Strange fruitHome » Latest issue » Good, issue 3 » The goods » Strange fruit
Infamous Spanish conquistador Herman Cortez first spotted tomatoes in Central America in the early 16th century. The strange fruit were duly brought back to Europe as ornamental plants, where they spent the next century or so erroneously served with the bum rap of being poisonous. A close relative of deadly nightshade, the yellow and orange fruits aroused fear and suspicion until enough folks had eaten them without keeling over to justify their widespread use as food. The rest is rich, red, saucy history.
Today, tomatoes are a popular vegetable indeed, considered to be one of the most important in the Western diet thanks to the quantity of vitamins they supply—particularly vitamins A and C. Tomatoes also contain lycopene, a potent antioxidant, also reputed to help protect the skin from UV light damage.
Tomatoes are a tip-top vegetable for getting kids into gardening—especially smaller cherry varieties, which never make it from the vine to the table in our house, thanks to our team of hungry young poachers.
Choose varieties based on suitability to your local area and conditions; tolerance of humidity and low temperatures can be important factors. Look on the back of seed packets for details or ask the folks you are buying them from. Koanga and Eco Seeds do lip-smacking varieties from huge Beefsteak to diminutive Sweetie.
Tomato seedlings are traditionally planted from Labour Day onwards. While this can be brought forward in warmer areas, ensure all risk of frost has passed before planting outdoors.
You can start your seeds indoors; allow five to seven weeks before they are ready for planting outside. Plant seeds close to the surface in loose, free-draining compost (a few millimetres deep will do). Once they have germinated (usually within ten days) keep the planting mix moist for about a fortnight, until the seedlings have formed two true leaves (the cut-edged leaves that appear after the initial seedling leaves). They are now ready to be transplanted into separate small pots around 10cm deep. Keep the soil moist until they are about 10cm high, which is large enough to go into the garden.
If you’d rather buy a seedling, look for strong, stout-looking plants that are not already bearing flowers. Choose a site that gets plenty of sun and adequate air movement to prevent dampness that can cause fungal attack. Make sure that tomatoes have not been grown in the same location in recent years to avoid increased risk of diseases such as blight. Seedlings should be spaced about 60cm apart and can be planted deeply so that soil is pushed up against their stems, but not over the leaves.
Tomatoes can also be grown in pots or bags of compost; small cherry tomato varieties can even be grown in hanging baskets, which harks back to their early days as ornamental oddities.