Tomatoes are the most popular fruit in the world. First grown by the Aztecs and Incas around 700 AD, they spread to Europe in the late 16th century and are now grown all around the world.
There aren’t too many tomatoes used in dishes at your local Chinese restaurant, so it may come as a surprise that China grows and consumes more tomatoes than any other country. Still it is not so surprising when you consider that China is home to at least 18% of the world’s population. India with 17% of the world’s population runs a close second in tomato consumption, while the United States with only about 4% of the world’s population, is third on the list by eating 11 million metric tonnes of tomatoes to China’s 34 million metric tonnes. That is a lot of tomatoes! Those population percentages suggest a lot about what changes are likely over the next decades, not only with tomatoes.
In our country the vast amount of tomatoes are grown in California and Florida which means many of these tomatoes are grown to withstand hundreds and even thousands of miles of shipping. Some are grown to ripen all at once to make harvesting more efficient for food companies like Heinz and companies that can tomatoes in various forms. And yet we all long for flavorful sun ripened tomatoes to eat off the vine on a summer afternoon – which means that a lot of us grow tomatoes in the backyard. Fortunately, with the rise of local farms and farmer’s markets, it is easier to get those fresh grown tomatoes even if we don’t have yards.
Craig LeHoullier, tomato aficionado extraordinaire, has grown over 1,200 tomato varieties over 30 years and has now written Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time (Storey Publishing $19.95). This is a book about the history of tomatoes, and the delights of heirloom tomatoes. He does admit “To be fair, with the exception of Moreton, Supersteak, Early Cascade, Big Girl and Ultra Sweet, the hybrids did very well in terms of yield and flavor. However none of the hybrids were superior to the best of the open-pollinated varieties – Nepal, Brandywine, Anna Russian, and Polish, to name but a few of the superb heirlooms that I tested.”
Epic Tomatoes is just chock-full of amazing historical facts including the famous public tomato consumption event staged by Robert Gibbon Johnson, a leading citizen of Salem, New Jersey in 1820. Because they are members of the nightshade family tomatoes were generally considered poisonous at that time, so hundreds of people came from miles around to witness this startling event. “The story goes that when Johnson bit into a tomato some onlookers fainted, and with Johnson suffering no ill effects, the tomato industry in America began.” However tomatoes did not really become popular until after the Civil War.
History is fascinating, but LeHoullier goes on to give information about his favorite varieties which include Tiger Tom, Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, the now more familiar Brandywine and the encouraging Mortgage Lifter. The book would be fun to read if only for the names of these historic and delicious tomatoes: Kellogg’s Breakfast, Stump of the World, Rosella Purple, Mexico Midget, Giant Syrian, Black from Tula, Green Zebra, Black Prince, Hugh’s German Johnson, and Gregori’s Altai.
All this information is as delicious as a sun warmed Cherokee Purple, one of my own favorites, but LeHoullier has practical advice and instruction to offer new and experienced gardeners. When do you plant seeds indoors? What’s the best planting mix? There is full information about caring for seedlings indoors and when to plant them outdoors. He also gives advice on buying transplants and even the new grafted transplants. He thinks the jury is still out on the benefits of grafting, but that the idea is promising.
Chapter 9: Troubleshooting Diseases , Pests and Other Problems was particularly fascinating and useful. Clear photographs make it easy to identify the problems that can occur, with causes, and control. I had heard the term cat-face but never knew what it meant. Now I do. Cat-face causes brown corky folds at the blossom end of a tomato that usually afflicts beefsteak tomato varieties. I have grown cat-faced tomatoes.
It is easier to find heirloom tomato seeds, and even transplants, than it used to be. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (www.rareseeds.com) offers dozens of varieties from green, to yellow, pink, red and purple as well as paste tomatoes, cherry and plum. Local garden centers also offer an array of these heirloom seedlings. How to choose from so many? LeHoullier provides a list of 250 recommendations, across the various spectrums, listing size, season and flavor.
In spite of the discouraging snow cover around our house, it is time to start gardening. It is time to start planting tomato seeds indoors. It is time to start visualizing fresh picked tomatoes eaten on the way from the garden to the house. With juice running down your arm. LeHoullier has definitely put me in the mood.
I do not expect to have a vegetable garden this year, but I was given a couple of fabric Smart Pots to test, and I plan to Smart Pot up some small heirloom tomatoes. Expect to hear more about Smart Pots, and my heirloom tomato adventures.
Between the Rows April 11, 2015