Monday, May 10, 2010
Welcome to Spring 2010! What a joy to be back in Pennsylvania on yet another glorious spring day with the azaleas, vibernums, lilacs, and bluebells painting the lawns in shades of cream and blue and dusty purple as elegantly as a William Merritt Chase painting. We are currently gearing up for our big TOMATOFEST! at the nursery, where we’ll be offering 25 really superb varieties of seedlings for sale (upwards of 1,500 plants), and so I think I’ll start off this season off with a few words about America’s favorite homegrown food for, according to the USDA, tomatoes are preferred by four out of five Americans to any other edible plant, and over 90% of American home gardeners grow them.
The tomato originated spontaneously in the coastal highlands of western South America and small, straggly wild tomatoes can still be found growing in the coastal mountains of Peru, Chile and Ecuador. The wild tomato was a simple, tiny, two-celled creature until a friendly genetic mutation occurred, resulting in the large, ruffled and lobed, multi-celled fruit with which we are all now so familiar. The tomato was domesticated by the Mayans and Aztecs and, in the early 16th Century, carried into the Mediterranean basin of Europe by the returning conquistadores. In 1544, Pietro Andrae Matthioli, the Italian herbalist, classified the suspicious new import as one of the mandrake family, which were close cousins to deadly nightshade, which is exactly when the centuries of suspicion and misinformation surrounding the tomato began to pick up steam.
Tomatoes were given the original European designation of “wolf’s peach” or Lypersicon, by the Greek physician Galen, as nightshades were legendarily linked to werewolves. Karl Linnaeus later added the esculentum, meaning "edible", although this was an issue clearly up for debate as, while winning some culinary popularity in Spain and Italy, tomatoes were introduced into England only as questionable ornamentals. In fact, the English herbalist John Gerard, who planted them in the College of Physicians gardens in Holborne in 1590, concluded that “the whole plant” was possessed “of ranke and stinking savour”. The Pilgrims were also early tomato-bashers, considering them “an abomination”, and, 200 years later, Joseph T. Buckingham, editor of The Boston Courier was still calling the tomato ”the mere fungus of an offensive plant, which one cannot touch without an immediate application of soap and water… deliver us, oh, ye caterers of luxuries, ye gods and goddesses of the science of cookery! Deliver us from tomatoes!” Even as late as 1836, A.D. Wilcox, editor of The Florida Agriculturist, pronounced his first tomato: “an arrant humbug” that “deserved forthwith to be consigned to the tomb of all the Capulets”. My: how the worm can turn…
Early tomatoes came in a huge variety of sizes, shapes, and colorations, ranging for currant-sized to 2 pound mammoths, round to “ox-hearted” to totally misshapen, black and dark purple to red and orange, to yellow, green and white, and they were all either ribbed or lobbed or both. In fact, it wasn’t until the turn of the 18th Century that Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, botanist to Louis XIV, described a Lycopersicum rubro non striato, or “red wolf’s peach without ribs”. Now of course, there are literally hundreds of choice varieties of every hue, dimension, and savor and for every climatic consideration imaginable, so here I will stop to romance you with some of my favorites.
For sheer taste, to my mind there is nothing like the black Russian types, like “Black from Tula” and “Black Krim”. Not actually black but more a deep purple/red, usually with a green shoulder, these are beyond richly complex in terms of taste, and there’s even a “Black Cherry” for easy snackability. Also notable are the “Hillbilly” (sometimes referred to as “Pineapple”), a mammoth beefsteak with marbled red and yellow flesh and superb sweet/acid savor, and “Great White”, the Moby Dick of tomatoes, another sizeable beefsteak the color of old ivory and loaded with flavor. Two varieties that are actually green when ripe and chockablock with tangy/fruity flavor are the Amish heirloom “Aunt Ruby’s German Green” and “Green Zebra”, the immensely popular new striated kid on the block developed by Tom Wagner of Tater Mater Seeds in 1983. And for that sugar sweet zinginess we all crave in a pop-in-your-mouth cherry, there’s nothing to beat the varieties “SunGold”, a large-ish yellow type, “Reisentraube”, a deeply robust red heirloom, and “Sweet Million”, a tiny but true powerhouse of flavor.
Start tomato seeds indoors 4 weeks before your last frost (or stop by the weekend of May 22-23 at the nursery!), transplanting at least once into a deeper pot and burying the plant right up to its neck to insure good root development. Harden off by carrying plants outside for a few hours each day for 2 weeks before planting to get them acclimated to the outdoors, then plant out 2 weeks after your frost date, when soil is well warmed up, in your sunniest location. All tomatoes love compost, old manure, a Ph of about 6.5, and a good, deep watering, and a shot of fish emulsion once halfway through the season will be extremely popular. Also, do provide some stout trellising for these mainly indeterminate, vigorous vines to clamber up and keep your plants “desuckered” to a nice, strong, single trunk by removed the auxiliary vines that develop in each leaf crotch: a tangle of vines in the humidity of August can surely be the devil’s playground!