Right around the year of 1820 on the courthouse steps of a little town in New Jersey called Salem, (yes it seemed that there were a lot of small towns called Salem in those days), a trial of another sort was about to take place. It was a trial that didn’t involve Witchcraft as such, although the subject of the trial was sort of magical. A crowd had gathered in front of the courthouse. People whispered among themselves that the colonel was a little crazy, perhaps even a little suicidal. Everyone watched nervously as the colonel made his way through the crowd and slowly ascended the stairs. When he was about halfway up, he turned and faced the crowd. “The time will come when this luscious scarlet apple will be the foundation of a great garden industry and will be eaten and enjoyed by all.” He proclaimed. With that, he pulled a bright red tomato from the pocket of his coat and ate it right in front of the whole town. Tomatoes were considered to be poisonous in Colonial America. It was believed there was enough acid in just one to send you to see your maker. Everybody in the audience waited, expecting to see the foolish colonel double over in pain and expire on the courthouse steps. But nothing happened. The colonel simply wiped the juice from his mouth with a handkerchief, smiled, and went about his business.
The colonel’s prediction turned out to be true. Today there are thousands of tomato varieties, all descended from a plant that is native to the regions of South America that include Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Chile. The tomato plant is in the nightshade family and has some poisonous relatives that include belladonna and jimsonweed as well as the friendly potato and pepper. If you plan on growing some of these “love apples” for yourself this summer, here are a few tips that will make your “big boys” blush in the “heartland” and become “better boys” without any “big beefs.”
If you want to get ahead and start producing tomatoes as early as the end of May, germinate the seeds indoors under fluorescent light as early as late January. Plant the seeds in vermiculate or perlite. Then after the second set of leaves appears, transplant them into pots filled with commercial potting soil and a slow-release palletized fertilizer that is specially formulated for flowering and fruited plants. When the plants are 6 to 8 inches tall, you can place them into larger pots. Be sure to remove half of the lower leaves and pot them up to the bottom of the remaining leaves. When the temperature outdoors reaches 60 degrees or more, (around Mother’s Day in the Midwest), you are ready to take them outside. Use the same system of planting and removing the leaves to encourage a strong root system.
Hint: Tomato plant pollination is airborne and not delivered by insects, so it’s a good idea to brush your hands over the foliage on a regular basis to help pollinate the plants. Tomatoes come in three types; the determinates that bear their fruit all at once and stop when they reach their full size, the semi-determinates which are larger in size and will bear fruit until their stems are about 2 feet long, and the indeterminates, which will continue to bear fruit until they are killed by disease or frost. You can either let these plants grow all over the ground or choose to stake or cage them.
Tomatoes are rich in vitamin C and lycopene. Both are powerful antioxidants that may help prevent heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. And oh, the tomato is officially classified as a fruit because it contains seeds, but it really shares a lot of vegetable characteristics too. The colonel was a wise man.