Dr. Barbara Liedl likes her tomatoes tart. A bit acidic. And as she's growing dozens of varieties in the name of science, trying to find the best ones for the public, she invites others to taste tests to make sure they will please a variety of palates. I was happy to help out.
I visited Liedl at her greenhouse at West Virginia State University, where she's a researcher with the Agricultural, Consumer, Environmental, and Outreach Programs of the Gus R. Douglass Land-Grant Institute.
One of her specialties is breeding greenhouse tomatoes. "A niche market within the tomato field but growing like gangbusters," she tells me. While most of us just put a plant into the ground or in a pot on the deck, Liedl works on a much larger scale.
"We do a lot of the work in a hydroponic setup, but it could also work with tomatoes in pots or in the ground," Liedl explains. "The big difference is the environment. In a greenhouse or high tunnel, the temperatures and humidity can be higher. Also the plants are in that situation longer than tomatoes grown in the field (in a hydroponic greenhouse like Gritt's Midway they will have the tomatoes in the greenhouse for six to nine months). Since the environment is so different, you need plants that are suited for that environment versus a field."
Human hands originally did the breeding, with workers gathering pollen using electric toothbrushes. Now, she orders bumblebees from Belgium every couple of weeks. There's another helper - Bling, the rescue cat. He's in charge of keeping out mice and voles and other pests.
"I am always looking to keep as much of my work as possible sustainable. For instance, this spring we are going to try out a new media for hydroponic substrate: parboiled rice hulls, which can be composted after use. If that works, we will be using it in all of our hydroponic work," she explains.
"We are not certified organic. And as a research location with several people using the greenhouses and field plots, it isn't in our best interest to be certified. So instead I contract out with farmers across the state to do any organic trials I need," she said.
Now she's using a grant to breed disease- and pest-resistance into heirloom tomatoes, and she's working with researchers from Ohio State, University of Minnesota and North Carolina State University on grafting tomatoes for use in organic and high tunnel research.
I asked Liedl to give some advice to us plain home gardeners. First, I asked if she had heard of the "old farmer's tale" of planting tomato plants with the lowest section of leaves buried to form better roots.
"That's not actually an old tale," she replied, "but one I have often had to do in the field. If my transplants are too leggy, I plant them deep, but I strip off the leaves below ground as they will just rot and lead to more problems. If they would need to be planted really deep, you can also plant them horizontally."
She suggested a Web site from her alma mater, Purdue University, about planting leggy tomatoes: www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/
Now, for the big question that I ask every tomato grower I meet: What species does she recommend?