THE RITE OF SUMMER
A Tomato Plant Makes Everyone A Gardener!
With the warm weather, it can only be tomato season.
French beans raw off the bush, sweet corn plopped into boiling water the instant it is cut from the stalk are all delicious, but nothing beats a sun-warmed tomato from your own garden or balcony. Who cares whether tomatoes are an eighty five billion dollar global industry? For those growing them from seed, the plucking of the first grown tomato from the garden is a ritual of summer.
The smell and taste of a home grown tomato has been the impetus inspiring many people into gardening. It is the reaction to agribusiness’ modern, utilitarian, tough, all-harvestable-at-the-same-time, able-to-travel-long-distances, ethylene-gassed-to-ripen-on-command tomato resulting in all the gustatory charm and flavour of wet cardboard. Their cost-benefit, bred-in-the-bone convenience for growers stripped the summery, rich, tangy, sweet soul from this wonderful fruit. The consumer was their last consideration, if they thought of us at all.
Meanwhile generations of home gardeners kept heirloom tomatoes going and now these strains have come into their own. The choice is extensive and satisfyingly bewildering. Assuming your space is limited, test runs of your preferences are a good starting point.
My partner and I decided on a taste test one July and went to a local farmers’ market and bought all the heritage tomatoes varieties we could find (and carefully labelled them.) They were green, red, orange, yellow, purple, black, small, medium, large, round or lobed. There were many Russian heritage tomatoes in our large haul. In a warm kitchen we sliced them all and partook and marked out the favourites. We haven’t had such an intriguing stand-up lunch at the counter in a long time. Some tomatoes were rather meaty but ideal for a great sauce or sun drying. Some had tough skin and mediocre flavour. While taste is subjective, we agreed on one: an outstanding favourite: Green Zebra. The fruit is lime green and streaked with a yellowy green. It’s a medium-sized, mid-seasoned tomato with an intense flavour, sweet yet slightly tart and the ideal size for sandwiches and delicious in salsas. We grew it successfully the following year, although our crop did not produce throughout the entire season.
Many cherry varieties are especially delicious and grow well in the Lower Mainland. Sweetie is a delicious thumb-sized tomato reliably producing instant snacks all summer. The Bumblebee varieties (Pink, Purple and Sunrise) are the size of large grapes and have a wonderful sweet flavour. Sugary and Sweet Millions are old favourites. If you have a shadier garden, Tumbler tomatoes, shown to advantage in hanging baskets are your best choice. Tiny Tim and Red Robin are miniature heirlooms with jewel-like 1 inch diameter fruits of sweet, rich flavour are also good for hanging baskets but require more sun.
So you didn’t start from seed. Think you lack a green thumb? Don’t have time to garden? Look no further than the corner store where fully mature plants with flowers and developing fruit are sold, sometimes to the end of August. Just slip the plant into your own pot and pass yourself off as a master gardener.
Garden centres are a better source if you seek specific varieties. But the variety you loved last year might not be around this year or already sold out. Like the fashion industry, things change swiftly in the gardening world. A friend, looking for a Taxi tomato plant, has yet to find it this year. The seeds were readily available from West Coast Seeds but you should start most seeds indoors around March, mid-April at the latest. Taxi is a delicious, early yellow tomato, more sweet and less acid and perfect for the lower mainland’s generally cooler summers. Gold Nugget is another early, dependable producer of small yellow fruit of lovely, sweet flavour and ideal for patio and balcony gardeners.
If you fall in love with a tomato, even if it’s a nameless variety you discover at a market stall, save the seeds. Tomato seeds are exceptionally viable. One September I found a scrumptious, nameless tomato in just this fashion and scooped out twelve large seeds, folded them into a paper towel and tossed this in a drawer. The following spring I planted the seeds and each germinated. By summer’s end I had twelve seven-foot tomato plants and so many tomatoes I was giving them away.
Not all my tomato tales are success stories. A friend was working on an archaeological dig forty miles south of Troy (yes, that Troy) and brought back some sun-dried tomatoes. They were delicious but before eating them, I, of course, dug out the largest seeds I could find and planted them. The few that germinated were so unimpressed with our tepid BC summer they never grew beyond three inches and sat in a deep sulk for the remainder of the summer until frost put them out of their misery.
Researchers reported in June 2012 at the University of California that tomatoes having an unusually darker green fruit before ripening (as opposed to the light green tomatoes favoured by big Agro) had two transcription factors – proteins regulating gene expression – integral for greater development of flavour, colour and texture. They felt this discovery would result in new varieties bred with the flavour and quality of heritage tomatoes. Doesn’t this sound like Green Zebra?
