The very first tomato grew wild in tropical areas of Mexico and Peru. It was eaten by early Indians in Mexico who called it “tomati” and planted it with their crops of maize. It also grew wild in Peru. No one knows who grew it first, but we do know that early explorers to the New World took back seeds to Europe in the early part of the sixteenth century.
Europeans were enamored of the plant and grew it as an ornamental rather than a food plant. The Italians were among the first Europeans to recognize the value of the tomato as a food source. By the 1700s, tomatoes were eaten in Europe.
It took longer for them to catch on in the United States. In 1782, Thomas Jefferson mentioned tomatoes as a garden vegetable in his Notes on the State of Virginia. It is documented that he grew them in his garden at Monticello by 1809. But this was still a rather experimental exercise. By 1812, they were being eaten in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Yet for most of our country, it was not until the 1830s that the tomato became widely accepted as a food crop.
Despite its late start in this country, the tomato has taken over as the number one backyard garden plant. Think summer and you think fresh tomatoes! Large, luscious, bursting with flavor, the tomato is a summer staple for salads and tomato sandwiches as well as cooked dishes. We eat tomatoes in sauces, pastas, and juices. Red tomatoes are the most plentiful color, but tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. You can find yellow tomatoes, green zebra tomatoes, orange tomatoes, purple tomatoes, black tomatoes (really a very dark red), and even white tomatoes. We have huge beefsteak tomatoes, pear tomatoes, grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, roma tomatoes, and more types being developed.
The earliest varieties are referred to as heirloom and tomatoes that have been bred to get certain desirable characteristics are hybrid. This is important because if you try to grow a tomato from seed you saved the year before, you will get the same plant if it is an heirloom tomato, but hybrids cannot be duplicated from their seeds. It is also important when choosing which tomatoes to grow in your garden to know if the tomato is determinate or indeterminate. Determinates are shorter, bushier, and tend to produce a crop and die. Indeterminate ones have long vines and keep producing until frost. If you move them into a greenhouse or warm building, they will keep producing in the winter.
Tomatoes aren’t real fussy about the type of soil. They will grow in sand or clay, but the main thing is not to let them get too wet or too dry. If your soil is heavy clay, you will need to amend the soil with compost or peat moss to loosen it up a bit. Putting a light layer of mulch around the plants will help to keep the soil from getting too dry or soggy.
They prefer a pH between 6.0 and 6.8. They like plenty of compost and a temperature that is moderate. If temperatures go over 100 degrees, blossoms can die. If temperatures are too cool, their growth slows down and if subjected to frost, the plant will die. Tomatoes are a lover of full sun so try to put them in the sunny part of your garden. Also, try to rotate them around so that you plant them in a different spot each year. If possible, avoid planting them where you have planted potatoes or green peppers in previous years. If you do not have space to plant them in a garden, they will also do quite well in a container on your patio.
Depending on the type of tomato you are growing, you will probably need to do something to keep them from lying in a tangled mess on the ground. Bush tomatoes will do best at supporting themselves, but they will do better if supported and allowed to grow against a stake, a wire cage, or a trellis. Vine tomatoes need one of these supports or they will trail all over your garden and tomatoes will lie on the ground inviting rot. If you decide to stake them, you need to be careful to use soft ties of cloth or similar material and not tie it too tight. Wire cages can be purchased at most garden stores and if you’re careful, they can be reused each year. You can also make your own with fencing material.
Just remember that you will need to be able to reach into the openings to pick the tomato. Trellising requires you to build or buy a trellis and is more labor intensive as you will need to prune your tomato plants to fit the trellis.
Unfortunately tomatoes have a lot of visitors in the garden who like to eat them. So you must be on constant guard for pests. To me, the worst one is the hornworm, a green caterpillar that, in one day, can eat all the leaves off a plant as well as the fruit. Tomatoes are like people. They are able to fend off some of the diseases and pests better if they are not stressed. So keep them well nourished and you will have less of a loss to disease. It also helps to pick tomatoes that are disease resistant. In the seed catalogs, look for these symbols:
F • Fusarium-resistant
V • Verticillium-resistant
T • Tobacco mosaic virus-resistant
N • Nematode-resistant
These are tomatoes that have been bred to have resistance to some of the more common diseases.
According to the Indiana State Fair which has declared 2009 as the year of the tomato, on average each American eats 18 pounds of fresh tomatoes and 70 pounds of cooked tomatoes a year. Fortunately, they are good for us. Tomatoes have lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, as well as Vitamin C, Vitamin A, potassium, and iron.
If you are fortunate enough to have a large crop of tomatoes, you can save them by canning or freezing them. Freezing works best for sauces. You can also make tomato juice or soup. Or dry them for those recipes that asked for sun-dried tomatoes. But eating them fresh is still the best way—a nice juicy tomato sandwich on a hot summer day.
Although you can preserve tomatoes longer by storing them in the refrigerator, flavor and texture deteriorate when subjected to cold. Ripe tomatoes can be stored at room temperature for 2-3 days, away from direct sunlight. Tomatoes that are not quite ripe should also be stored the same way to allow them to ripen. If you wish to speed up the ripening, you can put them in the sunlight. Or you can even eat them green. In the South, fried green tomatoes are a favored way to use up that bumper crop of tomatoes. Another common Southern solution is to share the bounty with friends and neighbors. They will speak well of you all summer.
Despite its mysterious past, the tomato is an accepted member of the family now, well actually two families since it is a fruit by birth and a vegetable by proclamation. Tomato lovers look forward to the fresh tasty summer version. We tolerate the hard pink winter version, but only to remind us of what is to come when summer brings us the real thing. The tomato is still a pomme d’amour to all of its devoted fans!
By Sue Wood Walker