Tom Wagner, the legendary creator of the Green Zebra tomato variety- Alchimia Grow Shop

The world of horticulture is full of fascinating stories and passionate people who have left a lasting mark on the plant kingdom. Without a doubt, among these people is Tom Wagner, a legendary tomato and potato breeder whose talent and vision revolutionized the industry with the creation of the Green Zebra tomato variety, among many others.

A passionate self-taught horticulturist, Wagner spent decades of his life exploring and experimenting with the endless possibilities for genetic improvement of tomatoes and other vegetables using traditional breeding techniques and selective breeding. Through years of research and development, and through a combination of ingenuity and patience in equal measure, he was able to bring to life one of the most distinctive and acclaimed tomato varieties in history: Green Zebra. Today we tell you his curious story and how this restless breeder inspired a whole generation of future farmers around the world.

Tom Wagner during one of the many talks, lectures, and seminars he has given over the past decades (Image: Seed Savers Exchange)

Vegetable breeding: a family tradition

Growing and raising vegetables is something that could almost be said to come from Tom Wagner’s cradle. And it is that his story begins in fact in 1880 in Germany, when Tom’s maternal great-grandparents emigrated to Nebraska (United States) with many illusions and also seeds of a variety of beans that was something like a family heirloom, called “Sues Becker“. Decades later, already in Kansas, Tom’s grandmother entrusted him with the care and preservation of this variety when he was barely 10 years old. Our protagonist would soon find his true passion!

After a while, Tom quickly became fond of cultivating and raising all kinds of plants, such as Indian corn or peas, even he ended up breeding his own chickens keeping those males from which he wanted to take advantage of his best traits. For example, at that time the tomato variety that best stood up to the hot Kansas climate tended to crack during flowering, something that Tom was able to fix by introducing new genes to this variety and finally getting plants that produced tomatoes without a single crack.

In fact, the best-known tomato variety of all those created by Wagner also comes from an attempt to develop tomato plants without cracks, although in this case starting from a green tomato variety. It was the 1950s and ripe green tomatoes always cracked, ruining a good part of the production; Tom began his trials to eliminate this annoying trait in 1958, crossing this variety with a red tomato that never cracked. The result: red tomatoes with cracks. Luckily, he was not discouraged and kept trying with hundreds of crosses until he had approximately 25% of plants without showing cracking, and also with some green and yellow specimens.

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Green Zebra tomatoes have a very particular pattern of spots and colors
Green Zebra tomatoes have a very particular pattern of spots and colors

After continuing to work on genetics, he was finally able to establish the desired traits and launch a variety that today is considered a true classic, the Green Zebra tomato, characterized by its peculiar dark green stripes or bands and its characteristic sweet and sour taste. Let’s see below the main characteristics of this interesting variety.

Green Zebra, a variety born from the passion for breeding

You have already seen how Green Zebra was developed from selective crossings and genetic improvement using different varieties of tomatoes, and a lot of patience too! Today this variety is considered a delicacy, used by dozens of chefs and present in the best markets and kitchens around the world. These are its main features:

  • Appearance: Green Zebra tomatoes are easily recognizable by their light green to yellow skin with dark green stripes. They are medium in size, generally between 5 and 7 centimeters in diameter, and round in shape.
  • Taste: Green Zebra is known for its distinctive and complex flavor. It has a balance between sweet and sour, which gives it a refreshing and juicy flavor. Some people describe its taste as bittersweet, with hints of citrus and herbs.
  • Texture: The flesh of Green Zebra is juicy and crunchy. It has a firm but smooth texture, which makes it pleasant to the palate. It is less fleshy compared to other tomato varieties.

Spectacular specimens of Tom Wagner's Green Zebra tomatoes
Spectacular specimens of Tom Wagner’s Green Zebra tomatoes

Green Zebra cultivation

Green Zebra is a very versatile indeterminate variety, which can be grown both in gardens and in pots reaching heights close to 3 meters under good conditions. Its leaves are of bright green color and regular, that is to say, presenting an evident serration in its outline. Here are some basic guidelines for growing it in case you are lucky enough to have some seeds:

  • Climate: Prefers warm and sunny climates. It does best in regions with a long growing season and consistent daytime temperatures of around 21-29°C.
  • Sowing: Seeds can be sown indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. You can then transplant them outside after the risk of frost has passed.
  • Spacing: It is recommended to leave a space of approximately 60-90 centimeters between plants, as Green Zebra tomatoes tend to grow vigorously.
  • Watering: Regular, even watering is important to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Avoid overwatering to prevent fungal disease problems.
  • Care: You can support the plants with stakes or cages to help support upright growth. Also, it is recommended to remove the side shoots to promote healthier growth.
  • Harvest Time: Green Zebra tomatoes typically mature in approximately 75-80 days after transplanting. They are ready for harvest when the green skin becomes more translucent and the flavor is full.

Green Zebra is a popular tomato variety prized for its unique appearance, balanced flavor, and juicy texture. Its cultivation requires adequate temperature conditions and regular care to obtain a successful harvest, although it is by no means a complicated variety to grow. Without a doubt, we encourage you to do so, we assure you that you will enjoy them!

Raising potatoes, the other passion of Tom Wagner

We have already commented that Wagner also started raising potatoes from a very early age, and this is something that perhaps came from his family; not surprisingly, their ancestors on the Isle of Man had survived a terrible famine thanks to their selection work from seeds of a particularly resistant potato variety, much more than the clones of the “Lumper” variety that used to be grown in Ireland at that time.

Tom started raising potatoes at a very young age, and throughout his life, he has developed varieties such as “Skagit Valley Gold”, “Kern Toro” or “Northern October”, working in turn on the creation of new varieties that are more resistant to low temperatures.

“Seeds were my toy; I went from marbles to potatoes.” Tom Wagner.

Raising potatoes is another great passion of Tom Wagner's, and he uses seeds to do it! (Image: Kieran Murphy)
Breeding potatoes is another great passion of Tom Wagner’s, and he uses seeds to do it! (Image: Kieran Murphy)

Plant improvement from seed

One of the biggest concerns of this breeder is to achieve a better adaptation of his varieties to the different climates where they can be grown. Increasing its resistance to pests and diseases, to heat or low temperatures are some of its objectives, but it does not only stop there.

In recent years, Tom has worked especially on the nutritional content of his varieties, arguing that, for example, most cultivated tomato varieties contain a large amount of sugar, something that he wants to change by lowering it while increasing the amount of protein. The results of his breeding projects can be enjoyed through his seed bank Tatter Mater Seeds, although they are not always easy to come by.

Kokopelli, organic and reproducible seeds

Kokopelli is a French association dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of free and reproducible seeds. It claims the freedom to produce and exchange seeds, as well as the preservation of plant biodiversity.

In 2009 Tom Wagner visited Europe giving a series of lectures on breeding and cultivation on a tour sponsored by one of our favorite horticultural seed banks, Kokopelli, where you can also find hybrids made from the mythical Green Zebra such as the Pink Berkeley Tie Dye tomato or the Black and Brown Boar, which we highly recommend you try!

His contribution to horticulture and the genetic improvement of tomatoes has earned him recognition in the agricultural community and among tomato lovers throughout the planet, collaborating with numerous organizations and associations, such as ceding more than 30 varieties to the genetic collection of the Seed Savers Exchange organization.

To this day, Tom Wagner continues to be without a doubt a benchmark in the world of plant breeding, a character that has undoubtedly inspired many other breeders to improve their varieties with respect for the environment, patience, and generosity.

Happy harvests!

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