The Tomato

Of all the vegetables grown in America, none is more universally beloved than the tomato, and yet, for many decades, this delightful fruit was shunned by Americans who considered it poisonous. The tomato is native to Mexico and western South America where it grows as a perennial. It has been a staple of the diet of these regions for thousands of years. Many of the wild varieties are small, intensely flavored and borne in clusters. Other types of wild and semi-wild tomatoes are larger, but deeply ribbed. The larger fruited varieties probably originated on the eastern slopes of the Andes where there is substantially more rainfall than on the arid western slopes. Both kinds of tomatoes were known as Love Apples.

The Spanish explorers introduced the tomato into Europe in the 1500s. It quickly gained popularity, especially in Italy, where the potential of the fruit was immediately recognized. In America, even though the tomato was introduced as a food crop and seed was first made available by Landreth in 1820, the tomato was greeted with suspicion. The tomato is part of the Nightshade family of vegetables that include eggplants and potatoes and the poisonous Deadly Nightshade. For this reason, many Americans were convinced that tomatoes, especially the larger, deeply ribbed fruit, were poisonous. This fear that certain vegetables might be poisonous grew irrationally during the late 1700s and early to mid 1800s. During this time, many fresh vegetables were shunned not just those in the Nightshade family. This fear even extended to lettuce and the other salad greens which can only be eaten fresh.

By the time of the Civil War, the fear of eating fresh vegetables was beginning to lessen, but the tomato had still not been really discovered. In 1863, Fearing Burr listed on 17 different varieties. In 1870, a Dr. Hand of Baltimore County, Maryland crossed a small, red, smooth-skinned tomato with a large, red, deeply ribbed tomato and produced a medium-sized, red, smooth-skinned fruit. He named this cross Trophy, and it became the most popular variety of its time and the fruit from which many of today’s varieties have been derived. The smooth red skin of Trophy was very appealing to the consumer of the day. Between 1870 and today as many as 1000 different varieties of tomato have been developed. Some of the best tasting have come and gone from the market shelves, but have been preserved in the home gardens of America.  

Tomatoes are frequently classed as determinate or indeterminate. Determinate varieties stop growing once they have reached a certain height and do not require staking or caging. They are shorter than indeterminate varieties. Indeterminate varieties will continue to grow throughout the season, much like other vines, and will require staking.

Tomatoes should be started indoors about 6-8 weeks before the last frost date. Bottom heat helps the plants to germinate. Transplant when all danger of frost is over and after the plants have been hardened off for a week. Plant the determinate plants 12-24 inches apart in rows 24-30 inches apart. Determinate plants make great container plants. Plant one plant per half barrel. Plant indeterminate plants 24-36 inches apart, in rows 36 inches apart. Remove, all but the topmost, leaves from the seedling and bury most of the plant leaving only 4-5 inches above the soil. Tomatoes thrive best with consistent moisture and soil that is rich in phosphorus and potassium, but not nitrogen.

Tomatoes need to be harvested as soon as they are ripe. Frequent harvesting will increase the yield. Tomatoes will set fruit until the nighttime temperatures dip into the low 60’s.