Tomatoes are just about perfect. The ancient Incans who selected and bred the tomato should be honored and worshiped.
Gardeners are gentle people. Until they get competitive. Competition to get the first tomato in the spring is fierce. We opt out of that battle by planting tomatoes in September and keeping them in the greenhouse through the winter. They flower when the days get longer in the spring. We set them outside when it’s warm enough. Then we start getting great tomatoes when most people are harvesting strawberries or before.
Summer tomatoes are wonderful. Nothing like the taste of a garden grown tomato picked straight from the vine in the heat of summer. But tomatoes planted in spring get blight. No matter how good a gardener you are, sooner or later your spring planted tomatoes will get some brown spots forming on the bottom leaves. The blight will gradually spread to the entire plant and kill it.
There are three major blights that can attack your tomatoes: Septoria leaf spot, early blight and late blight. Since they are fungi, they spread by spores. Whenever there is enough dew or rain, the spores spread to new areas. There is no escaping moisture in the air in Arkansas in the spring and summer. You can stake your tomatoes to increase air flow, water only in the morning to let sun dry up excess water, and faithfully rotate your crops, but you’ll still get blight on your spring-planted tomatoes.
Why are tomatoes so susceptible to blight? Why didn’t the Incans and their ancestors breed for disease resistance? The problem is that tomatoes were domesticated high in the mountains where Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru today meet. Compared to us, these mountains don’t have humidity.
You can still find wild tomatoes in the Andes, along with peppers and potatoes which were also first developed there. Tomatoes grow year-round in such a dry climate because the fungal spores need moisture to spread. We aren’t so lucky at Meadowcreek. Fungi love our valley; that includes wonderful mushrooms and pesky blights.
Fall tomatoes don’t have this problem. The dry fall air in Arkansas makes it perfect for tomato growing. Tomatoes transplanted in July will produce a bounteous crop which just keeps on until frost. We cover the plants when frost threatens in the fall and they survive till Thanksgiving. Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas the nights just get too cold and we pick all the remaining green fruit and leave them on trays in the greenhouse. Some will rot, but many will ripen up for us and we enjoy tomatoes into January and sometimes February.
The huge abundance of fall tomatoes also comes at the perfect time to make tomato sauce or salsa. It’s cooler outside so heating up the kitchen feels good. Putting up tomatoes in mid-summer means generating heat we just don’t need.
In the fall, heat up a boiling pot of tomatoes, add whatever other ingredients you like, can or freeze the results and you have tomatoes all winter long. You don’t even have to peel the tomatoes. The skins will separate from the fruit as they cook. If you are willing to us a spoon to strain the skins out, you’ll save more of the meat.
Nutrition is another reason to put up tomato sauce. Tomatoes have copious amounts of vitamin C and a red pigment called lycopene, an antioxidant. Higher blood plasma lycopene levels are associated with reduced incidence of some cancers, especially prostate cancer.
It’s not always true that fresh vegetables are most nutritious. Raw tomatoes have lots of lycopene, but lycopene uptake into the blood plasma is significantly higher from heat processed tomato products than when the same amount is eaten as fresh tomatoes. The bioavailability of the lycopene from heat-processed tomato juice is greater than from raw tomato juice.
The nutritional benefits of tomatoes is great, but we really eat them for the taste. If you eat store bought tomatoes, you may not have experienced real tomato taste in awhile. And to get the most intense tastes, you need heirloom tomatoes. My favorite is Cherokee Purple. It’s great fresh and its sauce in mid-winter is just divine.
And don’t forget cherry tomatoes. Every garden needs cherry tomatoes. They aren’t as susceptible to blight and they seed themselves. Plant them on the side of the garden and they’ll probably come back every year. Then you have a nice treat to pluck while you’re gardening.
The diversity of tomatoes is amazing. It all came from the ancients who saw the potential in the small fruited wild species. We benefit from their ability to see such potential and carefully nurture it.
May we all recognize such potential in our own lives and nurture it for future generations.