Plant of the week: Tomatoes

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Tomatoes originated in South and Central America, where they were likely small and yellow–ancient versions of today’s cherry tomatoes.  After they were brought to Europe, they were grown as ornamentals before finally being adopted as a food staple.

Tomatoes are fruits, by definition, though they have a much lower sugar content than other fruits.  They are excellent producers, as many varieties grow quite tall and can produce a few pounds of fruit per plant.  The German pink tomato variety, for example, often produces tomatoes that weigh 1-2lb each!

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German pink tomato

 

Ideal growing conditions

Tomatoes like sun, and they prefer a rich soil.

Start them indoors six to eight weeks before the final frost.  When you transplant them outside, plant them deep into the soil, burying most or all of the stem.  The stem will develop roots that will help stabilize the plant.  Pinch off the last row of leaves, either at transplant time (if there are many leaves) or later, as more branches are added.  The plant will then concentrate its effort in producing fruit, and it will not grow too densely at the base where it is most liable to break.

Most tomatoes, aside from dwarf varieties, require some sort of support, whether it be stakes, cages, or other structures.

Preserving tomatoes

To freeze tomatoes, core them, then throw them in freezer bags.  To remove the skin later, simply run the frozen tomato under hot water, and it will peel off.

Tomatoes can be canned as is, as a sauce, or in many variety of salsas and chutneys.

If you are left with a multitude of green tomatoes at the end of the season, try green tomato mincemeat, salsa verde, or chow chow.  You can layer green tomatoes in newspaper and keep them in a cold, dark place, and many of them will ripen.

If you have a food dehydrator, you can make your own “sun-dried” tomatoes.

Types

There are two types of tomato plants:

  • Determinate (bush) tomatoes grow to a set height, usually around four feet.  As soon as the top bud starts to produce a fruit, the plant stops growing.  All fruits ripen over the same interval of a couple of weeks, then the plant dies.  Determinate plants are ideal if you want to cook batches of sauce or other dishes in which you must have a lot of tomatoes ready at one time.
  • Indeterminate (vine) tomatoes grow all summer, to heights from six feet and onward.  Blossoms and fruits are produced all summer long until the frost kills the plant.

The type of tomato will vary as well, from densely fleshed varieties suitable for sauce (such as roma tomatoes) to juicier types suitable for eating raw and fresh (such as beefsteak tomatoes).

Tomatoes also come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colours.

Friends

  • Basil
  • Beans
  • Chives
  • Cucumbers
  • Garlic
  • Lettuce
  • Onion
  • Parsley

Foes

  • Black acorn trees
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Corn
  • Dill
  • Potatoes

Fun facts

  • Cooked tomatoes are better for you than raw ones.  Cooking release more of their beneficial chemicals.
  • During the annual La Tomatina festival in Bunol, Spain, participants throw an estimated 150,000 tomatoes at each other over the course of one week.

The great zupumpkin!

124_2466.jpgIn one of my first small gardens, I planted a pumpkin plant and a zucchini plant next to each other.  I didn’t save any of their seeds, but the next year, when I spotted a pumpkin plant coming up from the compost, I let it grow.  It started out looking like a bit like an elongated pumpkin or some sort of squash.  Then it ripened to the above specimen, which was christened the zupumpkin.

Cross-pollination

Cross-pollination occurs when an insect or the wind carries pollen from one variety of plant to another.  The resulting seed, when planted, sprouts a hybrid of its parents.  Since zucchini and pumpkins are both varieties of the same species, they can create the zupumkin (or zumption or pumcchini–your choice) but a cucumber and squash can’t procreate because they’re different species.

Cross-pollination does not affect the current year’s crop, but rather the next year–with one exception: corn.  If the pollen from the tassels of one variety of corn are blown into the silks from another variety, the cob that develops is a hybrid.

Self-pollinating plants

Vegetables like beans, peas, peanuts, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes are self-pollinating. Their seeds will produce plants like the parent, but insects will occasionally cross them, so if you want to be absolutely certain that your seeds will grow true to type, plant each variety at least 10 feet apart.

Insect- and wind-pollinated plants

Vegetables that are pollinated by insects or wind need to be separated by variety, and grown a distance apart (the distance varies with each type of plant).   To ensure that your seeds grow true to type, grow one variety of each type, or separate the different varieties.

Vegetables that willingly cross-breed

The following plants or plant families are prone to cross-pollination.  If you are planting them with the intention of keeping their seeds, keep varieties well separated.

  • Beets and Swiss chard
  • Cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, and broccoli
  • Corn
  • Cucumbers
  • Honeydew, cantaloupe, and other melons, excluding watermelons
  • Peppers (hot and sweet)
  • Squash (some varieties)
  • Zucchini and pumpkins

 

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