Spring is just around the corner and it’s time to plan your vegetable garden. Naturally, no garden is complete without tomatoes. Which varieties should you plant? Heirloom tomatoes have by far the best flavor. Before you purchase potted tomato plants from the hardware store, consider starting your plants from organic seeds. Seed Savers, (www.seedsavers.org) dedicated to protecting endangered food crops and agricultural heritage through its seed bank has a wide variety of organic, heirloom tomato seeds that you can order.
Tomatoes, originally from South America and the Galapagos Islands, were brought back to Europe in the form of seeds by Cortez in 1519. The Italian name for the tomato is pomodoro, meaning “apple of love” or “golden apple,” because the first to reach Europe were yellow varieties. Initially, they were planted as ornamental plants, but were not eaten because they were thought to be poison as the plant was a member of the deadly Solanaceae, or Nightshade family. The leaves of the tomato plant, but not its fruits, do contain toxic alkaloids.
There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes in a vast array of colors, shapes and sizes. The most common shapes are round (Beefsteak and globe), pear-shaped (Roma) and the tiny cherry-sized (Cherry and Grape). There are also a number of heirloom varieties that are not only red, but also yellow, pink, orange, green, purple, or brown in color.
The San Marzano plum tomato, an heirloom variety grown in volcanic soil on the slopes of Mt.Vesuvius near the southern Italian city of Naples, is probably the most famous tomato grown in Italy. It was supposedly a gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples in 1770. Thinner and more pointed than the Roma tomatoes we see in the U.S., it has a firm pulp, a stronger tart flavor and fewer seeds. The San Marzano, Roma, Napoli and Marena varieties are mostly used for canning or bottling. The “pomodorino” (cherry tomato or vine tomato) grown mainly in the south in Sicily, Puglia and Calabria are used in salads and quick pasta sauces.
Tomato plants like a warm, sunny location with well-drained soil. They typically grow to 3–10 feet in height and have a weak stem that often sprawls over the ground and vines over other plants, if not staked. It is a perennial in its native habitat, although often grown outdoors in temperate climates as an annual.
About 161.8 million tons of tomatoes were produced in the world in 2012. China is the largest commercial producer of tomatoes followed by India and the United States. California accounts for 90% of U.S. production of plum or processing tomatoes and 35% of world production.
At home, companion planting in the garden can help enhance growth, flavor and protect plants from pests. Borage, with its fresh, cucumber-like flavor, is supposed to protect tomatoes from tomato hornworms. Chives, onions, garlic and marigolds produce a smell that repels pests,
Although it is botanically a fruit, the tomato is considered a vegetable for culinary purposes. It is eaten raw in salads or cooked as an ingredient in a variety of dishes, sauces, and beverages. Unripe green tomatoes can also be breaded and fried, used in salsas or pickled. The high acidic property of tomatoes makes them especially easy to preserve in home canning. The fruit is also preserved by drying, often in the sun, and sold either in bags or in jars as “sun dried tomatoes” packed in oil.
Tomatoes are good sources of Lycopene, one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants. Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin K, Vitamin E and numerous other vitamins and minerals.
Buying and Storing
When you select tomatoes for purchase, smell the blossom (not stem) end. The most flavorful ones will have a rich tomato aroma. If they are not yet ripe, keep them in a sunny window sill until they are ready to eat. Remember, too, that it is best not to refrigerate tomatoes or their texture becomes mushy and the flavor diminishes.