Jersey Fresh

May 18, 2012
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By Michele J. Kuhn

Red, yellow or green, tomatoes grown in the Garden State are the best

Horticulturalist Mame Green from Gold Coast Landscape and Garden Center.

There’s just something about a Jersey tomato and picking one of those juicy fruits from your own garden only makes it taste better.

New Jersey is a perfect place to grow tomatoes and the fame “the Jersey Tomato” has gained is justified.

“We have the ideal climate,” said William Sciarappa, the Monmouth County agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service. “We get consistently warm days – in 85 to 90 degree range – and cooler nights so the plants can recover (from the heat). We get the right amount of rain, about an inch a week… We have well-drained sandy soil.”

Those conditions mean that home gardeners in New Jersey are able to grow very flavorful fruit, much better tasting than the types grown by commercial farms that consumers buy in supermarkets. “A lot of varieties today are designed to be shipped long distances. They have thicker skins and are grown to travel,” Sciarappa said. “If you are a gardener, you can look for more thinned skinned, better tasting tomatoes.”

Better tasting is the name of the game in the Garden State where Rutgers University has been testing and researching tomatoes for more than 75 years. For the past 10 years the state university has delved into heirloom tomatoes, varieties that have been passed down through the generations and have stood the test of time.

During the past five years, New Jersey residents have been asked to play a part in finding the best varieties. Huge gatherings of tomato aficionados have been held in August at the research stations in Pittstown and Bridgeton. More than 60 varieties of the fruit, picked at its peak, is consumed and then rated by the crowd.

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“We tabulate and rate that information,’’ Sciarappa said. “We look for good flavor.”

This year’s tomato fest will be held from 3 p.m. until dusk Aug. 29 at the Rutgers Snyder Research Extension Farm in Pittstown.

Among the two biggest favorites from those tests continue to be the Rutgers Tomato, developed in 1934, and the Ramapo Tomato, which has been grown since 1968. The Ramapo was developed by a New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station researcher and is known for its quality, reliability and production. Sciarappa described the Ramapo as having “a nice balance of acid and sugar.”

Now is the time to plant tomatoes.

The county agricultural agent said a good tomato garden should have a variety of types. When picking plants, gardeners should check to be sure there is no disease and no white flies. Once the soil is tilled and fertilized, tomato plants should be dug deeply into the soil. Leaves on the lower part of the plant can be removed. A deeply planted tomato plant will “develop a good root system to support large fruit and more fruit,’’ he said.

Area garden centers are filled with favorite varieties and, when it comes to picking the type of tomato to grow, everyone has an opinion.

“Everyone has their own personal preference for tomatoes and people in New Jersey know tomatoes,’’ said Mame Green, a horticulturalist at Gold Coast Landscape and Garden Center in Long Branch. “They know what they want. They know what works best in their garden and they know what they like to eat.”

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Gold Coast, located at 264 Branchport Ave., has a wide variety of tomato plants – including Big Boy, Better Boy, Beefsteak, and of course, the Rutgers and Ramapo.

When choosing plants, “most everyone also gets a cherry or grape tomato,” Green said. Both are small, pop-in-your-mouth types. The difference is the size and shape. Grape tomatoes are shaped like grapes while cherry tomatoes are a little bigger but round like a cherry.

“During the past year or two, people have also been looking for yellow cherry tomatoes,’’ Green said. “They are very sweet.

“We carry them because people want them to add a certain aesthetic to the foods they are preparing. Many times cherry and yellow tomatoes are used as décor for food… They are used like confetti, a garnish,” she said.

Green believes that everyone with a family should grow some type of vegetable or have a full vegetable garden. “So few children have an idea where food comes from,” she said. A garden “gives them the knowledge …of where what they are ingesting comes from.”

Her tomato preference is sweet cherry tomatoes. “I can satisfy myself while picking them…You can have a meal while picking them from your garden,” Green said.

Green’s boss, Kyle Purcell, owner of Gold Coast whose livelihood revolves around plants and gardens, also has a favorite garden-grown tomato. “It’s anything I don’t have to prepare, slice or cook…It’s a New Jersey tomato,” he said. “How bad can it be?”

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