By: Justin Butts Photos by: Rachel Benavides
Tomatoes are native to the Andes Mountains of Peru. They were unknown outside the New World until Cortez arrived in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, in 1519.
The word tomato comes from the word xitomatl in the language of the Aztecs, who prepared a fiery hot sauce from tomatoes and peppers for their corn tacos. Cortez sent Aztec tomato plants home to Spain. The produce traveled rapidly along sea-trade routes and the Silk Road, and soon became one of most popular vegetables in the world.
Tomatoes are the favorite garden vegetable in the Coastal Bend, but their plants are also among the hardest to grow. Many beginners quit gardening in frustration because they have such trouble with tomatoes. Fear not – these tips will help you grow tomatoes like a pro!
The tomato season in the Coastal Bend is short. Frost kills tomatoes, so wait till after the last average frost date of Feb. 14 to plant them. And while tomatoes love heat, our intense summers can quickly overwhelm them. They can tolerate hundred-plus degree temps during the day, but it is nights that shut down tomato plants: For the plants to set fruit, the night-time soil temperature must stay between 55 and 70 degrees. If the soil remains too hot at night, your plants will stop producing tomatoes. That can happen in June if you’re not careful!
To keep your soil temperature cool, it is essential to mulch your tomato plants thickly (at least 8 inches) with native leaf mulch, such as raked-up oak leaves. No other mulch works as well. Native leaf mulch keeps the soil nice and cool, even when the nights are muggy and hot.
Water the soil at the base of your tomato plants in the evening. Less moisture will be lost to evaporation, while evening watering cools the soil from the heat of the day. By August, tomato plants shut down in the heat, but tomato season returns from September through December.
A need-to-know basis:
Full sun. Plant tomato transplants only in rich, well-composted, well-drained soil (biggest transplants you can find). Space transplants 24” beneath cattle panel trellis. Bury transplants 2/3 of the way into ground. Add two cups homemade wood ash and two cups of crushed oyster shells at bottom of the hole, plus around the base of plant. Dust the leaves of the plants with horticultural corn meal (from a local feed store) to prevent fungal diseases. Mulch with at least 8” of native leaf mulch.
The key to tomato flavor is healthy soil – there are no shortcuts. Humus-rich, well-composted soil containing plenty of homemade wood ash produces the best-tasting tomatoes. Smaller tomato varieties (cherry and grape) are easier to grow and tend to pack a lot more flavor than larger varieties. “Juliette” is a hybrid roma/grape variety that is easy to grow, with amazing flavor. Heirloom varieties taste best of all, but are the hardest to grow in the Coastal Bend.
The beauty of tomatoes is their versatility. Nothing beats a freshly-picked tomato with a little salt and cracked pepper (and olive oil and balsamic vinegar, if you’re extra like me). Fresh tomatoes are perfect chopped in salads, atop pasta, tacos, or scrambled eggs, or blitzed into a refreshing gazpacho. If you’re one of the lucky few backyard gardeners that grows enough tomatoes to approach tomato fatigue, can any extras by stewing and blanching to remove the skins. Canned tomatoes are great for a last minute salsa, marinara, or bisque. – Kayla Butts, @kaylabuttsmsrd
Tomatoes are in the nightshade family along with potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and mandrake. According to folklore, eating a mandrake caused a flash of intense ecstasy that ended in sudden, agonizing death. Early American colonists believed that tomatoes, like the mandrake, were deadly poisonous. Colonists called tomatoes “wolf peaches” and burned or cut down all the wild-growing tomato vines on their farms; they did not become popular in America until the 1800s, when Thomas Jefferson promoted them from the White House.