Archive for Thursday, March 29, 2007

You sow tomatoes, I sow tomahtos: Just get them in the dirt

March 29, 2007


Tomatoes are easy to grow and make healthy additions to mealtime. They're good sources of vitamins A and C.

Tomatoes are easy to grow and make healthy additions to mealtime. They're good sources of vitamins A and C.

Whether you refer to it as a tomato or a tomahto makes no difference in the world of edible gardening: Tomatoes take the cake.

The rising star - and a relatively late arrival on the fruit and vegetable scene - tomatoes are making up for lost time by surpassing all other produce to be crowned the most popular home garden grower.

As a food of worldwide importance, the tomato is about the newest kid in the garden plot. In fact, there are no records of tomatoes being grown in the United States until after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Thomas Jefferson, a farming enthusiast, was one of the first to grow them in this country in 1781. It's ironic, though, considering that the tomato originated in the Americas. Its roots trace back to the Aztecs and around 700 AD. And yet it took the Europeans setting sail in search of new lands, carrying the tomato back to Europe and then ferrying it across the Atlantic again before the United States embraced it.

Why? Well, the tomato met with quite a bit of resistance in Europe, particularly with the wealthy. The affluent at the time ate off of pewter plates, which had high lead content. Because tomatoes are highly acidic, when they hit the plates the lead leeched out, resulting in lead poisoning and death. All the while, the poor folks in Europe were busy eating tomatoes off of wooden plates and loving every succulent morsel.

It wasn't until the 1800s, when there was a large blending of cultures with the mass immigration from Europe to America, that the tomato became a staple on U.S. dinner tables. But leave it to the good old USA to make up for lost time. Today we're the largest producers of tomatoes, followed by China, Turkey, Italy and India. The robust beauties are the second-most consumed fruit/vegetable per capita worldwide next to the potato.

So what's the allure? Do I really have to ask? Tomatoes are easy to grow, they produce massive amounts of food, take up very little space and come in an array of sizes, colors and textures. And they're incredibly healthy - chock-full of vitamins A and C, low in calories and an excellent source of lycopene.

If you're going to start tomato plants from seeds, now's the time to plant them indoors. Tomatoes are highly susceptible to frost, so don't sow them in the garden until the risk of freezing has passed. It's wise to harden off your sprouted seeds in late April by taking them outdoors during daylight hours and bringing them inside at night. Perform these duties for a week, and those little sprouts should be ready to go into the earth.

Tomatoes grow best in full sun, and whether they are in a pot or in the earth, they will need plenty of water. A tomato fruit is 95 percent water, so it needs a lot of H2O to develop fruit - on average, 2 quarts a day per plant. Once they're yielding fruit, they'll thirst for 2 to 4 quarts a day.

If you're planting tomatoes in the ground, you'll want to work the soil well and improve it by adding peat moss, well-rotted manure or compost. Add a complete garden fertilizer at the time the soil is prepared. The plants should be spaced about 2 feet apart. Many tomato varieties need staking or caging, a practice that will improve fruit quality, bolster yields and make the fruit easier to harvest and less susceptible to pests and disease.

Tomato plants grow at three different speeds. Fast-ripening varieties start producing fruit within four months of seed sowing. Main-season tomatoes take four and a half to five months to create fruit, and late varieties generally take five months to produce their bounty. If you're purchasing a plant rather than growing from seed, subtract six weeks from those times.

When the heat of summer is here and the tomatoes are thick on the vines, you'll be tremendously pleased you sowed your seeds now and brought this bounty of robust, crimson, juicy delights to the dinner table.

- Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.


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