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The popular tomato — a fruit or a vegetable?

February 25, 2011
By H. JEAN SHIELDS, Garden Club of Cape Coral

By H. Jean Shields

Special to The Breeze

The delicious and popular tomato has a long history. It dates back to the early Aztecs, around 700 A. D. Hernandez Cortez seems to have been the first European to see a tomato.

Historical accounts of this new find and its travels to Spanish settlements in the Caribbean, to Europe and especially Italy, in the 16th century, are varied and not always clear.

Not everyone was thrilled with this new fruit. The British were suspicious because they thought it seemed poisonous. Others recognized it as a member of the nightshade family and they knew those plants to be poisonous.

There is some confusion as to the color of these fruits. Some are red, some a yellow orange. The different shapes were a suspicion also.

Europeans were rightly worried because in those days the rich people ate from flatware made of pewter, which has a high lead content. The high acid content of the tomatoes caused this lead to leech out and contaminate the food.

Poor people ate from wood plates and did not have that problem. This was in the 1800s. That problem was solved when there was a mass migration of Europeans from Europe to the Americas.

The inevitable blending of cultures resulted in the increase of the popularity of a food that was cheap and readily available to the poor.

The Italian name for the tomato was pomodoro (apple of gold). Then translated to pommed'amour, (apple of love).

In the 1880s, pizza was invented, in Naples, and the colors of the new Italian flag being red, white and green, were celebrated in the new pizza, the red sauce, the white mozzarella cheese, and the green basil topping.

The pizza was presented to the visiting Queen Margarite, and the pizza Margarite was born and is still with us.

It was not until the late 19th century that the Italians married the classic tomato paste and spaghetti.

The debate, about is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable, came about during the late 1800s.

America had passed a tariff tax on all vegetables. The popular tomato not being a vegetable was one of the most important imports, so the Supreme Court decided that the tomato was always served at a meal as a vegetable, and never a desert, therefore it was classified as a vegetable, and taxable.

In case you wonder, the botanical classification of a fruit is the edible plant structure of a mature ovary of a flowering plant.

That's a lot more information than I am wanting to read about, however, the tomato in its many forms and colors is the most popular vegetable in America and is also enjoyed all over the world.

There are indeed many forms and sizes and colors for the tomato plant. Making a decision on what to plant can be confusing for the first time. There are the average determinate selections that will grow and produce and then decline.

The indeterminate types will grow, produce and then produce again and I have had some cherry tomato plants still producing as the vine reaches its death stage and has to be taken out.

The gardener has a choice of starting organic or regular plants by seed or as a starter plant in various sizes of Jiffy pots. I am not a seed person, too impatient.

The first time you do a plant, decide on a mid-size plant to start with. They are not quite as delicate to get started. Sometimes you can find a very large plant in a large pot and you will not even have to put it in the garden soil at all.

I do my two every year in the large 12 to 14-inch black nursery pots. A tomato cage fits well inside and holds up the plants as they mature. I do not put them in the same soil every year. I take out at least half and put in new organic mix and organic time-release fertilizer. I just dump the old potting mix out on some ground that can use some extra cover.

Sometimes I will put a bell pepper plant in last year's pot. They are an excellent veggie to grow and seem to have less pest problems. You can just let a green pepper mature long enough to have a red bell pepper.

You do want to plant the tomato plant deep in the pot. Pinch off the leaves along the stem, up to the top row. In the ground you can dig a trench and lay the plant sideways with top up out of ground. The plant will grow towards the sun.

You plant all of that bare stem into the soil. The stem will grow a good strong root system. You do not have to have soil at the top right up tight to that last row of green.

Put a cage around the plant right away. You will be surprised how fast the tomato starts growing. Keep an eye on it so you can gently keep leaves from being bent down as it grows in cage.

I wait a week or two before I put some organic vegetable or tomato fertilizer on the surface and gently mix it in. Make sure the planting mix is damp when you plant. You do not want to get much water on the leaves when watering.

Mulching is OK, but wait a couple of weeks to make sure the sun is keeping the soil nice and warm, tomatoes like it hot.

Later on when it really gets hot, you can put some around the plant, not up tight around the stem. Plants in the ground can use mulch to keep the soil from drying out.

There are soil-born diseases that attack tomatoes. Check with the Lee County Extension Service for information about these bothersome things and how to recognize them.

The homegrown plants do taste better than the market ones. Farmers markets in the area have some good ones, but they are going to cost more this year.

The easiest tomato to grow seems to be the cherry tomato plant. It will provide a great yield of crop for your time. The beefsteak, large and late season, does well here.

Big Boy is mid-season, a yellow with green stripe. And the colorful heirloom plants. The plum tomatoes do very well.

I saw some really healthy and big red tomatoes over at the Edison Estates last week. They are in the back, on the north side, along the sidewalk. They are so big I ask when were they planted. I was told October. They had to do a lot of covering up the last two months but it was worth it. They also have several kinds of lettuce, carrots and several other vegetables.

Start watching for the advertisement of the local Garden Club plant sales. They will have plenty of healthy plants and will have knowledgeable people there to answer your questions about planting just about everything.

These events are usually on a Saturday, and are free to attend and walk around on a nice sunny day.

There are plenty of annuals available right now, just remember that our nice warm sun now will be hot in a couple of months. Read your plant tags to make sure you get the right plant for the right spot.

Happy gardening until we meet again.

H. Jean Shields is a past president of the Garden Club of Cape Coral



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