Totally Tomatoes Part 1 – History and How to Choose

The Starting Point – History

With a history dating back centuries, the tomato is still the sunshine of today’s vegetable garden.  Tomatoes are believed to have originated in the Andes region of South America, traveled to Central America and brought to Europe in the 16th century. These early tomato plants most likely produced small yellow/orange fruit and were believed by many to be poisonous because they belong to the deadly nightshade family.  In Spain, Italy and France the people eventually embraced the tomato and it became a major part of their cuisine.  England and the colonies were much slower to take up the love of the tomato.  Thomas Jefferson lists planting tomatoes as early as 1809. Legend has it that Colonel Robert Johnson sat on the steps of the Salem New Jersey courthouse in the fall of 1820 and consumed a basket full of tomatoes to prove they were edible.  In 1870, after many years of breeding and saving seed from his own garden, A.W. Livingston introduced the Paragon Tomato; the first stabilized red round tomato.  Most of our garden tomatoes today can trace their ancestry to this fine old variety.  Are tomatoes a fruit or a vegetable?  Botanically they are considered a berry, technically a fruit and remain classified as such.  But in 1893, the US Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes are a vegetable and therefore should be taxed accordingly.

Record setting tomatoes:
Longest Vine: 65 ft
Largest Single Fruit: 7 lbs 12 oz
Largest Total Pounds from One Plant: 342 lbs

Is it pronounced tomayto or tomahto? The word “tomato” is a variation of the word “tomatla” in the Nahuatl language, believed to mean “swelling fruit with a navel”.

How to Choose a Variety

It has been said that the best garden advice is from over a garden fence – in other words, from other gardeners. Ask your neighbors, friends and local farmers the names of the varieties they like best.  Ultimately taste should be the deciding factor, but there are other considerations, too.  Is the variety disease resistant?  How long does it take to start producing?  Does it perform well where I live?  Does it grow 12 feet tall or only 3 feet tall?  Is the plant “determinate” or “indeterminate”? (see below).  Are the fruit small and many or large and few? Heirloom or Hybrid? (  Is the plant finicky or vigorous if the weather is hot and humid or dry?  And most important, how many plants do I really have room for? The latest blogs and magazines offer so many choices . . . but unless you have a very large garden and are an experienced gardener, try to keep the number of plants between 2 and 12.  Many tomatoes grow well in containers too, but they will require more attention.  Tip:  The minimum recommendation for each tomato plant is 4 square feet of space in the garden or one plant in an 18″ or larger pot.

 Determinate or Indeterminate?  Knowing how your plants will grow is an important factor to consider when choosing a variety.

Determinate varieties (sometimes called bush varieties) tend to grow shorter, fuller and most of their fruit will ripen all at once.  They also tend to ripen early in the season.  A good choice for containers or processing.  But the key characteristic is where this type of plant produces flowers/fruit; which is at the terminal growth point of each stem.  As a general rule, these plants should not have the suckers removed (pruned) since each of those young branches will produce a cluster of fruit on the end.  If you remove all those branches, the plant will only produce fruit on the top.  All determinate varieties have a life cycle pattern. At the first stage of growth all the stems, most of the leaves and a few flowers are produced. Followed by a flush of flowers as the leaves mature.  Next, during the fruit expansion and early ripening period, there are no more leaves produced.  As the fruit ripens, many of the leaves will turn yellow and die. This is natural; the plant is putting all effort into the fruit.  Although shorter, these plants will require support because they will be heavy with fruit at one time.  A sturdy tomato cage is often enough.

Indeterminate varieties can grow very tall and tend to ripen mid to late season over a long period of time.  These plants produce their flowers and fruit all along the lateral stems. Their life cycle continues to produce stems, leaves, flowers and fruit until ended by frost.  Pruning is often necessary to keep these plants from becoming a 12 foot impenetrable tangle and to encourage the fruit to ripen.  Unless you plan to allow these plants to sprawl on the ground, they will need very sturdy tall supports.

Semi-determinate varieties are somewhere between the other two.  They produce fruit on both lateral and terminal stems, tend to be within 6′ of height and produce fruit mid to late season.  One of the most popular varieties in this category is “Celebration”.

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