The tomato holds the crown for the most popular and the most grown vegetable by home gardeners. Almost everyone loves tomatoes, and almost anyone can grow it. While the price is going up in the grocery store, the better tasting fruit is what is grown in your own backyard. Or porch.
The tomato has been popular in much of the world for centuries, but wasn’t accepted in America until the early to mid 1800s. Since it is part of the nightshade family, many believed it to also be poisonous. Some rumors were that if you ate the tomato, it would turn your blood into acid.
A military man named Colonel Robert Johnson of Salem, New Jersey discovered the wonders of the tomato during an overseas visit and brought some plants back in 1808. Some Americans were already growing tomatoes, but only as an ornamental plant. Johnson was unable to convince people that tomatoes were safe to eat, so he issued a challenge in 1820. He had a contest to award the person who could grow the biggest tomato. Following the award, he promised to publicly eat an entire basket of tomatoes to prove the safety of the fruit for consumption.
Two-thousand people gathered to watch Johnson’s public suicide, and a band played a funeral dirge while he ate. His blood never spewed acid and he left the podium happy and healthy. His ploy worked, and Americans began eating the tomato and putting away the urban legends causing their tomato-phobias.
Now you have the rich fruit in every store, and endless varieties to grow in your garden. Tomatoes are a great source of vitamins and antioxidants, and they are low in calories – a mere 18-20 calories for 1/4 pound of tomato. And tomatoes go great with so many foods.
Inevitably, someone always starts a debate on whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. Technically, it might be a fruit, but I have never enjoyed it with dessert. I guess it’s the perfect veggie-fruit.
Some Tomato Myths
Myth 1 – Tomatoes stay fresher when chilled.
Not so. Chilled tomatoes lose flavor and aroma when cooled. They remain flavorful and keep longer when stored at room temperature. Warming them up does not return the flavor – which can be one of the reasons that store bought tomatoes have less flavor.
Myth 2 – Setting the tomato in a sunny area will ripen them.
Tomatoes will ripen off the vine, but much is lost. Large growers pick tomatoes while still green or partially green because they can hold up better when being shipped. To speed up ripening, the tomato is exposed to ethylene gas. This is a naturally occurring gas which triggers a reaction in many fruits to start ripening. The problem is that a lot of the flavor is developed on the vine during the last stages of ripening. And this is the main reason store bought tomatoes have less flavor. To the farmer’s defense, there really isn’t a way to safely mass ship ripe tomatoes. Most would be damaged during shipping if they were already ripe.
Even vine ripe tomatoes in the store are not truly vine ripened. Instead of picking them off the vine, these tomatoes have the fruit cut with the vine. Technically, they do ripen on the vine they are shipped with, but there is no difference between a tomato attached to a stem and one that has been picked off the stem. They both were removed from the plant while green and ripened artificially after it has reached its destination, so there will be little if any difference in flavor.
To get a truly full flavored tomato, it should be picked from the vine in your garden when completely ripe, and placed on the table. That is as good as the flavor can get.
Did you know that home grown, vine ripened tomatoes have nearly twice as many vitamins as store bought tomatoes? The final stage of ripening is very important. If taken from the plant before ripening, the tomato will have less flavor and fewer vitamins than tomatoes picked early and ripened by artificial means.
Myth – 3 Suckers sap the production from tomato plants.
Completely false. Many growers visit their tomatoes regularly and cut off the suckers that grow out of the crotch area of tomato branches. It’s a common myth that this robs the plant of valuable resources. This is probably why these branches have been nicknamed suckers – they supposedly suck nutrients from the main plant.
The truth is, unless the plant is root bound, suckers are your friend. They become full branches with flowers, tomatoes, and full production. A lot of growers rob themselves of many great tasting tomatoes because they fight against their plant’s desire to grow new fruitful branches.
Think about how a plant works. The fruit production doesn’t come from the roots. Especially the sugars that are used in the fruit. The branches send up to 70% of their sugars to the roots and most of this is deposited into the soil. This is where the relationship between the beneficial microbes and the plant takes place. Sugars are not produced by the roots. As long as the roots have access to minerals and water sufficient to maintain the plant, it can produce unlimited foliage. A small pot should have limited foliage, but if there is sufficient root space, the more growth the merrier.
The leaves conduct photosynthesis and produce sugars and other plant functions. The production is then sent back through the plant’s system to be used in fruit production or sent down to the roots. This means that the sucker you are cutting off not only has the ability to support itself, but the new branch also supplies its excess back to the plant.
The sucker is where the new blooms are coming from. As old growth slows down and concentrates its efforts on the tomatoes on that branch, the tomato spawns new growth (suckers) to produce new flowers and begin growing more tomatoes. So, when you cut off a sucker, you are thwarting the plant’s efforts to keep producing and it’s growth of that sucker is now wasted energy.
Suckers are great sources of cuttings for new plants and great sources for new fruit. They are not parasites to the plant. If your tomato is well nourished and has adequate root space, let them grow and stake them up as you would the rest of the plant. You’ll get much more fruit, and it will not rob your old fruit of nourishment.
Myth 4 – Tomatoes need 4 feet of space between plants.
If you have ample growing space, by all means spread your tomatoes out. However, if you are doing raised beds, you can take advantage of the tomatoes natural habits and plant a little closer together.
Some plants react to other plants being too close. When leaves are overshadowed, it triggers a reaction that stops the growth hormones so it doesn’t compete for sunlight. Not the tomato. It is a vine and tomatoes are not bothered by competing plants. They should not be so close together that they become light deprived, but as long as you have at least six inches of soil depth, you can plant five tomatoes in a 4’ x 4’ raised bed. If they cant reach out, they will reach up. Just stake up the new growth and the production will be very high.
The only real consideration is root space. As long as they have six inches of depth, the plant should have sufficient root space to supply itself. It’s a matter of preference, but I have gotten very high yields for many months with five plants per bed. And I’ve never had a tomato starve for nutrition. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of your growing space and place four to five plants per four foot square of bedding.
Don’t be rule driven or scared by myths and urban legends. The best teacher is experience. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things. Set a bed aside for one of your great ideas. If it doesn’t work well, move on to a new idea or improve upon the old one. You may discover better ways of gardening. Remember, the best way to become an expert is to make mistakes.
Happy Gardening! Feel free to share your ideas and tips in the comments.
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Eddie Snipes 2012
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