I know I probably hurt everyone’s brain with my Wednesday post on hügelkultur, so today I’m taking it easy on you with a fun topic—tomatoes! That’s right, those beautiful, colorful globes that make your ketchup, pizza, and spaghetti sauce! So let’s dive in and learn a little bit about where tomatoes come from, how they came to be, what climates they do best in, and some common problems (along with solutions) that these delicious vegetables can have.
And yes, I know they’re technically a fruit, but I haven’t seen these put in desert cakes or on desert menus have you?
HISTORY OF TOMATOES
Tomatoes are originally from south America—and more specifically they were cultivated in the the Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia area of the Andes. The word in Aztec is xitomatl which eventually got turned into ‘tomato’. They were originally tiny, pea sized things (and still are, where they grow wild), and are considered vines, not bushes. That’s right friends, any tomato that says “determinate” has been bred to always remain short. The more traditional and ‘heirloom’ varieties are “indeterminate”, or vining types.
Tomatoes were picked up by the Spanish when they ravaged through South America and conquered the Aztecs (gee, thanks Spain) and while tomatoes quickly became popular in Europe and the Caribbean, they had a really hard sell in America. A lot of people thought they were poisonous owing to the fact it’s part of the nightshade family, and then several overly dramatic people who wanted their ten minutes of fame in the newspapers claimed that tomatoes were horrible and did things like make their teeth fall out. Cool.
Cooking with them in Europe officially started (i.e. it was found in a published cookbook) in 1608, but didn’t happen in America until the 1820’s. Can you imagine!? It took 212 years to be accepted by Americans as food!
And the crazy part?
Americans did grow them in their gardens prior to the 1820’s—as ornamentals!
I’m crying over the many lost tomatoes that never became sauce and I hope you are too.
But obviously people got over their hate and fake news (for the most part) because we have thousands of recipes that call for tomatoes. It’s crazy to think tomato sauce didn’t exist in Italy until the 1600’s though, right?
TOMATO PLANTS ARE NOT A BUSH & HATE HEAT
As I’d stated earlier, tomatoes are vines, not bushes. I know, they don’t have long tendrils that grab onto things like peas, or sticky barbs like beans to climb up branches. No, they just grow freakishly tall until they can’t hold themselves up and fall over all dramatic like back on the floor.
And then magic happens.
Those long branches that fell? They’re not dead. Oh no. They have tiny hairs all over their stems and second those hairs even get a wiff of dirt? They become roots and sucker their way into the ground and make MORE tomato stems. They’re geniuses, really! And more than that, because they’re from the jungle lands (and arid, dry, parched places) they’re also actually a perennial vine.
Here in SoCal we can grow them year round because, well, we’re zone 9-10. They might get a little raggedy looking and not produce as many tomatoes in December, but if you water them and take care of them they spring back to life like nothing happened come March. Obviously most of the world can’t do that, and so they’re grown as annuals in greenhouses and garden beds.
I bet you think I’m being dramatic myself when I say they can’t stand heat.
Tropics aren’t tropics because it’s 113F year round. They’re tropics because they’re humid and stay round at 82 degrees most of the year. And tomatoes don’t like the intense glaring sun of California. I’ve watched them turn brown despite good soil. Full sun? I don’t think so.
Tomatoes don’t grow in the middle of the fields in the wild. They grow on the forest edge, protected for part—or all—of the day from the intense. They chill with their tree friends, attempt to climb them, fail, and travel along the ground instead producing delicious tomatoes. That’s their life.
I learned the hard way two years in a row how much they hate heat. I grew great tomato plants last year. Nice green leaves, healthy stems, and all of the tomatoes grew big and green and shiny.
And then they stopped growing.
I watched with mounting frustration as the tomatoes grew but refused to turn color. And after much searching I finally found the reason why.
It was too hot.
When the air gets hotter than 85F (that’s 29C for any non-American people reading this) they stop trying to ripen their fruit. I had this problem for TWO. YEARS. Because the temperature was easily 90 and over and my tomatoes didn’t have shade. They had full sun. That was mistake number two.
So this year I’ve put up a sun shade sail and they tomatoes get protected and it keeps the air temperature cool enough (because remember, my raised beds are on concrete) to let my tomatoes ripen—which they are! Phew!
