Newcastle — One of several things I do really badly is cultivate tomatoes, and I seem to be getting worse at it. Is it global warming? We like to blame everything on GW, but that’s another topic. Two years ago I invested in my usual four plants and although the greenery appeared to flourish in the fertilized soil, I didn’t harvest a single fruit. Too wet, some say. Last year I achieved a couple of stunted, misnomered Big Boys, but they had no flavor at all. This year; well, see the picture of one of the plants I bought on sale at Reny’s. Is there a connection there? Like any scientist worth his salt I decided to do some research on the subject of growing tomatoes, because I really like eating good ones. I’ll share what I have found with you.
The tomato appears to have originated in the Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia area of the Andes and was first cultivated by the Aztecs around 700 CE. After the Spanish explorer (marauder would really be a better term) Cortez crushed the Aztecs in the sixteenth century, the tomato found its way to Europe. It was admired for its beauty, but considered poisonous and not initially consumed, belonging to the same family as deadly nightshade. No, Steady! The tomato is not hallucinogenic. No matter how many you eat you won’t get stoned. This was purportedly proven in Salem, MA when in 1830 some nutcase named Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson ate a basketful and survived.
The carefree Italians were apparently the first to ingest poma d'oro, or "gold apple," and, as we all know, still make lavish use of it. The Germans, always more stolid, referred to the tomato as wolfpfirsich or “wolf peach,” the wolf nomenclature referring to the belief that werewolves could be called up by nightshades. They were reluctant feed on same. The United States got on board fairly early in our history after Thomas Jefferson tasted the fruit in France and brought seed back for his farm. In the early days, however, the fruit was used here mainly for decoration.
The tomato does not like very hot and dry (AZ) or cold and wet (ME). Like people, it fares best in a Mediterranean climate, say San Diego (CA). So it’s probably stupid of me even to try to grow them, but you figure that with about 7500 varieties there should be one or two that I could use successfully. It can’t be that difficult. According to Wikipedia there were 150 million tons produced in 2009.
I’m pretty sure part of my problem is that my garden gets too much shade. I’m trying one in a pot on the porch this year, and it seems to be doing well, producing flowers. But I’ve had flowers before, and they seldom germinate. Where are the bees? Each Spring I charitably gather the nearly comatose bumble bees that mysteriously appear in my basement and carry them outside to place them on dewy flowers. Where’s the gratitude? “Hey! Don’t forget my tomatoes!” Actually, tomatoes are quasi self-pollinating if aided by such tools as vibrators or “electric bees,” available at the local porn shop (just kidding).
Am I using the wrong fertilizer? Researchers in Finland have found that human urine is an excellent fertilizer for the tomato, being rich in nitrogen, potassium and phosphate. They caution, however, that the pee should be free of fecal matter. Well, I would offer that if you notice fecal matter in your urine you might stop worrying about your tomatoes and see your doctor. However, that’s an aside. As with most things in life, patience is a key ingredient. Apparently the urine needs to be aged. The researchers suggest six months or so, at a temperature of about 45 degrees F (nurtured like a cheap wine.) Efficacy can be further enhanced by mixing with wood ash, readily obtained from the wood stove or fire place. The wood ash changes the taste of the tomato, but participants in taste tests didn’t note a preference. These results have been reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. OK! I have plenty of wood ash, and as for the other ingredient, I can always substitute Bud Light.
Pests are a consideration, but my efforts rarely arrive at a stage to interest the average stink bug, cutworm, hornworm, aphid, whitefly, fruit worm, flea beetle, red spider mite, or slug. And you can pick varieties which are resistant to at least some of these varmints.
Is the tomato a vegetable or a fruit? Who cares? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled (Nix vs. Hidden) unanimously that it is a vegetable, but that august institution has a long and clouded history of bone-headed decisions, so I’m sticking with fruit.
Are tomatoes good for you? Almost certainly. They contain lycopene, an antioxidant that benefits the heart, helps prevent prostate cancer, and some say, reduces the risk of sunburn, and keeps the skin looking “youthful.” That last should be irresistible.
Where’s my back-up? I’ll let you in on a little secret. There are lots of people who get antsy in the Spring and take out small garden plots at, say, the Damariscotta River Association to relieve their back-to-the-earth anxiety. The tomato is a favored crop-even over Zucchini. Then these folk get bored with weeding and watering in the dog days, and the plots become unkempt and overgrown. But the plants persevere, and I’ll sneak in come Fall and harvest the neglected lumps of luscious. Mmmm! Why even bother to try and grow my own?