Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension, P.O. Box 68, LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068  Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

The Tomato - A Native American

As the fall planting season approaches, many gardeners turn their thoughts toward readying their vegetable garden.  Gardening is the favorite past time of some 23 million Americans and tomatoes are unquestionably the most popular vegetable produced in home gardens.

The tomato originated in the Andes mountains of South America. The Inca people living in the area did not cultivate the tomato. The tomato traveled over 2,000 miles north of its center of origin to Central America where the  Aztecs were the first people to cultivate, eat and name the tomato - tomatl or xtomatl. It was the wild, cherry size tomato Lycopersicon esculentum var. cerasiforme, from which modern tomatoes  are descended. The species is still found growing wild throughout the New World Tropics.

Cortez and his explorers are credited with finding the tomato in an Aztec market around 1520 and transporting the seed to Spain. In 1522 Italy was under Spanish rule and they introduced the tomato to Naples, Italy where it was cultivated. Tomatoes were not eaten in England during the 1500 and 1600's because of the belief that they were poisonous.

Colonialists brought the tomato from Europe back to the New World. Thomas Jefferson raised them as an ornamental plant at Monticello in 1781. It wasn't until the 1830's that people in North America began to relish tomatoes as food. Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson of Salem, New Jersey is credited for an event that changed opinions about tomatoes. In 1820 Colonel Johnson staged an event to eat a basketful of tomatoes at the local courthouse. An audience gathered to watch the colonel die. Colonel Johnson's physician warned that he would, "Foam and froth at the mouth and double over..." Colonel Johnson survived and slowly people began to accept the tomato as food. In1835 tomatoes were regularly available in local markets in North America.

Tomatoes are one of the easiest garden plants to grow. They need as much direct sunlight as        possible to produce the good yields.  There are several ways to plant a tomato. If your plants are tall and leggy, use the trench method of planting. Dig a  long shallow hole and lay the tomato plant horizontally into the trench. The buried stem will grow roots and develop a deep root system. Deep hole planting is not recommended locally due to the risk of fungal rot attacking young stems.

After planting, water. Continue watering lightly each day if it does not rain. After several days of regular watering, plants should be established and you can decrease the watering. Throughout the growing season make mental notes about how much it has rained. If it does not rain once a week, be sure to water tomato plants as long as they are setting fruit. Established tomato plants need about one inch of precipitation per week from rain or irrigation.

Tomatoes need adequate levels of phosphorus, nitrogen, potash and minor elements. There are many types of fertilizer. Some are water soluble and can be used  when watering tomatoes. There are granular forms to add to the soil before planting. The easiest to use is a time release fertilizer at the time of planting. No matter what kind of fertilizer is used always follow the directions on the label. Do not over fertilize because then you will have lush, tropical plants with little fruit set.

To achieve the full flavor, allow the fruit to fully ripen on the plant. Wait until it is deep red, or whatever final color the tomato is to be. Once harvested, no additional sugars will go into the fruit. To harvest, gently hold the tomato and twist the tomato so that the stem separates from the vine.  Tomatoes are best stored at room temperature. It is absolutely unnecessary to place a ripe tomato in the refrigerator. Tomatoes will store on a kitchen counter for several days. Green tomatoes can be harvested and placed on a windowsill for future use. Most will gradually turn red and have some degree of tomato flavor.  Placing unripe tomatoes in a closed paper bag will hasten the ripening process.

Most gardeners successfully grow tomatoes in their gardens without significant problems. The      best approach is to be observant. Look at leaves regularly and notice any difference in leaf color, size or shape. Holes in leaves usually indicate there are insects eating leaves. While most diseases should be treated preventively, insects should only be treated if and when they become a problem.  If a problem develops, take a sample of the leaf or fruit and contact the Hendry Extension Office for assistance.  One of the easiest way to avoid problems with diseases is to select  tomato varieties that are disease or virus tolerant. Crop rotation is recommended for tomatoes.

Blossom-end rot, cracking or catfacing are fruit disorders that gardeners may encounter.  These problems are bought about by environmental stresses such as wide fluctuations in moisture levels, high temperatures and inadequate soil calcium levels.  Look for varieties that are tolerant or resistant to these disorders.

Tomatoes provide abundant vitamins and minerals. A fresh, raw tomato contains an exceptional amount of Vitamin A.  Vitamin C,  potassium and calcium are also found in tomatoes. A raw tomato contains only a trace of sodium, whereas regular pack, canned tomatoes contain 100 times the amount of sodium. Americans receive most of their lycopene from tomatoes and strawberries. Lycopene contributes to preventing certain types of cancers including prostate cancer. To obtain the best most savory fruit, grow your own tomatoes and eat them fresh from your garden.   Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

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