Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!

Tomatoes have gotten a bad rap throughout history. How we came to love them… Attack of the killer tomatoes!

I’m sure by now you’ve noticed the bedlam taking place at local garden centers and greenhouses. I stopped by Home Depot the other day because I needed a bolt and a nut. I also needed a bag of potting soil, so I went out into the outdoor garden center yard and was amazed at the bare bins. Instead of buying one 2-cubic foot bag, I wound up with three smaller ones since that’s all they had. Luckily, I’ve had better luck at the Keene and Peterborough Agway stores but the workers at both locations look like they’ve been put through the mill. Everyone is gardening this year! With so many folks staying at home, what better time to get that old tiller up and running and plant a vegetable garden?

Unstable food supplies during the pandemic may have also led to some people wanting to grow their own vegetables as well as the desire to control just how many sets of hands have been touching them. I have a tough time with the leafy vegetables. Lettuce, cilantro, chard… they always go to seed before I can harvest them. For me, the easiest vegetable to grow is the tomato. And, technically, it’s not even a vegetable at all! It’s a fruit… although dig down a little bit more in the research and you’ll find it is actually a berry! There’s a ton of articles online about tomatoes and they’ve got quite the storied and often controversial past.

According to “History of Tomatoes” at planetnatural.com, the early Colonists here in the U.S. wouldn’t think of eating a tomato. They would turn your blood to acid and were only grown for ornamentation. Another spin was that the tomato’s acid leached out the lead in pewter dishware, causing lead poisoning.

Well, the origin of the tomato plant is South and Central America, interestingly enough, but not introduced to North Americans until Europeans brought the seeds with them. The Aztecs were eating tomatoes way back in 700 A.D. but it wasn’t until the 16th century that the tomato began being cultivated in Europe. At first merely for ornamentation. A member of the Nightshade family, which is mostly made up of poisonous plants, the Europeans were afraid of tomatoes at first. In fact, the tomato vine itself is toxic but not the fruit. Some sources stated that the Aztecs also considered tomato seeds an aphrodisiac and it was also known as the “love apple.” Well, combine fear of poisoning with sins of the flesh and it’s no wonder the Puritans were very much anti-tomato. Once the Europeans started actually eating tomatoes, it was only a matter of time ‘til North Americans did as well.

My Dad taught me that if your tomato plant seedling is too leggy, simply bury the plant deeper. Because it’s technically a vine, it will sprout roots wherever the vine touches damp soil.

There are dozens and dozens of tomato varieties on the market. This year, I’ve gone with the heirloom Brandywine, the small Sungold grape tomatoes that are as sweet as can be and a few unknown varieties that partner, Joe, brought home from a colleague. I’ve got cages around most of them and they’ve been in the ground for a couple of weeks now.

We’ve been experiencing unusually dry weather for the last few weeks, so I’ve watered frequently. Tomatoes love the heat, by the way. They don’t like to dry out to the point of wilt though. Speaking of wilt, tomatoes are sometimes subject to blight and this usually occurs when there’s been too much rain. I’ve never experienced it, but my parents occasionally did at their farm stand.

The other nasty pest I have experienced is the tomato hornworm. It is this humongous, 4- to 5-inch juicy green caterpillar with white markings on its sides and a horn sticking out of its rump. One hornworm can strip a plant of half its foliage in a single day. If you notice any skeletonized branches on your tomatoes, you’ve probably got a hornworm. Or several. I try to remind myself, “all creatures great and small,” but these babies really gross me out. Don’t squish them if you’re wearing sandals or any good shoes for that matter. You’ll have green guts all over them! You’ve got to hand-pick them off the plants. Even though they’re big, they can be hard to spot since they’re green. If you don’t want to stomp on them, just drop them in a can of saltwater and that should take care of them.

I’ve written about canning tomatoes before. It’s a laborious yet satisfying process for late summer when you’ve got tomatoes coming out your ears. This past year I tried freezing tomatoes instead and it worked just fine. I simply blanched them, pulled the loose peels off and plopped them in freezer bags. Oh-so-yummy in American chop suey (my Mom always called it goulash). And, I swear, there’s almost nothing better than going out to the garden and biting down on the sweet snap of a Sungold grape tomato warmed by the sun. Heavenly.