The great tomato and its place in modern gardens

Of late I've been reading a wonderful book: The Great American Tomato Book by Robert Hendrickson. Originally published in 1977, it offers fascinating insight into the history and cultural value of the tomato, and also how this fruit has become dominant in American gardens. Today, let's examine some of the book's primary points and review some growing tips that'll be ideal for country living tomato lovers.

The tomato plant is native to South America, originating from the region that now comprises the nations of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Mayans are believed to have brought tomatoes to the Yucatan region of Mexico, and Spanish conquistador Fernando Cortez would later bring them back to Europe. 

Indigenous peoples' name for the fruit was "tomatl." In Europe, it acquired the nickname "Love Apple," many believed it to be poisonous. In truth, many parts of the tomato plant are, in fact, toxic, as they and other fruits in the Solanaceae family contain alkaloids that can be quite dangerous in the wrong contexts. The fruit, however, is entirely safe to consume as long as it's fresh.

"The cultural and agricultural history of tomato cultivation is full of twists and turns."

Yet even as much of Europe came to appreciate the wonderful and nutritious tomato, it was Col. Robert Gibbon Johnson who would demonstrate the value of the tomato as an edible fruit in the United States. Johnson had savored tomato dishes in his travels abroad in the early 1800s and become a major proponent of the tomato. But at the time, tomatoes in America were grown as no more than ornamental plants.

Before we proceed with what's summarized below, it's important to know that it's considered apocryphal - a blend of truth and myth. Most accounts of it include caveats like "as the story is told" or "local tradition holds." But Johnson was indisputably known as a horticulturalist, and no matter what, it's one heck of a story:

In 1820 in Salem, New Jersey, Johnson announced he would prove that tomatoes were edible by eating a bushel of them at high noon on Sept 26. On the day, a crowd formed to watch Johnson commit what many of its denizens believed would be certain suicide. His own physician told the audience that the foolish colonel might well foam and froth at the mouth, and double over with great pain, before finally dying. It got so out of hand that a local band had been assembled to play a funeral dirge!

At noon on that day, Johnson held a tomato high in the air for the crowd to see. It was estimated about 2,000 people were there to see him eat the bushel of tomatoes. With great flair he took his first bite, then another, and another. A few spectators were reported to have screamed or fainted with each tomato the colonel ate. 

Only after the last tomato was eaten did the doctor slink away, the crowd cheered, and the band struck up a victory march. 

The great tomato and its place in modern gardensTomatoes are now widely beloved - a stark contrast to a few centuries ago, when they were considered lethal.

Tomatoes enjoy favorable status in the vegetable gardens of those living on farm and ranch land for sale in Texas - as well as just about everywhere else in the U.S., especially Johnson's home state of New Jersey. You can easily stir up an argument among avid gardeners by claiming one variety is best, or that you alone have developed (and are employing) the best method of raising them.

They're definitely a crop for warmer seasons, which must be planted only after all chance of frost is gone. Also, rarely if ever would you plant tomato seeds in your garden, as that wouldn't give them enough time to grow and produce. Planting tomato seeds indoors so that they will have enough time to grow before transplanting them to the outdoors is the best strategy for giving your prospective tomato bushels a head start.

Start preparing soil for your tomatoes now if you hope to plant in March and early April. As always, be sure to incorporate an abundance of organic matter into the ground. Adding 3 of 4 inches of compost down the row and tilling it in could be just the ticket. Alternatively, you could add fertilizer just before you plant, at a rate of 2 pounds per 100 square feet of garden bed.

Don't forget that most varieties of the tomato plant will stop bearing fruit when the outside temperature regularly exceeds 92 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that the window for tomato fruit production on TX land may be short, so you must act accordingly. I currently have fourteen Big Boy tomato seedlings started in my garden, and I'm excited to see how their fruit will turn out this spring - especially as I know, unlike folks from the 19th century, that the tomatoes will be delicious and perfectly safe to eat.

Tomato lovers should consider attending the East Texas Fruit and Vegetable Conference, scheduled for Friday, February 23 at the Pitser Garrison Convention Center. The all-day seminar runs from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. with more than nine presentations planned. Admission is $30 per person, and registration forms are available on the Angelina County Facebook page.

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Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. Contact him via email - cw-sims@tamu.edu.