Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The history of tomatoes as a crop and growing tomatoes in Florida

Tomatoes: this Peruvian native is now a world-wide favorite


Tomatoes are native to Peru, but
are now a major crop world-wide
The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) is a classic crop plant that every gardener wants to grow because store-bought tomatoes, which are bred to withstand harsh handling, are often less than delicious. 

BUT... The acceptance of tomatoes as an edible crop was a bit rocky.

The tomato is native to Peru. It’s a member of the nightshade family, which includes some famously poisonous plants such as belladonna, which is native to the Mediterranean area. So, acceptance of tomatoes as an edible crop in Europe was slow. In addition, some of the first tomato cuisine was served to European upper-class people on pewter dishes or with pewter cutlery and the acid in the tomatoes released the lead from that metal, which did actually poison some people. Many people called it the love apple and thought they would die if they ate it.

Tomato reluctance in the Mediterranean
countries until the Neapolitan pizzaiolo
It wasn't until the 1800s that the tomato truly clinched its place in Italian and European cuisine. For it was then that the Neapolitan pizzaiolo with the colors of the Italian flag was made to honor of Queen Margherita of Savoy. Since then, of course, all of the Mediterranean chefs have enthusiastically adopted tomatoes as their own.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic...

Thomas Jefferson grew and ate tomatoes, to the surprise of many. But this did not convince people that these were a desirable crop to grow and fruit to eat. For one thing, when you grow tomatoes, you attract tomato hornworms and many people, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, feared these worms: Here’s what he said: They were “an object of much terror, it being currently regarded as poisonous and imparting a poisonous quality to the fruit if it should chance to crawl upon it.”

But finally the tomato ice was broken by Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, an American gentleman farmer, historian, horticulturalist, judge, soldier, and statesman, who had had enough of these unfounded fears. He mounted the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey on September 30, 1820 with a basket full of tomatoes to eat. His stunt was well publicized and more than 2,000 people assembled to watch him die. And since this was in New Jersey, where gambling was a fine art, people wagered upon the exact moment of his demise. Some people lost a lot of money when he didn’t die! But his stunt broke the tomato ice, and people finally began to eat them.

Thomas Jefferson raised and ate tomatoes,
but many people were reluctant to do the same.
Col. Johnson broke the tomato reluctance with
his stunt of eating tomatoes on a courthouse step.

Growing tomatoes in Florida

Gardeners transplanted from northern parts of the country may be surprised and disappointed by Florida's pitifully short tomato season given our long summers. This is due to two main factors. First, as hot weather arrives and low nighttime temperatures remain consistently above 73°F, most tomato plants stop setting fruit. They may continue to bloom, but no fruit forms at the blossom locations. The second factor is our five-month wet season starting in June, which causes various fungal wilts. 

It took me a while to figure this out after we arrived in Florida. As evidence of this northern bias, I wrote "Tomatoes are for summer," instead of "Don't plant tomatoes in the summer in Florida." 

Look for heat-tolerant varieties with fungus and nematode resistance that have been bred specifically for Florida. Some cherry tomatoes continue to produce fruit for longer into the summer. The Everglades tomato or currant tomato is a tiny cherry tomato that does bloom throughout the summer. It's actually a different species (S. pimpinellifolium) native to Peru and Ecuador--not Florida.

The general advice for North and Central Florida is to install seedlings in full-sun sections of your gardens ASAP in the spring so you can harvest a good crop before the hot, wet weather arrives. And then to plant a second crop in late summer, and then when the nighttime temperatures are lower than 70 degrees in the fall, the tomatoes will start to set fruit. The limitation for the fall crops is that the days will be getting shorter, which the plants can sense, so your fall harvest is likely to be smaller. 

In frost-free areas of the state, plant tomatoes in the fall for a season that extends through the winter and into the spring. In the summer, its a good idea to plant a cover crop of marigolds or to solarize your tomato beds to reduce the nematode populations in the soil. Plant your tomatoes in a different spot the next season. 

Here in North Florida we need to start our seeds in December, so they'll be ready to plant out in the garden as soon as the danger of frost has passed. If you set them out a bit early, you'll need to cover them with a soft cloth if there's a frost warning, but uncover them in the morning as the sun hits them. This year, I planted a variety of tomatoes in four-inch pots. I bring the trays into the garage next to a western-facing window when the predicted temperatures are forty degrees or lower, and bring them out during the day for better sunlight. I set the trays on a sidewalk next to the garage, which retains the heat to give them a warmer environment. 


My tomato seedlings soaking up
the winter sun as their trays
sit on a sidewalk to stay warmer.
Cherry tomatoes are somewhat more tolerant
of higher nighttime low temperature levels.


My early girl tomatoes graced the cover of our
"Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida"
We're looking forward to this!

So I hope you've already started your tomato seeds to set out for your early spring crop. If not, you can buy tomato plants from garden centers to set out in your spring gardens, but this will limit your options to only a few popular cultivars. You can also buy seeds now and get them started in your late summer gardens so by the time they are ready to bloom, the low nighttime temperatures will be below 70 degrees for a good fall crop. 

Some people say that there is nothing better than a fresh, warm tomato eaten directly from the plant.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

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