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Chance discovery produced the long-keeping tomato

It was May 1 of last year and Mrs. Willard Johnson was fixing a salad for supper in her Princeton, W. Va., home. The lettuce was there, a few slices of sweet red onion, some celery sticks, a selection of dressings, even the bacon bits.

All she needed, then, to complete a fine- tasting salad were some slices of fresh tomato.

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So Mrs. Johnson went to the basement shelf, where tomatoes store best in her home, and reached for the last two. Now there's nothing exceptional about that, except that these still-firm tomatoes had been picked, fresh from the vine, the previous fall.

Equally impressive, considering the climate in his corner of New England, is the experience of Harry F. Grieger of Norwich, Vt.

The Griegers ate the last of their fresh tomatoes on March 25. He'd picked them green "just before frost" almost six months earlier and stored them in natural light in an unheated room.

Now tomatoes are not supposed to keep anywhere near that length of time. But these were not your everyday tomatoes. The variety both families had chosen for their gardens was Burpee's Long Keeper variety.

At first glance this might appear to be another triumph of the plant breeders , the just reward for years of patient breeding. It is nothing of the sort. In fact, it is the result of a volunteer that sprang up in the garden of a Burpee customer, Mrs. Pryce Tewart of Wayne, Ohio.

Mrs. Tewart found that the fruit of this tomato vine, about the size of a medium apple, was moderately good tasting. But of all the tomatoes she picked at the end of the season it was the fruit from this bush that held up best. It was so markedly superior as a keeper that the other varieties weren't even in the race.

So Mrs. Tewart sent Burpee's some seeds. To the company's surprise and pleasure it bred true to form every time during the several years that it was tested. Then seed samples were sent out to gardeners in all corners of the country, who tried them out. The results were similar everywhere. The plants produced a pleasant-tasting tomato that kept well throughout the fall and on into winter.

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Now the Long Keeper doesn't match the flavor of the best-tasting Better Boy or similar varieties that you pick at the peak of ripeness in July and August. But it is far ahead in both flavor and texture of any of the force-ripened varieties that come from the supermarkets.

"My husband won't eat plastic-packaged tomatoes," Mrs. Johnson says. "If we didn't grow the Long Keepers he wouldn't eat a fresh tomato all during the winter."

When growing Long Keepers, the idea is to time the crop so that the tomatoes are just beginning to turn color before the first frost. Then they are at their peak for longtime storage. This means that in some of the more southerly climates, seed should be sown 2 to 4 weeks later than other varieties. In the short-season areas they should be sown along with the more conventional varieties.

One feature of the Long Keeper is that its skin never turns a dark red, even when overripe. It is ready to eat when the skin is a golden-red. Inside, the meat is an attractive medium-red color at this stage.

It has been found that the fruit that stores best is picked when the skin is beginning to turn from green to yellowish-orange. Wipe any newly picked tomatoes that are dirty and store blemish-free tomatoes in shallow containers in single layers without the fruits touching one another.

Place the containers on open shelves in natural light but away from direct sunlight.The best storage temperatures are in the low to mid-60s, although some gardeners have stored them in temperatures much cooler than that.

Check for spoilage about every two days and discard any that are beginning to fail. According to the L. W. Walkers of Portsmouth, Va., spoilage due to rot "appe ars to be about 5 percent."

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