The tomato is the most popular garden crop today by far, but this was not always the case. For nearly three hundred years, from the time explorers brought tomato seeds from Mexico — where they had been hybridized by the Aztecs — to Spain, they were regarded suspiciously from Europe to colonial America. Tomatoes were utilized as ornamental curiosities for table arrangements and other decorative purposes, but were otherwise shunned as poisonous.
The word tomato comes from tomatl, its Nahuatl equivalent. Nahuatl, which is still spoken today in central Mexico, was the language of the Aztecs; “tom” means swollen or fat and “atl” means water, an obvious reference to the plump appearance and juiciness of the fruit.
Related: Get in on Garden Party’s Everything Tomato event
The tomato’s toxic reputation began with the upper classes in Europe due to the expensive pewter plates on which they dined. When a cut tomato slice comes in contact with a pewter plate, the acid in the tomato dissolves the lead in the pewter, which is then soaked up by the tomato. Thus, eating tomatoes on pewter plates causes lead poisoning. But such an explanation for the tomato’s apparent toxicity was not known at the time. In addition, the fact that the tomato belongs to the nightshade family (Solanaceae), which does include a few deadly plant species, added to the tomato’s notoriety as a dangerous food.
A French botanist is responsible for the tomato’s scientific name, Lycopersicon esculentum, literally “succulent wolfpeach.” It was called wolfpeach because it was thought to resemble a mysterious fruit by that name which was mentioned in the writings of Galen, a physician in ancient Greece. That succulent, peach-like fruit was supposedly toxic to wolves, a claim that enhanced the tomato’s identity as a poisonous plant.
It was not until the late 1700s that the tomato’s reputation began to turn around, assisted by Thomas Jefferson’s cultivation of the tomato at Monticello, although there were still many people in this country who insisted on the tomato’s toxicity as late as 1900.
Conversely, the tomato was reputed by some to be an aphrodisiac. The association of tomatoes with love started from a Bible story, where the matriarch Rachel, previously barren, becomes pregnant after being given dudaim (literally, love fruit), known to us today as mandrakes. This story led to mandrakes acquiring a reputation as a fertility fruit and associated them with connubial love. Mandrake fruit do not only bear a close resemblance to certain tomato varieties but the mandrake and tomato also share kinship as fellow members of the nightshade family.
One of the earliest names given to the tomato was pomme d’amour, which means “love apple” in French, drawing attention to its supposed desire-inducing quality. In Italian, the word for tomato is pomodoro. It is derived from pomo d’oro, meaning apple of gold, and speaks to the fact that the first tomatoes that arrived in Europe were yellow.
Tomatoes are easy to grow as long as a few cultural conditions are met. The plants must receive at least six to eight hours of direct sun daily. Since tomato plants are vines, you will get maximum harvest when planting them in cages or in front of trellises to which they will be tied as they grow; otherwise, much of the fruit will end up growing on the ground and spoil before it is fully ripe and ready to be picked.
Although tomatoes are adaptable to a wide variety of soil types, they prefer good drainage. Plant tomatoes deep so that the bottom leaves are just above the soil line; Roots will sprout from the buried stem and give the plant a wider network of roots for absorbing water and fertilizer. Give your plants room to grow. Five feet between plants is the recommended distance.
Mulch is an absolute necessity when it comes to growing tomatoes. Many tomato problems, especially when fruit is disfigured, cracked, or infected by fungus, may be traced to irregular soil moisture. Mulch keeps soil evenly moist and roots cool, allowing you to increase the intervals between irrigations.
Tomato plants are both self-fruitful and autogamous. A self-fruitful plant pollinates itself, so that even if you have only one tomato plant, you should still get fruit. Moreover, tomato plants are also autogamous, which means that pollination of each flower — which has both male and female organs — is by its own pollen and that cross-pollination between flowers, while it may occur, is not needed for fruit production.
Sometimes, tomato plants flower without giving fruit. The advice typically given in such cases is to gently shake the flower stems. Normally, the vibration created by an average garden breeze is enough to move the pollen from stamen (male flower part) to stigma (female part). In truth, shaking the stems of any blooming tomato plant will probably give you more fruit. Once they begin to flower, some gardeners shake the stems of their tomato plants two or three times a day.
