I don’t understand tomatoes


Tomatoes do not make the first kind of sense.

Bear with me.

First, tomatoes are members of the nightshade family, which include potatoes, eggplants and deadly nightshade. That last one is poisonous.

According to wikipedia, deadly nightshade was also called belladonna. Which is Italian for “pretty woman.” Wikipedia says it was called “pretty woman” because Italian women made eye drops with it to dilate their pupils and make them appear “seductive” during one of those crazy and fancy periods in European history (I’m betting the 1700s, but wikipedia didn’t say).

So, first of all, that’s confusing, right? We eat a plant very closely related to a plant that can kill us. But only moderately so. Technically, all plants are related to plants that could kill us.

In fact, it was such a concern that tomatoes weren’t consumed by Europeans, who widely though they were poisonous. The legend is Col. Robert Johnson, of Salem, New Jersey, proved the fruits (and yes, tomatoes are a fruit) were edible by eating a mess of tomatoes and not dying in 1820.

Tomatoes, like potatoes and sweet potatoes, are New World plants, which means they were cultivated by the Native Americans.

Potatoes and sweet potatoes are interesting plants. In the veggie growing world, these two plants are kind of low maintenance. you stick ’em in the ground, you try not to let too many weeds grow around them, you do a bit of maintenance and then, a few weeks later, you have delicious tubers.

In fact, I’d argue that most of the New World veggies were relatively low maintenance. Summer squash produces a canopy which, if properly managed, reduces the amount of weeding necessary. Jerusalem Artichokes plant themselves to the point where you’ll probably find yourself fighting them back.

The ever popular Three Sisters method, widely attributed to Native Americans, is almost stunning in its elegance: Corn provides a structure for beans, beans provide nitrogen for corn and squash and squash provides weed suppression by shading out undergrowth.

But tomatoes, tomatoes are different.

There are companion plants, sure, but they grow all over the place (I prefer indeterminate varieties to determinant), they don’t provide much in the way of calories and it seems like the leaves are always getting some sort of blight.

Here’s a breakdown of calories for various New World plants (medium sized fruits/tubers, one whole fruit or tuber):

  • Potatoes-163 calories
  • Sweet Potato-114 calories
  • Seminole pumpkin (whole pumpkin)-More than 800 calories
  • Tomato-22 calories

What gives?

I have two theories: One-We’re growing the wrong kind of tomatoes or Two-We’re growing them wrong

First, maybe we’re growing the wrong kind of tomato.

Tomatoes, according to this site, descended from small, hardy fruits that could thrive in harsh conditions. some of the wilder relatives even thrived in desert conditions, with fruits that featured waxy coatings to prevent water loss.

This site shows tomatoes growing wild in Chile, where the plant is believed to have come from. An image shows the wild cousin growing from a crevice in the rock. Tomatoes are still grown in the lower Andes, where they are believed to have been introduced to the rest of the New World.

Wild tomatoes are built by nature to survive. The fruits produced, much like the ancient apples of Kazakhstan, bear little resemblance to their domestic cousins. Is it possible, in our zeal to produce the sweet, zesty, thin-skinned tomatoes we know and love, we’ve lost something?

I’d argue that we have.

Secondly, maybe we’re growing tomatoes wrong. If you read the article on gastronomica.org, you might notice something familiar about the descriptions of the wild tomatoes grown in a greenhouse used for research. Some of these plants feature woody stems and are constantly seeking refuge, putting down roots all over the place. If left to their own devices, indeterminate tomatoes will put down new roots, sending off shoots that turn into new tomato plants. While this isn’t behavior that one wants to encourage for fruit production, there is something to be said for attempting to see what happens.

The most common method of tomato growth is to stake the tomatoes, to keep them off the ground and prevent disease. Some people trellis tomatoes, others use tomato cages.

Which works, but the method requires a lot of upkeep and training. If you’re interested in doing that here’s a video with about a dozen different staking and caging methods:

Another method, that actually resembles how wild tomatoes grow, is the hanging basket or upside down tomato method. Here’s a video on that method:

Why are tomatoes so difficult to grow? Find out the history of this unique fruit as well as some ideas on how to improve our growing methods.

While it’s too late for this year, I’m going to try doing most of my tomatoes in hanging baskets next year, but I’m also going to try and make some mesh tables. My idea basically involves creating one-foot high, six feet long tables with fencing instead of a table top. The idea is to let the tomatoes grow up, then let them naturally fall over on the tables. The fruit can grow through the fencing and be shaded by the leaves above. Hopefully, this will help reduce the amount of pruning required, combat high temperatures and keep them off the ground. I don’t know if it’ll work, but if it does and I use cedar for the framework, the tables will last for years and save me a heck of a lot of work.

Another method, I tried once before, involved growing Russian Giant Sunflowers, pruning them and using the stalks to tie my tomatoes off. It worked reasonably well, with the exception that the foliage from the flowers shaded the tomatoes out a bit too much. I think I might try that again next year, and use more aggressive pruning methods to prevent the shading from happening.

I’ve also reached out to my favorite Dirt Nerd, Dr. Lisa Rayburn, of the Onslow County Extension Agency, about my theories. I’m hoping she responds, if she does, I’ll update this article with more information.

What’s your favorite tomato growing method? Let us know in the comments below.

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Melissa has a background in marketing, brand management, graphic design and photography. She left corporate America to pursue her dream of living a simpler life. Simpler doesn’t always mean easier but she enjoys every minute on her small homestead. She loves to cook, practice herbalism and gardening. Her passion is spreading the word about sustainable living and sharing her love of herbalism and living from scratch.

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