Tomatoes have never had it easy. Despite their sweet, bright and tangy nature, they have never been the star of the show.
The truth is, we would be lost without them. Pasta would be plain without a hearty sauce. The BLT would lose the delicious layer that separates the bacon and lettuce. Salads would lack their colorful disposition. Caprese Salad would cease to exist.
In the late 1700s, many Europeans actually feared the tomato.
“A nickname for the fruit was the ‘poison apple’ because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content,” according to Smithsonian magazine. “Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. No one made this connection between plate and poison at the time; the tomato was picked as the culprit.”
Today, the tomato is a Superfood, packed with vitamins A, B complex and C, as well as potassium and lycopene. Lycopene, which is responsible for the red color, has been studied for its role in fighting cancer and lowering cholesterol.
Let It Grow
Not all of us are blessed with a green thumb.
Here are some tips for growing tomatoes from Melinda Myers, host of “The Great Courses: How to Grow Anything” series.
Get grounded. It all begins with the soil. “Add several inches of compost, peat moss or other organic matter to the top six to 12 inches of soil,” Myers says. “This improves drainage in heavy soils and increases water-holding capacity for sandy or rocky soils.” Quality potting mix is a must for containers, along with a slow-release organic nitrogen fertilizer like Milorganite. “It will help encourage plant growth without interfering with flowering and fruiting,” Myers says.
Let the sunshine in. “Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers and other vegetables produce their best and have the fewest disease problems when grown in eight to 12 hours of sunlight,” Myers says. “Root crops such as beets, radishes and carrots can get by with four to 6 hours of direct sun. Fill shady spots with leafy crops like lettuce and spinach. They grow great in full sun, but can still produce in a shady location with only four hours of sunlight.”
Look to Mother Nature. Don’t be fixated on the calendar. “Wait for the danger of frost to pass, and the soil and air to warm before planting tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons and other warm season crops,” Myers says. “Jump start the season with the help of floating row covers. These polypropylene fabrics let air, light and water through while trapping heat near the plants.”
You don’t need tools, Myers says. “Simply lay the fabric over your planting, leaving enough slack for the plants to grow and anchor the edges to the ground with stones or boards.”
Take it to the max. To increase productivity, there are several strategies. The first is succession plantings. “Simply start with lettuce, radishes or another cool weather plant,” Myers says. “Once harvested, replant the area with onions or beans. After these are done, you can replant the area once again with a fall crop of lettuce, spinach or radishes.” The second is interplanting. “Plant quick-to-mature crops, like radishes and lettuce, in between longer maturing plantings of cabbage, tomatoes or eggplant,” she continues. “The short season vegetables will be ready to harvest just about the time the bigger plants are crowding them out.” And last, think about planting veggies closer together in wider rows. “You’ll waste less space for pathways, putting more room in plantings,” Myers says. “Make sure each plant has enough space to grow to maturity and that you can reach all planted areas to weed and harvest.”
Don’t forget the TLC. Water plants well, keeping the soil moist but not drenched. “Add a layer of shredded leaves, evergreen needles or other organic material to conserve moisture, suppress weeds and moderate soil temperatures,” Myers says. In midsummer, give the plants a nutrient boost with Milorganite. Also, be on the lookout for weeds, bugs and potential disease.
Bite-sized tomatoes, such as Red Robin and Sweet ‘n’ Neat, are great for salads, appetizers and popping in your mouth as a snack.
“Grow the explosively sweet Sun Gold and Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes,” Myers suggests. “They’re the candy of the garden and will get even your most reluctant family members, young and old, to eat their tomatoes. Stake or cage these tall plants and, if space is limited, grow them in a 24-inch diameter pot.”
Tomatoes for paste and sauce have meatier fruit. “Roma is the traditional favorite,” Myers says. “The egg-shaped fruit has thick walls and few seeds. Use them during the growing season for sauces, chop and add them to an omelet, or can and freeze them for future use.”
Grow some tomatoes for slicing. “Most gardeners look for large, juicy tomatoes to enjoy on their sandwiches, hors d’oeuvres and salads,” Myers says. “Look for varieties that are suited to the growing conditions. Solar Flare and Creole are heat-tolerant and keep producing despite high summer temperatures. Start picking tomatoes as soon as 65 days after planting by growing short-season varieties like Early Girl and New Girl tomatoes. Heirloom varieties have been grown for more than 50 years and have maintained their original traits and popularity. Cherokee Purple’s rich flavor rates high in taste tests. The dusky pink fruit with deep red interior looks as beautiful as it tastes.”