Guest Posts on County 10 are provided by contributors and the opinions, thoughts, and comments within are their own and may not necessarily reflect those of County 10.
The garden catalogs started to arrive last week. To people passionate about growing vegetables, flowers, and fruit, these catalogs are akin to a crack dealer moving into an impoverished neighborhood. Yes, they are addicting.
I’ll bring my small indoor greenhouse out of the basement soon and start several dozen tomato, pepper, and cabbage plants. My passion, along with many gardeners is the tomato, the king of garden fruit. (yes, it is a fruit by definition)
The lowly tomato is the most extensively grown non-cereal, above-ground, non-grain plant on the planet.
Around the year 500 AD, the tomato existed in the wilds of Peru as a tiny, green pea-sized plant. Over the next millennia, those peas grew into an estimated 2,500 different varieties of tomatoes at the hands of Aztec gardeners.
In the 16th century, they made their way across the Atlantic to Europe, where they were thought to be poisonous since they closely resembled their distant relative nightshade.
Europeans, especially royals, and church leaders knew of nightshade, it was the “go to” poison from Roman times to the Age of Discovery.
“Nightshade killed more popes, cardinals, and royals than syphilis,” author William Alexander wrote.
From the mid-1570s until the early 1580s, a Spanish botanist, Hernando Hernandez studied the plants of the New World in Mexico. He wrote an exhaustive 2400-page book on every variety of tomato and tomatillo he could find. It was an intensively well-researched and detailed work. The Catholic church confiscated the work and refused to publish it for 228 years. Published in 1592, it wasn’t allowed for public reading until 1820 because it painted the native Mexicans in too positive a light.
They were after all, “heathens” and were to be treated as such.
For the two-plus decades that I taught geography, I opened up the section on the “Great Exchange” with this simple question, “Imagine Italian food without tomato sauce?”
The Great Exchange was the opening of the New World to settlement by the old, and the plants, animals, and diseases exchanged were epic.
Until tomatoes were widely accepted as a beneficial fruit in the early 1800s, Italian food was devoid of that delicious red sauce most of us enjoy.
The original tomatoes were about the same size as our modern varieties but heavily ribbed, looking more like segmented pumpkins than the smooth-skinned tomatoes we enjoy.
Many gardeners have a mania when it comes to tomatoes, my Dad did, and it extended to me.
I started elementary school when Dad was stationed at Blytheville Air Force Base in the northeast corner of Arkansas.
You can grow anything short of citrus fruit in Arkansas, the gardening conditions are superb.
We lived off base on a three-acre plot of land, with our house on the far north end.
Dad planted a half-acre garden each year.
One year, he decided to punch up his tomato production. He took a mix of corn cobs and chicken manure and worked it heavily into the black topsoil. He planted tomatoes inside four-foot-tall round wire cages and we waited for the magic.
The plants grew almost seven feet high but didn’t produce many tomatoes. The smaller, more traditional tomato plants surrounding the experiment were loaded with fruit, but the enhanced plants just grew tall and weren’t productive.
When he was stationed in California, we often visited his cousin Dick Holt who was superintendent of a large corporate farm near the hamlet of Esparto. There were hundreds of acres of almond trees, but thousands of acres of tomatoes. The fields seemed endless.
The opposite of Arkansas in gardening terms is Wyoming, where you can’t grow anything without concerted effort.
The last two years have been rough. Subzero weather and the absence of bees condemned many gardens before they had a chance to become established.
I had two pumpkin plants that bloomed from May until the first heavy frost in October killed them. The big, beautiful yellow flowers dutifully opened and closed each morning and evening for almost five months, but without bees to pollinate them, they just remained flowers.
The fruit trees weren’t much better. The wind and cold took care of the apricots and pears, ripping off the sparse blooms that were produced.
The lack of bees was evident in our seven apple trees. Our apple harvest came in early October when I noticed something red in one of the lower trees. It was a perfect, worm-free apple and it was our entire 2023 crop.
My friend Tad McMillan was Riverton’s vocational agriculture teacher for two decades. Under his leadership, Riverton had a greenhouse.
I taught with Tad for a few years at the James H. Moore Career Center.
I made him an offer one spring. I’d buy a variety of tomato and pepper seeds, his kids could plant and grow them into seedlings then I’d take a few and the FFA could sell the rest.
From many catalogs, I ordered 31 different varieties of tomatoes. The memorable ones were Mortgage Lifter, Arkansas Traveler, and Yellow Boy, but the most popular remained Early Girls, Big Boys, Romas, and Better Boys.
I took about five dozen plants and the FFA kids sold several thousand.
Tomatoes are now the number one vegetable crop in the world, topping 186 million metric tons in 2023. Onions were a distant second at 110 million tons and eggplant, (yes, strange I know) third with 59 million tons harvested.
The top tomato producer is China with 65 million tons. Turkey is second with 13 million and Italy third with 12 million tons grown. The USA was fourth in 2016 with 12 million tons but the production has dropped steadily ever since, though it experienced an upsurge during COVID-19.
About 75% of American tomatoes are grown in California. The Golden State produces an average of around nine million metric tons annually with Florida a distant second.
If you’re a tomato fanatic as I am you might note the top homegrown varieties and see if any of these are on your list. Here are the top 10 in their order of popularity:
- San Marzano
- Early Girl
- Cherokee Purple
- Better Boy
The sixth-place tomato, the Cherokee Purple may surprise you. It is a relative newcomer to the tomato world and a genetically modified organism. (as is every bit of corn, oats, wheat, or rice you eat, but don’t tell anyone)
The purple comes from gene splicing with an eggplant. Genetically, the tomato and the eggplant are very closely related, so cross-breeding was able to produce a purple tomato.
It’s tomato time, peppers too, and maybe Brussels sprouts and cabbage.
Last summer was an epic year for cabbage and Brussels sprouts, but not much else.
Gardens in Wyoming mean summer, and no one wants to wait too long for summertime to arrive.