Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.
I’ve never paid much attention to astrological calendars that feature the zodiac or animal influences. Outside of amusing ourselves with the placemats at Chinese food restaurants, the characteristics of whatever year I was born under never inspired me, mainly because the celestial guides never include a plant. There are animals and arachnids, fish and fowl, dragons and virgins, but never a plant, which bothers me because I’m a gardener.
But it turns out I wasn’t looking in the right place to find a foliaged guide; all I needed to do was look to the National Garden Bureau, which anoints a different plant every year for us to celebrate. And this year, 2011, is a year of great excitement, because finally we are in The Year of the Tomato.
How auspicious to be born under this sign. Anyone guided by this is sure to be the love apple of everyone’s eye, because the tomato is the most popular plant in the vegetable garden.
“There are so many different varieties and types. What originally was just a round, red fruit now comes in many shapes and names: currant, cherry, grape, salad, saladette, plum, Roma, Beefsteak, and more,” said Diane Blazek, Executive Director of the Bureau. “It’s almost impossible to not find one to fit your taste, garden space and growing climate.”
Though it’s roots are in South America’s Andes Mountains, the fruit is a world traveller, first being cultivated by the pre-Mayan people, says the NGB. After the explorer Cortés discovered the tomato in an Aztec market and took it home to Spain, the tomato traveled throughout Europe and across the channel to England.
But love for the tasty tomato didn’t take hold in Europe in those early days; as a member of the nightshade family it was grown as an ornamental plant. Superstitions grew up around it, including the belief that witches used it to summon werewolves, which is why Linnaeus, the father of our scientific naming system, dubbed it Lycopersicon esculentum, or “edible wolf peach.”
According to the blog Tomato Casual, a way to get money is by placing a tomato peeling over your door. I actually believe this one – one look at the tomato skin above my door and my mother will hand me money to afford cleaning supplies.
American legends argue over who staged an event in 1820 to convince the public that tomatoes were edible. One version holds that Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson ate a basketful of tomatoes on the steps of the Salem courthouse, while another claims it was Thomas Jefferson who, on a visit to Lynchburg, Virginia, munched on the fruit on the steps of the Miller-Claytor house. Neither legend is proved to be true.
Over ten thousand varieties of the love apple exist; many, known as heirlooms, have been handed down for more than 50 years. The National Garden Bureau says open pollinated tomatoes, which include heirlooms and all varieties that grow true from seed, are the popular choice for home gardeners.
From smallest to largest, popular fruit shapes are identified as currant, cherry, plum, standard, and beefsteak. Cherry tomatoes, range from ¼ to one ounce, are produced in clusters. Plum, or paste tomatoes, have more solids than liquids, giving them meaty walls that make fine sauces. Standard-sized tomatoes weigh from 4 to 16 ounces, while beefsteaks, can get to be 2 pounds or more.
Tomatoes have different growth habits, which can be determinate or indeterminate. Determinates are compact, reaching 3 to five feet. They set fruit and ripen it all at once, so the main harvest is concentrated into a few weeks.
Indeterminate tomatoes grow, blossom, and produce tomatoes throughout the growing season. They can reach up to 12 feet tall, and produce many main stems, all of which are capable of flowering and fruiting. To support unwieldy growth and to keep tomatoes off of the ground, support plants with cages or stakes. Staked plants should be pruned to remove all but two growing stems, which are tied loosely to the stakes and trained for vertical growth.
There is a third type called semi-determinate which is bushy like a determinate, but will set and ripen fruit over a longer period of time. The 1984 AAS Award Winner ‘Celebrity’ is a semi-determinate.
Choose your tomatoes by maturity date, the average number of days from planting outdoors to the first ripe fruit. Early tomatoes, generally speaking, are those that ripen in fewer than 70 days; mid-season tomatoes ripen in 70 to 80 days; and late types require over 80 days.