Strange, how, with the billions riding on one plant, it took so long to map tomato’s genome. An international team at University of Oklahoma’s Tomato Genomics Consortium (also in 2012) was able to announce the sequencing of the 35,000 genes in both the domesticated and a related wild tomato. They expressed hope it would help in the development of new strains “with more desired traits such as higher yields, increased disease resistance, new colourings and more alluring aromas.” Note how ‘alluring aromas’ was still last on their list.
Fortunately the same year, in a more rigorous taste test experiment, Harry Klee at the University of Florida announced he and his team had discovered what to do “to fix the broken tomato.” They had assembled the chemical profiles of 278 tomato samples representing 152 heirloom varieties and discovered a remarkably large chemical diversity. They conducted a series of taste tests determining flavour intensity was dependent on 12 different compounds and sweetness to another 12. Some of these volatiles (aromas) were unrelated to sugars yet made tomatoes taste sweeter.
This May, a study published in Nature Genetics reported the ‘finished construction of a pan-genomic for 725 different cultivated and closely related wild tomato relatives mapping 4,873 previously undocumented genes.’ It appears the domestication of large tomatoes caused severe genetic bottlenecks to occur resulting in the loss of an important gene specifically related to flavour. This gene, called TomLoxC is fortunately present in a wild variety of currant-sized tomatoes (Solanum pimpinellifolium) and ‘is becoming more common in newer varieties.’ The report made no mention of our wonderfully flavourful smaller cherry and grape-sized tomatoes.
There are some very serious threats to the tomato. Whitefly, or for Latin speakers, Bemisia tabaci is one of the worst invasive agricultural pests. It is thought to have originated in the Mediterranean/Asia Minor area and has now spread throughout the world. It reached Australia in the early 1990s, then in China in the mid-1990s. In 2007 in Zhejiang, China entire tomato crops were lost from this pest and the viruses it transmitted. The Rio Grand Valley in Texas producing 40,000 acres of tomatoes was almost wiped out by whitefly and its viruses after their appearance in 2002. Thankfully, in December 2011, Texas AgriLife Research announced a new variety suitable to the Texan heat and virus resistant. Typical of agribusiness, they were unhappy this tomato variety was indeterminate, meaning the fruit did not set and mature at the same time. Given how little they had to work with they realized it was a start, if not yet a solution.
Since most of us have wisely not dedicated our 40,000 acres to a single crop there is one disease a tomato gardener should watch out for. It is Late Blight or Phytophthora infestans. This wind borne fungus will settle on wet tomato leaves (potato leaves are as susceptible) and spread with astonishing rapidity. A single fruit-laden plant can blacken and collapse within 24 hours. Occurring from July until September, all it takes is water staying on the leaves or a single rain shower. Prevention is the key. Water only the soil and never the leaves and cut away any leaf spot you see. If rain is on the way, cover your plants with cloches or light plastic sheets. Remove them when the coast is clear as humidity build-up doesn’t help either. If you see stems girdled in black and your plant smells oddly fishy, it’s too late and you must pull up the entire plant and throw it in the garbage before it can infect anything else. Wash your hands afterwards. Early tomato varieties are more prone to it but if you are gardening on a balcony with an overhang you are probably safe from it. P. infestans is the very fungus responsible for the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-52 that killed one million due to starvation and forced another two million into permanent exile.
Apocalypses aside, a tomato harvest is well within the grasp of the first time urban gardener. Tomatoes need rich, well-drained soil and as much sun as you can throw at them (six to eight hours is best); attentive watering (preferably in the morning and again: water the soil never the foliage) and they appreciate the occasional jolt of fertilizer (I do mine every two weeks). Pinch out the little suckers within each leaf crotch to keep the foliage growth in check and allow the sun in and air to circulate. Any leaf spot you see on leaves snip off the entire leaf at once and throw it in the garbage not the yard waste or the compost. Sterilize your snipper blades immediately after. If your balcony is above the fifth floor or so, you may need to tickle the flowers with a small paintbrush to assist pollination.
For generations, we grass root gardeners around the world have been collecting, swapping, saving and sometimes hybridizing seeds of our favourite tomatoes with all the rich, summery, tangy, sweetness we love and successfully growing them far from the slow, oblivious labs of big Agro.
Regardless of what variety you have, whether you patiently started it from seed in March or desperately bought a plant with fully ripened fruit on the vine in late August, a tomato plant on the landscape or balcony makes anyone a gardener!