Autogamy or self-pollination in tomatoes can also take place with the assistance of bees, but not in the usual way. Typically, bees pollinate flowers by foraging for nectar. Nectar-containing nectaries are found at the bases of flower petals, and in order to reach them, the bee’s body must rub against pollen, which is found on the top ends of filaments that rise above the petals. Pollen grains stick to the bristles on the bee’s body and are then deposited on the female stigma, located in the center of the filaments, as the bee continues to forage for pollen either on the same flower or another.
In the case of tomato flowers, which are poor sources of nectar, bees affect pollination not by carrying pollen grains on their bodies between male and female flower parts but simply by the vibrations they create when buzzing around the flowers. When a bee buzzes next to a tomato flower, the vibration shakes the male pollen grains onto the female stigmas. In greenhouses where tomatoes are grown, a bumblebee is a much better pollinator than a honeybee since the former’s buzz is significantly stronger than the latter’s. In greenhouse tomato production, where bumblebees are unavailable, pollination is increased by the use of fans.
In recent years, heirloom tomatoes have caught the fancy of increasing numbers of gardeners. Heirloom varieties are at least 50 years old, have been passed down through family or other groups and come true from seed. In other words, if you save seeds from an heirloom variety, they will produce plants with the same type of tomato when planted unlike the following spring – hybrids, which do not come true from seed. To save tomato seeds, spread them out on a paper towel, even with some pulp attached, and let them dry out for two weeks. When dry, place the paper towels in an envelope and store them in a dark, cool, dry location. Kept in airtight containers, they should keep their viability for three to five years.
Heirloom tomatoes have several advantages over hybrids. Heirlooms have a wealth of flavors, come in a variety of colors (pink, yellow, orange, maroon, purple), may be marbled or striped, have unusual shapes (until the 20th century, tomato varieties were every shape but round) and an extended growing season. However, heirlooms are more prone to disease than hybrid varieties.
Hailed as the most accomplished and knowledgeable vegetable grower in the United States, Amy Goldman Fowler authored a book on more than two hundred heirloom tomato varieties that is a must-read for anyone desiring to grow tomatoes with dreamy textures and flavors you never thought possible. The author mentions heirlooms so sweet you can eat them with ice cream. “The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table – Recipes, Portraits, and History of the World’s Most Beautiful Fruit” (Bloomsbury, 2008) is the culmination of years of growing hundreds of tomato varieties on an acre of land in upstate New York.
By the way, only put tomatoes in the refrigerator if they have fully ripened, which will prolong their shelf life. However, if they are not fully ripe when refrigerated, taste and texture will be impaired. While ripening, tomatoes should be placed stem side down at room temperature.
As part of its Garden Party series, the Southern California News Group will be presenting a webcast on “Everything Tomato” this coming Wednesday, May 19th, at 11 am To register at no charge, go to scng.com/virtualevents. Send questions on tomatoes before the event to email@example.com.
Tip of the Week: There are two opinions regarding whether tomatoes can be grown in the same spot year after year. The argument against this practice is that pathological soil fungi build-up when tomatoes are planted in the same soil continuously. And yet I know of cases where tomatoes have been planted in the same spot for a decade or more without ill effects. Last year, I received an email from Russel Kavanagh who has grown tomatoes in the same area of his yard in Huntington Beach for the last 12 years and harvests heavy annual crops of four varieties: Early Girl, Celebrity, 4th of July, and Sweetie 100 .Kavanaagh tills his soil and adds compost to it every year from his compost bin, fertilizes when planting with a 16-16-16 product, and mulches lightly. Finally, he deep waters by hand, a practice that is always a good idea where irrigation in general is concerned, as opposed to less reliable and less uniform water application through a sprinkler system.
Years ago, I heard from Irene Gantman in Van Nuys who, for 30 years, had tomatoesly well in the same spectacular areas in her backyard. When I asked how she did it, she spoke of a regime each spring before planting where she enriched her soil with a pre-plant fertilizer, bone meal, Epsom salts, Osmocote (a slow-release fertilizer), and brown sugar. brown sugar? “Don’t ask me how it works,” she said. “I just know that it makes a difference.”
If you have any tomato or vegetable growing successes or tips you would like to share, I encourage you to send them along.
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