The pick this month is a favorite for most gardeners of edible plants. That first early tomato is the envy of neighbors and a sure sign summer is here to stay awhile.
Before we head to the history, growing techniques and botanical information, let’s take a stab at putting the fruit vs. vegetable argument to rest. Botanically, the tomato is a fruit; to be precise it is a berry. The definition for berry is a fleshy fruit where the walls of a single ovary ripen around the seeds. For you gardeners that insist this plant is a vegetable, guess what – the government is on your side. In 1893, the Supreme Court sided with a lower court in the precedent: Nix vs. Hedden, and declared the tomato, a vegetable for the purpose of customs categorization in international trade. My vote: it’s a very incredible berry…
History and Botanical
How many people know the tomato is originally from South America? It grows there as an herbaceous perennial! Here in the US we use it as a summer annual. Tomatoes were brought back to the Old World after Cortez invaded the New World. He sent tomatoes back to Spain where they spread to Italy and across the continent. Can you image Italian food without tomato sauce! I don’t want to ever think of pizza, lasagna, or spaghetti without the tomato as an important ingredient.
The plant botanical name is Solanum lycopersicum which makes tomatoes related to other some other veggies found in most gardens with at least one being socially unacceptable. Potatoes and eggplants are edible relatives and they all are part of the nightshade family. That is why green potatoes and the foliage of tomatoes are poisonous. The toxicity of this family is attributed to an alkaloid called glycoalkaloids and there is NO safe dosage. As little as one milligram of this poison can be lethal to some people. Now, for that unacceptable member: tobacco is part of the same family. It can be a carrier of the tobacco mosaic virus. Transmission of this virus can occur when a smoker touches tomato plants. This virus is almost always fatal and is one reason why we do not allow smoking anywhere at the Gardens.
Planting and Care
Ok – let’s get those tomatoes in the ground. Now that the 15th of April has come and gone, we are well past the last frost date set by the USDA. I like to plant my tomatoes using a posthole digger. After the hole is dug, I mix the starter fertilizer and lime (for calcium to help prevent blossom end rot) into the excavated soil. Then I pinch off the lower leaves and branches until only the top few remain. At that point, I take a small piece of aluminum foil or card- board from a paper towel tube and wrap it lightly around the top part of the stem. The reason I use this technique it to prevent a nasty creature – the cut-worm from chewing through the stem and falling my freshly planted tomato like a lumber jack drops a tree. Back fill the soil, making sure the wrap is half above and half below the soil. Firm up the soil and water. Put down some mulch to help with water retention, insulation and disease control. Install your choice of support apparatus, whether it is a fence, cage or string. Keeping the vine off the ground helps prevent rot, disease and saves space. Plus the fruit is cleaner when picked. Water your plants regularly to help prevent cracking caused by uneven amounts of soil moisture.
One exception to the ‘plant deep’ rule; are the new grafted tomatoes. They should not be planted any deeper than the graft. Otherwise, the rootstock of the grafted plant may put up undesirable growth that will compete with the more desirable grafted top.
As always, come by and let’s talk tomato!