LITTLE ROCK — When it comes to planting tomatoes, gardeners often turn to perennial favorites known for their quality and flavor. But getting an abundant harvest of the perfect summer slicers starts with selection.


This spring, Cooperative Extension Service agents in 40 counties will be growing and testing three less common tomato varieties known for their disease resistance. Agents will be evaluating them for plant health, ease of management, fruit production, fruit quality, and flavor. Some counties have multiple sites, bringing the total demonstration sites to 44.


Logan County is one of those with multiple sites with one being in Paris at the Ag department and another at an individual’s home outside Booneville.


Tomatoes are a favorite with homeowners who find them not only easy to grow, but also delicious. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans consumed an average of 20.7 pounds of tomatoes per person per year in 2010-2017, up from an average of about 12 pounds per person in the early 1980s.


“Better Boy is widely sold and grown, but it doesn’t have a lot of disease resistance,” Amanda McWhirt, extension horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said. “We want to try some new varieties that aren’t widely planted by farmers and homeowners to see if their resistance to common diseases makes them easier for people to grow.”


This year’s test varieties include:


• Mountain Magic — a small, sweet salad tomato resistant to early and late blight; requires a strong trellis


• Red Defender — a firm, large tomato considered a good slicer


• Celebrity — a large flavorful variety, also considered a good slicer


“In Arkansas, it gets hot in summer, and we get a lot of rainfall which means we have high disease pressure, which can make it difficult to grow tomatoes successfully,” McWhirt said. “We don’t recommend relying solely on chemical pesticides for controlling disease. You can also use variety selection and pruning, which improves airflow.”


From garden to social media


Nearly all of the county extension agents are either collaborating with a homeowner or farmer in their respective locales or hosting demonstration sites in public gardens. Saline County Extension Agent Nicole Nichols, for example, has a tomato demonstration in the community garden in Avilla and will be posting results on http://facebook.com/salinecountyag.


Garland County Extension Agent Alex Dykes has a more unique location. He will be planting tomatoes, along with peppers and pumpkins, in a teaching garden at the Garland County Detention Center.


“Because of the coronavirus issue, we will not be able to work with the inmates until restrictions are eased,” Dykes said.


A few county agents will collect data as they harvest and weigh the amount of fruit produced and measure the average tomato size.


“The majority of agents will use the demonstrations as a way to take photos and share through social media what they’re seeing,” McWhirt said.


This is the third year extension has conducted tomato demonstrations. Clay Wingfield, a horticulture program associate, grew the seedlings at the Southwest Research and Extension Center in Hope. Each agent received 18 plants, six plants of each variety.


To learn more about tomatoes and gardening methods, contact your local county extension agent or visit www.uaex.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @UAEX_edu.