718 Solanum lycopersicumCommon Names: tomato, love apple Family: Solanaceae (nightshade Family)
There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes available to the gardener; more, in fact, than any other vegetable. Most tomatoes are red, but there are varieties that, when ripe, are green, white, yellow, orange, pink, purple or striped with various combinations. Most tomatoes are round, but some kinds are pear-shaped, flattened, heart-shaped, elongated or deeply ribbed. Tomatoes vary in acidity, with the white and yellow ones being the least acidic. Sizes range from cherry tomatoes less than an inch across to whoppers that can weigh more than two pounds and exceed 6 in (15 cm) in diameter. Tomato varieties can be either determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomato plants are smaller and generally have just one fruiting event. The indeterminate types continue to grow and produce fruit as long as conditions are favorable. They require staking, trellising or caging, and their fruits usually are higher in sugar than determinate types.
The currant tomato, L. pimpinellifolium, produces small (half-inch in diameter) fire engine red fruits in profuse grapelike clusters on long, trailing vines. They have a distinctive, less acidic flavor and a more watery texture, but are nonetheless quite delicious as well as very showy.
The tomato, Solanum lycopersicum, was domesticated from a wild species that occurred in South America. It was brought to Central America and Mexico two or three millennia ago, and became a prominent part of the Aztec diet. Spanish tourists brought the tomato to Europe in the 1500's. For more than a century most Europeans, aware that the tomato was a member of the nightshade family, believed that it was deadly poisonous and they cultivated it only as a garden oddity.
CultureTomatoes require a lot of fertilizer for best production. Work in 2-5 lb (0.9-2.3 kg) of 5-10-5 per 100 sq ft (9.3 sq m) before planting. Add lime if the soil pH is less than 6.0. (Call your county extension agent to find out how to get a soil pH test.) Light: Tomatoes should be grown in full sun. Moisture: Tomatoes should be watered before the soil dries out completely. Irregular watering can cause the fruit to split or crack and can also contribute to blossom-end rot. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 11. Tomatoes are actually perennials in tropical climates, but gardeners in temperate climates grow them as warm season, frost-tender annuals. Tomato foliage is damaged by frost and freezing temperatures will kill the plant. Most varieties will not set fruit if nighttime temperatures fall below 50º F (10º C)or if daytime temperature stay above 90º F (32 ºC). Propagation: Tomatoes are grown from seed and usually germinated indoors under controlled conditions, then grown for 5-8 weeks before setting out in the garden. See Floridata's Start Your Own Pepper and Tomato Plants for details. Except for the potato-leaved varieties, and the occasional double-flowered beefsteak, domestic tomatoes are incapable of being cross-pollinated. (Insects cannot get to the pollen-bearing structure.) Therefore you can save tomato seeds from open-pollinated (non-hybrid) varieties without worrying about them not coming true because of crossing with another variety that grew nearby. (Seeds from hybrid varieties will not come true, and there is no reason to save them.) Tomato seeds have a gelatinous coating which contains chemicals to prevent them from germinating within the ripening tomato. We must remove that gel before planting or saving the seeds. Squeeze some seeds and associated pulp from a fully ripe tomato into a dish and add a little water. Set the mixture aside and allow it to ferment at room temperature or a little warmer. The mixture will stink and become covered with a layer of grayish mold. After about 3 days, when the rotting mess is completely covered with mold, add more water and stir vigorously. Good seeds will sink to the bottom and the mold, debris and empty seeds will float and can be decanted off the top. Wash the good seeds under running water, then allow to dry on a plate. Do not try to dry on paper (they will stick), or in direct sunlight. Dry quickly or they will begin to germinate. You can store tomato seeds for years in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Nothing compares to home grown tomatoes. Tomatoes are the main reason to have a vegetable garden. The tomatoes that you buy in the supermarket are hybrid cultivars created by agribusiness researchers at state universities for specific features that do not include flavor or nutrition. Commercial tomatoes have to be very productive; they must be uniform in size, shape and color; they must all develop at the same rate so the pickers don't have to keep coming back into the fields; they must be resistant to various diseases, and immune to the many chemicals that are used to kill fungi, insects, nematodes, bacteria, viruses and weeds; they must be very hard so that they can be picked green and packed in field boxes 4 ft (1.2 m) deep without crushing; they must respond properly to "gassing", the process of treating the green tomatoes with ethylene so that they all turn red at exactly the same time, just as they reach the market; and they must be able to retain their shiny red appearance for several weeks of transport, storage and marketing. Today's commercial tomatoes are mealy, insipid, odorless and tasteless replicas of real tomatoes. Many people who have tasted home-grown tomatoes refuse to eat supermarket counterfeits.
Steve's Recipe for Home-grown Tomatoes
This recipe has been developed over many years of research and experience. Select a fully ripe tomato (preferably one warmed by the sun) and gently remove it from the vine. Grasp the tomato in the left hand and take a very large bite out of the blossom end (the end opposite the stem). (This is the only part of the tomato that is eaten without salt.) Holding a salt shaker in the right hand, sprinkle salt on the wet, juicy flesh exposed by the first bite. Take another bite and resalt the dripping remains. Repeat until tomato is reduced to a stem, which is then discarded.
Technically, the tomato is a berry, defined as a fruit that does not split open and is fleshy except for the multiple seeds within and the dry skin on the outside. Legally, however, the US Supreme Court has decreed that the tomato is a vegetable (for purposes of commerce and government regulations)!
The nightshade family includes many other important vegetables, such as chile and bell peppers (Capsicum spp.); Irish potato (Solanum tuberosum); eggplant (Solanum melonga); and tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa); and some poisonous ones such as tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum); and deadly nightshade (Solanum dulcamara); (not to mention supermarket tomatoes.) Potatoes are so closely related to tomatoes that they can be grafted onto each other. You can have a plant that produces spuds beneath the soil and love apples in the foliage above!
Steve Christman 6/25/00; updated 4/24/03, 5/14/04, 1/20/06, 3/17/09, 2/9/10, 4/18/18