing promise as per our demonstrations. Visit: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/plantanswers/vegetables/ 2003falltomatotrials/index.html.

So, for tomatoes this spring we recommend that gardeners use Carnival, Celebrity, SunPride and/or Tomato444 for seed-you-can-find home garden tomatoes. If gardeners will look around the Internet, they may also be able to find seed of Amelia and SunLeaper which have also performed well for San Antonio gardeners.

We have been testing broccoli for several years trying to find a replacement for Green Comet of which seed is no longer available. Visit: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ plantanswers/ vegetables/2003broccolitrials/index.html and http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ plantanswers/ vegetables/2004broccolitrials/index.html. Notice in the 2004 Spring trials, there were only two varieties with images attached. That is because these were THE ONLY TWO varieties which made heads in the spring!

Green Magic broccoli was first introduced to the San Antonio market in the fall of 2004, but because of the hottest October in history, the quality of early (Aug-Oct) planted broccoli was not what we had experienced in our testing. The later planted Green Magic broccoli was high quality and it should be wonderful this spring because broccoli performs best when it experiences cool growing conditions. Broccoli transplants can be planted in the San Antonio area as late as March 15 and in the hill country as late as April 1.

We could not find a seed source for Green Magic so look for transplants in San Antonio nurseries. We do have a seed source for Emerald Pride at Stoke’s Seeds Ltd. Visit them at:
http://www.stokeseeds.com/cgi-bin/StokesSeeds.storefront. The Emerald Pride broccoli variety performs well in a fall planting if gardeners want to grow their own plants from seed. Plant seed for fall broccoli according to the planting guide at:http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ PLANTanswers/fallgarden/falldirect. html.

It is too late to seed spring broccoli directly into the garden.

All of these new varieties are hybrids. All hybrids are not good. There are hybrids such as the ones previously mentioned which are adapted to this area, and there are hybrids such as Big Boy and Beefsteak which are not as productive in comparison. The Texas Cooperative Extension horticulturists continually test new hybrids to determine if they are adapted. Believe me, one cannot base a decision on claims made by the seed company, i.e., according to each company, their hybrid is the best! And it may be–in Michigan…but not in Texas. Regardless, hybrids do offer answers to some serious problems with which Texas gardeners have to contend.

Each hybrid has its own distinct characteristics of taste, maturity rate, plant size, pest resistance and adaptability. Gardeners should grow some of each available hybrid to determine which ones they like the best. Hybrids require attention to culture if maximum yields are expected. For tomatoes, for instance, follow the recommendations at: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ plantanswers/tomato.html.

And last but certainly not least-DO NOT be fooled into believing the heirloom tomato varieties are better tasting and easier to grow than hybrids just because heirloom varieties are older. There are old hybrid varieties which are not recommended because even though they are old, they are not adapted to Texas’ growing conditions. Each hybrid has its unique taste as does each heirloom variety. The difference is that every recommended hybrid produces many times more fruit on smaller, more manageable plants than do any heirloom.

So make your choice from available varieties, and enjoy spring gardening in Texas.

This article was written by Dr. Jerry Parsons, Extension Horticulturist (Vegetables) with Texas Cooperative Extension in Bexar County.

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