The next time you hear someone say tomatoes love sun, you have my permission to roll your eyes and be that person that says “um, actually….”
That isn’t to say that people on the East Coast shouldn’t put them in the sun. I’d actually encourage it because your sunlight is weaker than the harsh sun of the west coast.
TO PRUNE OR NOT TO PRUNE
You’ll find the tomato growers community to be a very passionate one (but what gardening niche community isn’t passionate?). And you’ll often find them divided into two camps: Single Stem Pruning and “do their thing” non pruning.
Single stem pruning is when you train a single main stem of your tomato up a string and cut off any suckers that try to grow in between the crotch of a leaf stem and the main stem. Contrary to popular belief suckers do NOT take away strength from the plant. They’re just baby tomato plants that are attempting to become bigger.
The advantage to this is that everything is neat and orderly with little likelihood of getting any fungal diseases since your pruning the leaves so they don’t touch the ground, and it produces large tomatoes (if you’re growing large tomatoes) that are healthy. The con is that, well, you’re going to get a smaller harvest.
Wild N’ Free means you don’t prune them at all. You let the suckers grow and those suckers grow suckers. It’s a wild, tangley mess even when you did string them up. But you get a bunch of tomatoes out of it! They might not be as big as the single stem pruning method would have them get, but the sheer volume of tomatoes you get is worth it, and they’re not that much smaller anyway.
The disadvantage of this process is that you’ll often miss the tomatoes if you’re not actively looking for them and digging through the jungle that is your tomato monster. Also, because you’re not tying them up or pruning their leaves, you have a higher risk of diseases traveling up the leaves touching the ground and infecting the plant.
I go for a happy medium. I string them up and/or cage them, and prune the lower leaves and the lower suckers, but after that I I just let them do their thing. It’s a pain to clean up at the end of the season but I get so many tomatoes that I don’t mind.
Everyone is different, so choose whatever one suits you!
TOMATOES ARE DRAMA QUEENS
You heard it here first—tomatoes are drama queens and full of more contradictions than a badly plotted movie.
They want to be warm, but not too warm. They want to be watered but not too watered. They want to have regular feedings of nutrients because they’re starving but no, that’s too much nutrients now. It want’s attention but now you’re giving it too much attention and it’s going to die now.
Whenever you have a tomato problem the problem is often because of not enough nutrients or overwatering just as easily as it could be under watering. Especially when it comes to BER (blossom End Rot).
BER is the bane of a tomato lover’s existence. It’s usually because the tomato gets stressed (either too much water or not enough water. Are we seeing a pattern now?) and that stress blocks the plant’s ability to take up calcium, which it desperately needs for developing fruit. So your option is to throw some Epsom salt on it and stop (or start) watering it so much.
Through trial and error and reading up on it, which includes this growing season as well, I’ve found that the ones getting blossom end rot were almost uniformly my ‘paste-type’ tomatoes. As it turns out, past-types—the kind you use for making sauces and ketchup etc—are the ones that most commonly get BER.
What. The. HECK?!
While my first round of tomatoes on this years crop all got BER, the new sets seem to be okay, so we’ll cross our fingers!
TOMATO TROUBLE & HOW TO COMABT IT
While BER sucks, there are other problems that tomatoes commonly get as well. Now, I’m not saying don’t grow tomatoes, I’m just saying if you’re new to gardening, maybe don’t start with tomatoes because they might cause you to feel like a failure. So here’s some common problems I hear about and the solutions for them.
Problem: Purple veins on the underside of the leaf, especially young plants
Solution: it’s too cold for your little seedling and it’s now got a phosphorous deficiency. Just keep it warm and that’ll go away.
Problem: Lowe leaves are turning yellow and getting brown spots on them
Solution: Your tomato has early blight. Get rid of the leaves and mulch your plant so water doesn’t splash up on the leaves.
Problem: Tiny white flecks are on your leaves
Solution: These are white flies. They suck the juices from the plant. You can release natural predators like ladybugs (do this at night. Ladybugs will fly away if released during the day time) or if worse comes to worse, use organically made insecticidal soap on the affected areas.
Well, that’s it for tomato TED talk today! I hope this has helped you! After all of my trial and errors and hours spent researching and trouble shooting, I know how frustrating it can be to not have answers. If you have any tomato questions leave them down below and I’ll answer them to the best of my ability!